Next time you drive on a national highway, do not be surprised if you see a robot redirecting vehicles off a construction patch. Some road construction companies have started using robots as flagmen, and if the road ministry has its way, the trend may soon catch up with the rest. The robotic flagman is an automated human skeleton structure made up of plastic mounted over a stand area supported with steel frame, sometimes supported with wheels. This, road construction companies and the road ministry are hopeful, will help cut down on both labour costs and loss of human lives. At least, two road construction companies- Ashoka Buildcon and IL&FS Transportation Networks (ITNL) are using robots to maintain traffic at some of their road construction sites. “Appointing stationary robot in the direction of traffic can reduce the likeliness of injury to human being in case the vehicle enters the work zone,” Mukund Sapre, executive director for ITNL and managing director, IL&FS Engineering, said in a note shared on these robots. The road ministry in December informed parliament it is toying with the idea to make the use of such robots more rampant across road construction and maintenance sites in the country. “One of the Concessionaires has used robots for traffic diversion signaling during the road construction/ maintenance works, leading to no accidents at construction sites. The feasibility of replication of this use of technology by other contractors is being explored,” the road ministry said in a January 4 response to a Lok Sabha question on technological innovations for road traffic problems including frequent fatal accidents. According to the ‘Road Accidents in India report, national highways account for 29.6 per cent of total road accidents and 34.5 per cent of total number of persons killed in 2016.
The year saw nearly 4,80,652 road accidents and 1,50,785 persons killed in these accidents. Not just human lives, use of such robots could also help road construction companies cut down on labour costs. In the last three to four years time, labour costs have been the highest contributor to the increase in construction costs of highways. Labour costs in road construction have increased almost 50% in the last three years time. Flagmen are, however, still a small portion of the entire labour at work, but this could be seen as a start of using advanced technology techniques for road construction in the country. “The use of flagman/robot is saving up to certain extent in daily/routine activities which is getting executed at various location along the project highway, Labourers who are hired just to act as flagman can now be replaced with workers for the physical execution of works,” Sapre added in the note. Reassignment of work among the human power and machine men could be crucial for defining further use of robots.