Five years in, the ASCE Innovation Contest has produced a remarkable legacy of bright ideas and infrastructure solutions.
Among the most successful of success stories is RoadBotics, a Pittsburgh-based company that uses smartphone and artificial intelligence technology to help monitor and maintain infrastructure assets.
At the 2018 ASCE Innovation Contest, RoadBotics earned five honors, including Greatest Impact on Delivering the ASCE Grand Challenge Award.
Two years later, RoadBotics boasts more than 200 clients across the globe, and this month, the company was selected as one of the World Economic Forum’s Technology Pioneers.
“It really puts us on a totally different playing field of applicability,” said Ben Schmidt, RoadBotics president and cofounder.
“The World Economics Forum gives us this opportunity to take the solution we have and offer it to a worldwide audience. It’s really exciting.”
Schmidt spoke with ASCE News about how far RoadBotics has come since its ASCE Innovation Contest recognition and the nature of what makes an innovative “great idea.”
ASCE News: So what’s changed for RoadBotics in the two years since you were honored at the ASCE Innovation Contest?
Ben Schmidt: The number of clients now stands at about 200, so certainly quite a bit of growth there.
One of the things that has really helped to accelerate both our growth and the adoption of the technology itself is our partner network. We work with a lot of civil engineering consulting firms, who often work with local governments. So we work with them to offer our services to their existing clients, and in some cases, the civil engineering firms might have their own maintenance contracts so they’ll use us in-house.
That has been enormous. I think ASCE has been tremendously helpful with that, given that all of those civil engineers are almost certainly members of ASCE.
That really helped us – the ASCE Innovation Contest – to broadcast the message, and now in a business sense, those partnerships are really what have accelerated our growth tremendously. To see a civil engineering firm come in and say, “We like the RoadBotics technology, and we want to promote it because we think it can be a valuable cost-saver,” … then we can use that as a launching pad for greater government adoption.”
ASCE News: How much would you say your actual product has changed over the last two years?
Schmidt: The core of the technology has always been our rating system. We take images and rate that piece of pavement and put that on a map. That rating system keeps getting more sophisticated. We keep getting new and interesting things that we’ve never seen before. So, our technology keeps growing and evolving.
In parallel with that, we now offer a product that locates all of the individual distresses. For example, it says, “Here’s the location of every single pothole in your town; here’s the location of every fatigue crack; here’s the location of every transverse and longitudinal crack.” So not only can we tell you on a ratings scale what your network looks like, we can also show you here are your actual distresses. And sometimes those distresses translate into specific maintenance activities, repair strategies, etc.
So, we’ve really sort of changed the game on that. It’s a really big shift for us into what we call individual distress identification – IDI.
We’ve also branched out beyond roads and into parking lots. And there are a lot of parking lots out there, so it’s been a great success.
And then something that we’ve rolled out in just the last month or two is the Image Logger. The problem that we’ve been solving historically is all around pavements and their conditions and looking at the road surface itself. But the theme rolls into a lot of other areas. You think about curbs, sidewalks, trails, traffic lights, streetlights. The Image Logger has really allowed us to make a leap into these other infrastructure verticals.
Using the same technology that allows us to drive around a road network and create a geo-spatial image map for the client, we can now do that for really any kind of data collection. It really opens up the doorway toward managing other types of assets.
And it’s somewhat driven by the pandemic. A lot of government agencies are having a hard time right now. Budget constraints. Revenues are falling. We wanted to offer a variety of solutions that governments can use to tackle that same core problem – they have infrastructure assets and they need to manage and maintain them.
That’s still our core philosophy. We’re just trying to attack it from a couple of different angles now so that we have something that can ultimately help.
ASCE News: That’s interesting because a lot of times I think when we talk about innovations, we think of one big idea at the outset. But it almost sounds like you’ve had to generate good ideas on a monthly basis. It’s not enough to just have that initial breakthrough.
Schmidt: I could not agree more.
The “great idea” is not one-to-one with some product or technology necessarily. I think the great idea is probably closer to a mission statement.
Ultimately, myself, my cofounders, the Board, all of our employees – what we know at our core level is that, even absent the pandemic, governments have a massive role; they’re usually strapped for resources; and there is not usually a big industry that helps to provide technological advancements or solutions to them.
As a result, I think there’s a huge opportunity with rolling software-based tools that are widely applicable to these really core infrastructure, asset management and engineering challenges.
That, in my mind, is our great idea. So a lot of our movement and pivoting is in response to answering the question, How best can we accomplish that?
The pandemic is certainly an extreme case. The world has completely shifted almost overnight, so we’re working to constantly maintain and adapt to what our clients need and want. And it’s a massive challenge. But I think we can’t lose sight of our objective, even as we make some hard decisions, changing products, changing strategies. We just need to maintain our adaptability.
I fundamentally believe that we are on a path – one that will likely take many, many more years – toward helping solve these core issues for governments everywhere.