The UK's national mapping agency is working on a project to create almost real-time maps of the nation's streets, which it says will help with everything from 5G rollout to autonomous driving.
The Ordnance Survey (OS) pilot project will see the vehicles of utility companies using a dashboard mounted camera to record the view of the road as they travel. The images from the camera are processed to identify details such as road signs, traffic lights, lamp posts, bollards, drains and man-hole covers which are then sent to the OS.
Highly precise maps are vital for everything from 5G deployments to smart city planning and autonomous driving projects.
For example, 5G signals are easily blocked by common street features like signs, hanging baskets, trees or bus shelters.
"Having a very detailed map means you can optimise where you put your 5G stations to get the best views down the road. By having very detailed asset maps and street furniture maps we can produce much better planning and reduce the number of stations you put out," said OS interim CEO Neil Ackroyd.
"We have the ability to collect and maintain data at a level that we've never had before," he said.
The trial which uses technology from Mobileye, is currently being tested on 11 OS vehicles, with plans to scale up to thousands of vehicles over the next three to six months by getting utility companies onboard. The idea is to make maps more accurate and more up to date at a low cost; after all, the utilities are driving the roads as part of their daily business anyway. "There's a significant opportunity in cost savings here," said Ackroyd.
As well as providing the data for the maps, utilities are likely to be among the customers for the service, which could allow them to monitor the condition of their infrastructure.
While utilities have there own maps of where their infrastructure is, these are not always accurate, especially as some are years or even many decades old; this trial means those old maps could be replaced with something much more up-to-date and accurate. In one test of the technology over a 10km route, the cameras identified 2,346 features like drains or sign posts.
Northumbrian Water is the first utility to join the project but the aim is to have many different utilities using the system, so that when their vans and cars are driving around they are also recording a detailed map of the roadside infrastructure.
"What we are talking about here is a step-change in precision," said Clive Surman-Wells, the water company's group operations solutions manager. Having a precise idea of where those assets are can reduce the risk of hitting other utility's pipes or cables, for example, something which currently happens around 50,000 times a year.
Street works cost the UK £5.5bn a year and over 150 companies can be digging up roads at any time, with four million holes dug, 1.2 million in London alone.