Reserve Your Airspace Now!

During the recent ATSSA Midyear meetings in Nashville, Paul Morgan of Modern Technology Solutions spoke to the ITS Council about the potential use of drones. He told a very interested audience about the wide variety of Unmanned Air Systems (UAS) . They ran from very small planes weighing a few pounds to helicopters, blimps and inflatable towers. Payloads can run as high as 28 pounds but most are much smaller.

Mr. Morgan was not there to sell these systems but to 1) offer them as a possible solution in our industry, and 2) to recommend we get involved in the discussion of future regulations.

One state, I believe it was Utah, is already experimenting with these devices equipped with high resolution cameras for accident reconstruction. Normally they tie up a lane, lanes or an entire roadway for long periods of time while photos are taken, skid marks are measured, etc. This state is using drones instead to take video which is used later for the same purpose. It is just as accurate and serves as an exact representation of the entire accident scene. It saves time, reduces delays and should also result in fewer secondary crashes.

Other possible uses include regular work zone video for posting to project web pages. It is possible such a system could be done less expensively than a series of trailer mounted cameras.

DOTs and prime contractors might use the video to document progress on a project for payment purposes or to show deadlines are (or are not) being met.

UAS could be used for a variety of applications including video, sensors, and more. Think about uses that might fit your needs and lets’ talk about them in more detail.

In the meantime, he suggested we get involved early in the efforts to regulate drone use going forward. Currently they can only be used with a special permit. But law enforcement, DOTs, agriculture, and many other groups have plans for their use in the not so distant future. That airspace will be in high demand and our industry needs to ensure access for our needs. As a result efforts are already underway to craft regulations for their use. New laws could be in place as early as 2015.

So consider ways you may want to use drones in the years to come and reserve your airspace now!

Developments in Work Zone Video

OK, it is time for a mea culpa. That’s right, write this down because I am here to apologize. In my August 27 blog entitled “Cameras or Sensors?” I took the side of sensors. I argued that sensors are much less expensive than cameras and provided far more information. To my mind that has not really changed but video has come a long way in recent years and deserves a second look.

Recently, one of the most important developments for our industry is in quality digital video recorders or DVRs. They have become relatively inexpensive yet offer an incredible amount of storage. Before these became available, you had to react to alarms (provided by sensors) when the problem occurred to view the video. You wouldn’t necessarily understand how the problem developed but at least you could see what the problem was and formulate a response. So, at that time, the value of video was more reactive.

Now you can go back in time and watch how the problem developed. What happened to cause it? Was it an errant driver? Or did traffic control contribute to the problem? In other words, you can use stored video to improve upon your traffic control. It has become proactive, rather than simply reactive.

Wireless service has become more dependable and 4G service offers good bandwidth if you need streaming video but it can be expensive. And in most cases you won’t need that. A few frames a second will provide all the real time information you need to understand what is happening in a work zone. Use the money you save to add more devices or to use these systems in additional work zones.

Another change is the variety of cameras. Most manufacturers offer good 12 volt cameras now. And you may choose from color, black & white, infrared, or some combination of all three. They run from very basic “grainy” video to high quality megapixel video. The more basic the video, the more you can store on the DVR. High quality video is great, but takes far more storage space. You must evaluate that trade-off between video quality and storage. Most DVRs will begin recording over the oldest video when it is full. So the question becomes, “When an event occurs, how soon must I download the video before it will be lost?” In most cases you can design a system with 30 days storage, giving you plenty of time to find out about a problem after the fact and still go back and view it.

Cameras now offer a few more bells and whistles that may also be of interest. They can be set to scan a work area continuously. Or they can be set to focus on a particular area during morning drive time and another area late at night. This feature might improve security where theft or vandalism is a problem. Alarms or flashing lights can even be triggered when movement is detected late at night.

This feature could also be used to leverage your work zone ITS dollars. If traffic is heavy in only one direction at a time, one camera could be used to view both directions of traffic. In the morning it could view the traffic heading into town and in the afternoon it could be set to switch automatically to the outbound direction.

Cameras can still be manipulated manually. Any time a new alignment is installed, particularly lane shifts or crossovers, you should monitor traffic through it to be sure drivers understand what is now expected of them. If they handle the change well, you can pat yourself on the back for a well designed work zone. But if problems develop, you will know you need to make adjustments.

Cameras are still several times more expensive than sensors. Sensors must provide the data backbone of any good work zone ITS system. But stored video can be another useful tool in your tool box…especially when analyzing problems and making improvements in traffic control design.

Cameras or Sensors?

I don’t claim to be an expert on this subject. In fact, I hope to learn more about it from you. But I believe that when you are budgeting your work zone ITS, you are almost always better off putting most of the money into sensors rather than cameras. You only need so many cameras and you probably don’t need any at all. But I’m not sure you can have too many sensors.

In my experience, cameras cost at least three times more than sensors. The device itself is more expensive because it needs a larger trailer, more solar and batteries to power it, and a taller tower. It also costs more for wireless service because it requires much more bandwidth and it requires it continuously, not just for short packets of data. In some cases cameras cost more than 5 times as much as sensors. So, for your money, you can get three to five more sensors for every camera you give up.

We need to better understand both tools before we can discuss the budget. When do we need cameras? Most of the time cameras are used to verify the data from the sensors. Is traffic really stopped? Or was this a false reading? But if you have enough sensors, the ones on either side of the one you are verifying will quickly do it for you. And, they will do that automatically. Just because we can check the data obsessively doesn’t make it a good idea.

But this is not to say we never need cameras. There are some good reasons to have them:

  • Publishing video to a webpage helps drivers check conditions quickly and raises public awareness about the work zone.
  • Emergency response may be improved by viewing the incident first to know just how bad it really is and to direct responders to it in the most efficient way.
  • Some DOTs may want a video record of the work zone traffic control. This is still controversial but whether you agree with the idea or not, it is still a legitimate reason for cameras.

A reason that is less legitimate is the use of cameras to look at ongoing work or to look at locations on the jobsite without having to drive there. This does save time and money, but not enough in itself to justify the cost.

These are some of the questions you should ask yourself when evaluating the need for cameras:

  • Are there permanent cameras at or near the project that can be used?
  • Is the job several miles long? The longer the project, the more important video becomes to groups like emergency response.
  • Will there be several stages to the work? As construction progresses and traffic control is changed, it is important for drivers to know about those changes in advance.
  • Is public outreach a part of your TMP strategy? If so, a web page with video might be an important tool.
  • Will there be lane shifts, narrow lanes, or a significant reduction in capacity during construction? Any of these conditions may result in an increase in collisions. The more problems you expect, the easier it is to justify the expense of cameras.
  • Is this what FHWA calls a “major” project? The larger and more complicated the job, the more likely you are to benefit from CCTV.

Cameras have their uses. But next time you are planning a job, please ask yourself these questions and consider your goals for work zone ITS before you decide to add them to the project. You may be able to do the same thing more efficiently by just using sensors. What do you think? Have I left out important questions? Is there a side to this I have not considered? Make your comments now and keep the discussion going!