Potholes are an unavoidable headache that all motorists in the Midwest and the Northeast must endure every Spring. Unfortunately, fixing potholes is labor intensive and expensive. It seems like a great opportunity for some type of automation.

Chicago is a world-class city in many different aspects. And, when it comes to potholes, the Second City is No. 1. In fact, had Chicago won its bid to host the 2016 Summer Olympics, there’s a good chance that “pothole jumping” would have been an experimental sport.

The busy street where ASSEMBLY’s humble editorial office is located (in the quiet Chicago suburb of Bensenville) is a great example of what I’m talking about. This time of the year, it’s littered with horrendous bumps and gaping holes that make it difficult and dangerous to drive. As I was maneuvering around a giant pothole the other day, I started to wonder how this pesky problem could be fixed with automation.

Unfortunately, potholes are an unavoidable headache that all motorists in the Midwest and the Northeast must endure every Spring. Potholes are caused by continual freezing and thawing on asphalt road surfaces. Fixing potholes is labor intensive-it typically requires three or four people to do the monotonous job. According to the American Public Works Association, several hundred million dollars is spent annually repairing potholes

While researching an article on unmanned military vehicles for the April issue of ASSEMBLY, one expert who I interviewed told me that robotic technology that’s currently used on the battlefield will eventually trickle down to commercial applications on Main Street. Some day in the near future, he predicts that autonomous vehicles will be used to deliver packages, collect garbage and build roads. So, it appears that a fully automated pothole repair machine might not be all that far-fetched.

In the late 1990s, an engineer at Sandia National Laboratories invented a rapid road repair vehicle. The bus-sized device was designed to fix potholes as it drove over them at up to 35 mph. The automated system would require a single operator vs. an entire crew.

The patented Sandia vehicle could monitor the road surface from scanners mounted on its front bumper. Any anomalies would be cleaned with high-pressure air and then vacuumed. On-board image processing would distinguish the location and size of road surface features and determine if an object is a hole, bump, manhole cover or crack.

Next, a set of nozzles would pass over and deliver a shot of filling material, such as aggregate and fast-drying patch material or sealer. The mixture would be tamped into place, dusted with grit to provide traction and vacuumed. Finally, another row of scanners would check the quality of the repair.

I’m not sure if anyone ever commercialized this invention. The closest thing that I know of is a pothole patcher that’s made by a company in North Carolina called VT LeeBoy Inc. The GMC truck-mounted device uses a three-stage telescopic boom that sprays hot asphalt on the go. The driver operates a joystick that controls all functions, including material flow and boom movement.

Does anyone know of any other type of automated pothole repair equipment? If not, I think I’ll add it to my “I should invent that” list-along with an automated chicken potpie machine.