The University of Pretoria (UP) officially opened its state-of-the-art Engineering 4.0 facility, which focuses on research on smart transport, cities and infrastructure.
Situated on the Innovation Africa at UP campus in Hillcrest, Engineering 4.0 is a first for Africa.
It is a collaboration with the South African National Roads Agency (SANRAL), the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) – an entity of the Department of Science and Innovation and York Timbers.
“Through its focus on the development of integrated transportation and infrastructure systems, Engineering 4.0’s research is concentrating on the reduction of energy consumption levels in transportation, maximising productivity in industry and creating a higher quality of life for people,” explains Professor Wynand Steyn, Head of the Department of Civil Engineering.
“The research focuses on road construction, road use, traffic flow and smart transport systems, now and into the future. We are researching road construction materials, vehicle-pavement interaction issues, infrastructure materials and management, exhaust-related emissions, semi-autonomous and autonomous vehicles.”
He explained that Engineering 4.0 entails smart roads and infrastructure talking to smart vehicles, to reduce traffic congestion and to ensure the safety of passengers and cargo.
“This can help in areas such as agriculture and logistics, where transporting food can be improved to reduce wastage or damage to fresh produce.”
The new facility will also address the shortage of civil engineers in South Africa.
“This facility is a place where novel ideas, scientific research, global expertise, students, academics, entrepreneurs and industry partners can meet to generate new thought leadership, innovation and training opportunities through collaborative partnerships,” said Prof Sunil Maharaj, Dean of EBIT.
A flagship feature is an active two kilometre-long test lane on Pretoria’s N4 highway, where “we collect real-time data and use big data analytics and the Internet of Things to do tests and analysis on how different road surfaces perform, how traffic moves on the highway, the density and type of traffic, emissions testing, and air quality monitoring. Sensors next to, above and below the lane collect data,” explained Prof Maharaj.
The data will be monitored from a data house next to the N4.
“This facility allows one to optimise pavement design and construction. The data collected can be used to model many aspects of transportation systems. Improved and optimised pavement design supports longer-lasting pavements that serve the economy and social well-being of society.”
Other features of Engineering 4.0 include:
A national roads reference laboratory is the only site in South Africa for the independent testing of materials for the road construction industry. Standard testing will largely be conducted on road materials originating from SANRAL (for national roads projects), the provinces and neighbouring countries.
The York Wood Engineering Laboratory aims to expand the footprint of mass timber construction, using advanced engineered wood products on the continent, in collaboration with civil and chemical engineering, architecture, materials science, data science, genetics and other related bio-economy disciplines.
A training laboratory will train and certify road materials technicians employed by various testing laboratories. Once their skills are certified, laboratories can provide accurate test data to engineers. The aim is to ensure that materials testing in the field is up to standard. Engineering students will be trained and certified in this facility, which has virtual reality options for learning about testing techniques.
A concrete laboratory: This consists of preparation areas, curing and humidity rooms, and a test floor where various concrete and structural testing can be conducted for use in areas that include road construction and infrastructure.
Accelerated Pavement Testing (APT) Track: The 100 x 6m APT track allows for the construction of different pavement structures and their accelerated evaluation, using a mobile APT device. This enables engineers to monitor the expected behaviour of a pavement over a fraction of its life.
“For our smart cities research, we will be working with a team of academics including social and environmental scientists, economists, urban planners, architects and lawyers,” Profs Maharaj and Steyn said.
“We need to redesign and integrate living spaces to promote social cohesion. We need to restructure urban planning so that people can live closer to work, reduce travel expenses, take the pressure off roads and lead more affordable, environmentally conscious lives.”
UP Vice-Chancellor and Principal Professor Tawana Kupe said Engineering 4.0 will share its vast resources in technology and data sciences with all faculties via the institution’s Future Africa institute and campus, a platform for developing inter- and trans-disciplinary research networks within the University and the global research community.