All posts by mndotresearch

The Future is Now: MnDOT Goes High-Tech

When it comes to creating the transportation system of the future, MnDOT is already doing its research and laying the groundwork for great things to come.

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James Benham, JB Knowledge, speaks at the Transportation Conference. (Photo by Rich Kemp)

Last month at Minnesota’s Transportation Conference, a keynote session by JB Knowledge CEO James Benham titled “Future Forecast: How Drones, Sensors, and Integrated Apps are Rewriting the Rules” inspired many people in the room.

Among the topics Benham cited in his talk were the Internet of Transportation, unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) and 3-D printing, which MnDOT is already studying or even using.

Internet of Transportation

MnDOT recently produced series of white papers on technological trends that could impact transportation infrastructure in Minnesota.

In January, MnDOT Research Services published these papers in a report titled “The Transportation Futures Project: Planning for Technology Change.”

GoogleCar
Google is one of many companies developing autonomous vehicle technology that researchers believe will make driving nearly extinct by 2040. (Photo courtesy of Google)

The report details how the transportation system can accommodate such imminent innovations as autonomous vehicles, mobile web services, mobility as a service, information and communication advances, infrastructure sensors and energy and fuel alternatives.

For example, researchers predict that driving faces near-extinction by 2040, when non-autonomous vehicles will no longer be allowed on public roads at most times. As a result, total transportation-related fatalities may drop 90 percent, road geometry, sightlines and other design priorities may shift, and capacity and speed limits will likely increase on most major roadways.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (Drones)

Drone
MnDOT is researching how data and images collected by drones could aid bridge inspectors.

When it comes to drones, MnDOT is already conducting important research that the rest of the nation is closely following. Tara Kalar and Jennifer Zink from MnDOT, and Barritt Lovelace of Collins Engineers, spoke about their efforts at last month’s conference.

Last year, MnDOT Research Services published a report titled “Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) Bridge Inspection Demonstration Project” that detailed how MnDOT could use drones to perform bridge inspection functions. The initial research project tested one drone’s capability in a variety of bridge inspection scenarios last summer at four Minnesota bridges.

In November, researchers conducted a second research phase to test a more specialized drone at the Blatnik Bridge in Duluth that coincided with that bridge’s regularly scheduled inspection.

A few weeks ago, researchers secured funding to conduct a research implementation project that aims “to implement a statewide UAS (unmanned aircraft systems) bridge inspection contract, which will identify overall cost effectiveness, improvements in quality and safety, and future funding sources for both state and local bridges,” according to the project proposal.

3-D Printing

Benham’s talk also addressed 3-D printing, which Chad Hanson, a District 6 project manager, has already used successfully.

Hanson spoke at the conference about his experience using 3-D printing to create a model of the Red Wing Bridge project that brought the project idea to life. According to Hanson, the model enhanced public engagement and informed preliminary design efforts for the bridge.

Chad Hanson photo
Chad Hanson, District 6 engineer, used 3-D-printing to create a model of the Red Wing Bridge that was used during the project’s public engagement events. (Photo by Mike Dougherty)

Partners, stakeholders and members of the public could see, touch and hold the 3-D printed models, which accentuated the project’s engagement process.

A look at five great environmental research projects

To mark Earth Day 2016, MnDOT Research Services is taking a glance at five stellar examples of current research projects at MnDOT that involve pollution control, wetland mitigation, road salt reduction and new ways of recycling pavement.

1: Reducing Road Construction Pollution by Skimming Stormwater Ponds 

Temporary stormwater ponds with floating head skimmers can remove clean water from the surface of a settling pond.

Soil carried away in stormwater runoff from road construction sites can pollute lakes and rivers.

Stormwater settling ponds provide a place for this sediment to settle before the water is discharged into local bodies of water. However, since stormwater ponds have limited space, a mechanism is needed to remove clean water from the pond to prevent the overflow of sediment-laden water.

MnDOT-funded researchers designed temporary stormwater ponds with floating head skimmers that can remove clean water from the surface of the settling pond, using gravity to discharge water into a ditch or receiving body.

The study, which was completed in spring 2014, identified five methods for “skimming” stormwater ponds that can improve a pond’s effectiveness by 10 percent. MnDOT researchers also created designs for temporary stormwater ponds on construction sites with the capacity to remove approximately 80 percent of suspended solids.

These designs will help contractors meet federal requirements for stormwater pond dewatering. Researchers also determined how often a pond’s deadpool must be cleaned, based on watershed size and pool dimensions.

2: Roadside Drainage Ditches Reduce Pollution More Than Previously Thought  

Photo of roadside ditch
Stormwater infiltration rates at five swales were significantly better than expected based on published rates.

Stormwater can pick up chemicals and sediments that pollute rivers and streams. Roadside drainage ditches, also known as swales, lessen this effect by absorbing water. But until recently, MnDOT didn’t know how to quantify this effect and incorporate it into pollution control mitigation measures.

In a study completed in fall 2014, researchers evaluated five Minnesota swales, measuring how well water flows through soil at up to 20 locations within each swale.

A key finding: grassed swales are significantly better at absorbing water than expected, which may reduce the need for other, more expensive stormwater management practices, such as ponds or infiltration basins.

This could save MnDOT and counties significant right-of-way and construction costs currently expended on more expensive stormwater management techniques.

3: Could Permeable Pavements Eliminate Road Salt Use on Local Roads? 

Robbinsdale
Even with little or no road salt, a permeable pavement like this porous asphalt in Robbinsdale, Minnesota, collects little slush and snow in the winter because it warms well and remains porous enough to infiltrate surface water effectively.

Road salt is used for de-icing roadways during winter months, but can have a negative impact on the environment.

This research, which was just approved for funding through the Minnesota Local Road Research Board in December 2015, will investigate the reduction in road salt application during winter months that can be attained with permeable pavements, while still providing for acceptable road safety.

Some initial investigations (see previous study) suggest that road salt application can be substantially reduced, even eliminated, with permeable pavement systems. The proposed research will investigate this hypothesis more thoroughly, and further document the reduction in road salt application that can be expected with permeable pavement.

4: Highway 53 Shows Potential of Using Road Construction Excavation Areas For Wetland Mitigation

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This photo from spring 2015 shows that wetlands have begun to take hold along Highway 53.

Road construction in northeast Minnesota often causes wetland impacts that require expensive mitigation. However, borrow areas excavated for road construction material can be developed into wetland mitigation sites if hydric vegetation, hydric soils and adequate hydrology are provided. Fourteen wetland mitigation sites were constructed north of Virginia, Minnesota along the U.S. Trunk Highway 53 reconstruction project corridor and evaluated for wetland.  The sites were established with the goal of mitigating for project impacts to seasonally flooded basin, fresh meadow, shallow marsh, shrub swamp, wooded swamp, and bog wetlands. All but one of the sites consistently meet wetland hydrology criteria.

The sites contain a variety of plant communities dominated by wet meadow, sedge meadow, and shallow marsh. Floristic Quality Assessment (FQA) condition categories for the sites range from “Poor” to “Exceptional.”

According to the research report published in March 2016, these sites have shown the potential for creating mitigation wetlands in abandoned borrow pits in conjunction with highway construction. Adaptive management, particularly water level regulation, early invasive species control, tree planting, and continued long-term annual monitoring can make mitigation sites like these successful options for wetland mitigation credit.

5: Recycling Method Could Give Third Lives to Old Concrete Roads 

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This photo shows a cold in-place recycling equipment train in action.

MnDOT already extends the lives of some old concrete highways by paving over them with asphalt instead of tearing them up. Now MnDOT hopes to add a third life for these old concrete roads by using a process called cold in-place recycling to re-use that existing asphalt pavement when it reaches the end of its life.

Cold in-place recycling (CIR) uses existing pavements, without heat, to create a new layer of pavement. It involves the same process of cold- central plant mix recycling (which is being employed by MnDOT for the first time on two shoulder repair projects this year), but it is done on the road itself by a train of equipment. It literally recycles an old road while making a new road.

CIR has been in use in Minnesota for 20 years, but only with hot-mix asphalt (HMA) over gravel roads. The purpose of a new study, which was approved for funding in April 2016, is to validate Iowa’s promising new practice using CIR on bituminous over concrete.

In this research project (see proposal), MnDOT will use cold-in-place recycling to replace the asphalt pavement on a concrete road and then evaluate it for several years, comparing it also with control sections.

Along with the potential of a better service life, the cost of CIR is much lower than new hot mix asphalt (HMA). Therefore, a 20-percent to 30-percent price reduction per project may be realized.

Driver-assist system helps keep plows on the road

Darryl Oeltjenbruns, snowplow driver in District 7, operates the only driver assist system, or DAS, equipped snowplow in the state. The system helps snowplow operators see road alignments and features such as turn lanes, guardrails and road markings. (Photo by Chase Fester)
Darryl Oeltjenbruns, snowplow driver in District 7, operates the only driver assist system, or DAS, equipped snowplow in the state. The system helps snowplow operators see road alignments and features such as turn lanes, guardrails and road markings. (Photo by Chase Fester)

By Sue Roe, MnDOT Communications

Southwest Minnesota has the highest average wind speeds in the state—bad news for MnDOT snowplow operators who often drive in low visibility to clear roads.

“We have more days when the wind blows than when it doesn’t,” said Chase Fester, MnDOT District 7 transportation operations supervisor. “We struggle with the wind.”

That’s why District 7 is piloting a snowplow driver-assist system (DAS) developed by University of Minnesota researchers to combat the blowing snow and fog that often cause zero visibility. The DAS helps snowplow operators see the road alignment and features, such as turn lanes, guardrails, and road markings. Even in less extreme winter weather, snowplow operators gain assurance of their lane location using the system.

The driver assist system displays a white box on the screen when an obstacle, or in this case a mailbox, is located. If the object appears in the lane, such as a car stuck in a snow drift, the box turns red and gets bigger as the snowplow gets closer to the object. (Photo courtesy of MnDOT District 7)
The driver assist system displays a white box on the screen when an obstacle, or in this case a mailbox, is located. If the object appears in the lane, such as a car stuck in a snow drift, the box turns red and gets bigger as the snowplow gets closer to the object. (Photo courtesy of MnDOT District 7)

The DAS was developed and refined over the past 20 years under multiple research projects funded by MnDOT and the USDOT’s University Transportation Center program. Professor Max Donath, director of the University of Minnesota’s Roadway Safety Institute, led the work. In addition to plows, the DAS technology has also been applied in other specialty vehicles such as patrol cars and ambulances. Numerous vehicles using the system have been deployed in both Minnesota and Alaska.

The DAS uses GPS technology and a front-mounted radar to provide an image of the road and any obstacles in front of the operator. The image is displayed on a monitor inside the cab of the plow. The system also vibrates the operator’s seat as a warning if the plow veers too close to the roadway’s centerline or fog line.

“If the driver gets within one foot of the fog line on the right side, the right side of the seat vibrates. If the driver gets too close to the centerline on the left side, the left side vibrates,” said Fester.

The vibrations continue until the driver moves back into the center of the lane. The driver can also turn off the warning feature to clear snow from the shoulder.

The DAS is currently installed in one truck in District 7. The $75,000 cost makes it difficult to install in every truck in the district or the state, although having at least one system in every district may be possible, Fester said.

Fester said the system proved its worth one day in February when blizzard conditions caused zero visibility and forced many road closures in southwest Minnesota. He was called out at 2 a.m. Feb. 8 to assist a stranded state trooper and several motorists on a 12-mile stretch of Hwy 60 between Windom and Heron Lake. Fester drove a pickup behind the DAS-equipped snowplow, driven by Darryl Oeltjenbruns, to reach them.

As the DAS identified stranded vehicles on the way to Heron Lake, Fester and Oeltjenbruns checked to make sure they weren’t occupied with people. Once they made it to Heron Lake, they stopped at the community center, where the state trooper and the stranded motorists he brought in were located.

On the way back to Windom, Fester and the state patrolman continued to check on stranded vehicles as the DAS-equipped snowplow led the way. If the vehicles weren’t in the ditch, motorists drove behind the two MnDOT vehicles. If their vehicles were in the ditch, motorists rode in a Suburban that was also being escorted to Windom. After returning to Windom, the motorists were dropped off at motels or truck stops.

“When we first went out, there were about six stranded vehicles. Coming back from Heron Lake, there were about 15,” Fester said. “At one time, we had 12 vehicles in line as we drove back to Windom, driving about 10 to 15 miles per hour.”

Later that morning the DAS system was used again to locate other motorists.

“We continued to use it until about 10 a.m. or 11 a.m. that day,” Fester said. “The system worked great and kept everyone safe. It was an interesting morning.”

(Reprinted and adapted with permission from an article by Sue Roe in MnDOT’s Feb. 17, 2016 Newsline.)

Willow shrubs could be next great Minnesota snow fence

The benefits of living snow fences and other snow control tools to keep roadways clear of blowing and drifting snow have been known for decades, and MnDOT has been using a variety of these techniques for years to catch  snow before it gets to a road.

Living snow fences often consist of trees, grasses and even corn stalks left standing in a farmer’s field.  Now willow shrubs are being added to the list as a fast-growing, inexpensive snow control measure.

What’s new

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Fish Creek willow shrubs (left) grow alongside corn in September 2015.

Researchers recently completed a study that investigated whether willow shrubs could make good living snow fences. While typical snow-fence plants, such as dogwood or cranberry shrubs, can take five to 20 years to establish themselves, shrub willows were effective at trapping snow after just two growing seasons, according to the study.

In spring 2013, researchers installed three varieties of shrub willow side-by-side in two-row and four-row configurations along about a quarter of a mile of Highway 14 in Waseca, where snow drifts are an issue. In April 2014, they cut the shrubs down to the ground  to encourage branching and bush density. Though the trimmed willows had little impact on drifting snow the first winter, each willow-shrub plot was collecting two to three metric tons of snow by the second winter, according to the research report. Researchers believe that after three or four growing seasons the willow shrubs could catch the entire mean annual snowfall on the site.

In the four-row configuration recommended by researchers, costs of raising, furnishing, planting and mulching came to about $3.60 per plant, which is dramatically less than the contract bid cost for traditional living snow fence species that cost more than $50 per plant. In addition, the willow shrubs could be harvested and sold as biomass every few years to provide an income source.

Past research

Willow trees is just the latest advancement in the state’s snow control program. A 2012 research project evaluated the costs and benefits of living snow fences and provided MnDOT with a payment calculator to determine how much to compensate landowners for installation and maintenance costs.

A recent research implementation project created a mobile-friendly Web version of the payment calculator tool.  The website also contains a tool for designing a own snow fence.

MnDOT has used these tools and other promotional efforts to nearly double the number of farmers with contracts for corn rows enrolled in the Living Snow Fences program.

What’s next

The willow species recommended by researchers will be evaluated further in 2017 when they install it as a living snow fence on a new construction site on Highway 60 between Windom and Mountain Lake. Researchers also recommend a future study to compare volume of road salt use before and after installation. They also want to look into identifying appropriate buffer distances to keep willow roots from interfering with cropland root systems.

Resources

MnDOT, LRRB select new research projects with eye toward results

MnDOT’s latest crop of transportation research projects have been identified. This year, researchers were asked to pay special attention to how their work could benefit the public and be put into real-world practice.

MnDOT’s Transportation Research Innovation Group (TRIG) and the Minnesota Local Road Research Board recently announced their Fiscal Year 2017 funding awards after hearing proposals from researchers at multiple universities. The two bodies chose 20 research proposals totaling about $2.9 million that will study new and innovative approaches to improving the environment, making transportation systems safer, improving construction methods and operating in more cost-effective ways.

According to MnDOT Research Management Engineer Hafiz Munir, MnDOT Research Services made some key changes to its annual requests for proposal that will help ensure research makes a difference to the agency’s bottom line. This year, researchers were asked early on in the proposal process how they would quantify their results, what benefits the research could achieve and how their research could be implemented in the future.

“Now we’ll be able to track those metrics and that will help MnDOT not only quantify the potential benefits of the projects, but also implement the results,” Munir said. “The bottom line is that we will be able to not only save money, but also improve the way MnDOT does business.”

Several of the 20 newly funded projects deal with improving transportation safety, Munir said, and many others are focused on implementing cost-saving practices, innovations and new technologies.

The projects approved in December 2015 will do the following:

  • Create an inexpensive GPS-based system that alerts the driver when a motor vehicle deviates from a lane or approaches a curve. (Project summary)
  • Find out whether a smartphone app can effectively warn drivers about upcoming roadway curves. (Project summary)
  • Determine whether different types of roadway turfgrass are better suited for specific regions of the state. (Project summary)
  • Create a comprehensive design guide for fish-friendly culverts.  (Project summary)
  • Determine how social media can be used to engage diverse community groups within the state. (Project summary)
  • Investigate the performance of the state’s first glass fiber reinforced polymer (GFRP) reinforced bridge deck, slated for construction in 2016.  (Project summary)
  • Develop signage recommendations to slow high-speed traffic as it approaches roundabouts.  (Project summary)
  • Gather truck reliability data, identifying truck bottlenecks and providing potential mitigation solutions for regular congestion areas. (Project summary)
  • Determine why anchor bolts are becoming loose on overhead signs, light towers and other support structures — and how to prevent it.  (Project summary)
  • Establish a system and smartphone app for accurately capturing and reporting data about intrusions into work zones.  (Project summary)
  • Develop an advanced sensor system to estimate long-term and dynamic vertical displacements on the I-35W bridge. (Project summary)
  • Investigate the necessity of pavement markings on low-volume roads and develop an approach to prioritize pavement marking projects.  (Project summary)
  • Compare the performance of different structural fibers in thin concrete overlays.  (Project summary)
  • Evaluate four performance test methods that predict the cracking behavior of asphalt mixes. (Project summary)
  • Investigate the link between transportation investment and job creation, and analyze transportation investments, business patterns and socioeconomic data in Minnesota counties. (Project summary)
  • Refine a taconite-based pothole repair compound, and develop a low-cost mechanized system to mix and place it in large quantities.(Project summary)
  • Investigate how much road salting can be safely decreased with the use of permeable pavements. (Project summary)
  • Evaluate the use of iron-enhanced check dams for capturing phosphate and toxic materials from roadway runoff. (Project summary)
  • Improve accessibility calculation capabilities and understanding of travel behavior by integrating data about highway bus operations, park-and-ride facilities, and urban parking costs. (Project summary)
  • Investigate the concept of estimating traffic volumes from mobile device samples to collect traffic data inexpensively. (Project summary)

Munir said the next steps for these projects this spring include creating  technical advisory panels, finalizing project work plans and preparing contracts. Some projects could begin early, depending on available funding and project-readiness. By the time Fiscal Year 2017 begins on July 1, funding will be available to begin all 20 projects.

Video Demonstration: Robotic Message Painter Prototype

In the above video, University of Minnesota-Duluth Associate Professor Ryan Rosandich tests a prototype of a robotic arm he developed to paint messages and markings on roadways. He calls the machine “The MnDOT Robot.”

During a test run in October 2015, the MnDOT robot painted a right-turn arrow and the word “ahead” on pavement at MnDOT’s Pike Lake station in Duluth.

Rosandich hopes commercial companies will show an interest in further developing his proof-of-concept technology into something that road authorities can use regularly to make work easier, faster and safer for their employees.

Companies interested in commercializing this technology can contact Andrew Morrow at amorrow@umn.edu.

Editor’s Note: The paint used in the above demonstration was diluted due to the cold weather at the time of the demonstration and does not reflect the condition of the paint expected in a typical application.

Using drones to inspect bridges

MnDOT is researching how data and images collected by drones, such as the Aeryon Skyranger shown here, could aid bridge inspectors.
MnDOT is researching how data and images collected by drones, such as the Aeryon Skyranger shown here, could aid bridge inspectors.

In recent years, drones made headlines for fighting wars overseas, detecting crop conditions, keeping an eye on power lines and even delivering retail goods.

As the flying electronic devices became easier to use and less expensive, all sorts of individuals, businesses, nonprofit groups and government organizations – including the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) – are exploring ways to use them.

This past summer, MnDOT began researching how to employ these unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, to someday help inspect the state’s many bridges.

“That day may still be far off, but our initial project was an encouraging first step,” said Jennifer Zink, MnDOT bridge inspection engineer. “Phase 2 of the project will better provide details as to methods, criteria and cost effectiveness for how to apply drone technology best to bridge inspection.”

Project goal

Using drones could also minimize risks associated with current bridge inspection methods, which include rope systems and special inspection vehicles. (Photo by D.R. Gonzalez, MnDOT)
Using drones could help minimize risks associated with current bridge inspection methods, which include rope systems and special inspection vehicles. (Photo by D.R. Gonzalez, MnDOT)

The research team tested drones this past summer while inspecting four Minnesota bridges (in Chisago County, Olmsted County, Morrison County and near Stillwater) specifically selected for the study after an extensive evaluation and FAA approval.

Zink and her colleagues wanted to investigate whether drones could help MnDOT decrease the rising costs of bridge inspections and collect more detailed information. Drones could also minimize the risks for bridge inspectors, who currently use rope systems and special inspection vehicles to access hard-to-reach areas. Using a drone to gather images could keep inspectors out of harm’s way and inspection vehicles out of active traffic lanes.

“The goal of the project was to study the effectiveness and possibilities of using UAVs to aid in bridge inspection work, typically in gathering images without the use of an under-bridge inspection vehicle and in areas where access is difficult or not safe for an inspector,” Zink said. “There is no substantive guidance in existence for this application of this evolving technology. This initial effort was to gain a better understanding of potential capabilities, processes and planning best practices.”

FAA approval

Before simply launching drones and collecting bridge data, the research team reviewed current FAA rules and applied for the necessary exemptions. Approval was granted, but only for the use of an Aeryon Skyranger drone. Even though exemptions for several models were submitted to the FAA, none were approved in time for the field study.

The team, which included personnel from Collins Engineers Inc. and Unmanned Experts, also worked closely with the MnDOT Office of Aeronautics to plan the project and gain the necessary approvals. The Aeronautics Office recently published an official MnDOT drone policy.

In the air

Once in the air, the drone suitably performed a variety of inspection functions that didn’t require a hands-on physical inspection. Researchers tested the drone’s ability to gather high-quality still images and video footage of bridges. They also collected data from infrared cameras. In addition, the drone provided the ability to capture data needed to construct maps of bridge areas and 3D models of bridge elements.

“The images, including infrared images to detect deck trouble spots, obtained from the drone correlate to the findings in the bridge inspection reports for specific bridge elements,” Zink said.

Missing from the research were images of the underside of bridges. The drone model used in the study wasn’t able to shoot images upward from beneath a bridge, and inspectors identified that as a key feature along with the ability to operate without a GPS signal.

“The drone we used in this project was not completely ideal for an entire gathering of imagery for all bridge inspection elements as it was limited to GPS signal capability,” Zink said. “However, it did give us an idea of what a drone could provide, what the limitations were, and what features we would like to see on newly available UAV models. Unfortunately, our hands were tied with obtaining FAA exemptions only for the particular model used in this project within the funding timeframe.”

Conclusions and recommendations

The project’s final report listed several conclusions, including that drones can be used safely during bridge inspections and that risk to both the inspectors and public is minimal.

“Due to the successful outcome of the initial project, we have a better understanding of the drone capabilities we would like to use during an actual scheduled bridge inspection,” Zink said. “The drone that will be used in Phase 2 is specifically designed for inspection of structures. Several goals exist for the Phase 2 research project, and if we can accomplish them, they will decrease MnDOT’s costs and increase bridge inspection abilities. It could improve inspection data collection for local agencies as well.”

The researchers recently were notified that they received funding for Phase 2 of their project, which is expected to start later this fall.

Related links

Designing fish-friendly culverts

Roadways for humans can sometimes create roadblocks for fish, but researchers hope to establish a set of culvert design practices to help aquatic creatures get where they’re going.

Many fish depend on mobility along a river for feeding and spawning. Where roads meet rivers, however, culverts can block fish and other aquatic organisms that can’t navigate changes in current, lighting and other factors.

Waterway barriers threaten an already endangered species of minnow known as the Topeka shiner (pictured above). It can also be a big problem for economically important fish such as trout or northern pike. That’s why the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources prefers building bridges to culverts.

However, bridges are not always economically feasible, and so MnDOT is working closely with the DNR to develop culverts that protect both public safety and the environment.

Photo of boxed culvert
Culverts allow water to pass under roads. Occasionally, they can harm a stream’s fish habitat by inadvertently acting as a barrier to fish passage or migration. There are nearly 11,000 culverts in Minnesota.
Sediment Content 

Recent research suggests that installing boxed culverts differently could greatly improve fish passage.

Culverts are typically placed a little below the streambed with the expectation that the stream flow will naturally fill them with sediment. Researchers tested that assumption and found it to not always be accurate.

“We found that pre-filling the culvert with sediment that replicates the streambed as part of the installation process helped prevent upstream erosion and the development of vertical drops that can become barriers to aquatic movement,” said Jessica Kozarek, a University of Minnesota research associate. “In addition, pre-filling the culvert helped ensure the sediment remained inside the culvert flows were high and water moved quickly during rainstorms.”

MnDOT has been working with the DNR to identify the conditions that determine whether a newly installed culvert will naturally fill with sediment, replicating surrounding streambed conditions, or whether a stream’s water flow will transport sediment out of a culvert.

Using an experimental flume at the University of Minnesota’s St. Anthony Falls Laboratory, researchers tested MnDOT’s standard box culvert design under a variety of stream conditions.

Laboratory simulations suggest that filling a culvert with sediment at installation, rather than allowing it to fill over time is, with some exceptions, generally the best ap­proach for low- and moderate-grade streams. Additionally, steep, fast-moving waters require a filled culvert with structures such as larger rocks to keep sediment in place. These structures also create steps, pools and riffles that enable fish to rest as they move upstream.

MnDOT will use this latest research, along with conclusions from other recent studies, to create a guide for fish-friendly culvert designs.

“Of all the things we’ve studied, there are maybe three or four research projects. This manual will pull it all together,” said Petra DeWall, state waterway engineer at the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

Further research is underway to determine whether aquatic organisms are deterred by low light conditions in long, dark culverts. Researchers are also looking into whether mussel spat rope could be used to create a rough bottom to reduce water speed in culverts with no sediment.

Related Resources

Applying LiDAR to county transportation systems

A handful of county highway department employees in the Rochester area gathered recently at the Olmsted County Public Works Service Center for a presentation and live demonstration by University of Minnesota Research Fellow Brian Davis about his team’s work involving light detection and ranging – or LiDAR.

“LiDAR is like radar, but with light,” Davis said. “It gives you information about what’s around the sensor.”

Event attendees gather around a sedan outfitted with a spinning LiDAR sensor. (Photo by Micheal Foley, MnDOT)
Event attendees gather around a sedan outfitted with a spinning LiDAR sensor. (Photo by Micheal Foley, MnDOT)

Davis and his fellow researchers have outfitted a sedan with special LiDAR equipment and other technology that is capable of capturing a 360-degree, 3-D view of a scene in real time.

“We use the car as a test bed,” Davis said. “We have a lot of different types of sensors on the car that we use for the different projects that we’re working on. Right now we have a LiDAR sensor on top. Sometimes we have a high-accuracy GPS receiver in there. We have a cellular modem. We have a handful of inertial sensors. So it’s a lot of different stuff that we use to cater to the application.”

For his presentation, Davis showed the attendees some of the data his team had already collected.

Davis presents data that shows the LiDAR-equipped sedan moving along a roadway. (Photo by Micheal Foley, MnDOT)
Davis presents data that shows the LiDAR-equipped sedan moving along a roadway. (Photo by Micheal Foley, MnDOT)

“We showed a handful of pre-collected data at a handful of intersections around Rochester and Minneapolis,” Davis said. “What it shows is the point cloud collected by the sensor – just the raw point cloud with no post-processing done. In that information you can see people moving through it, cars moving through it, buses and light rail trains.”

Event attendees move around the sedan to see how the LiDAR sensor views them. (Photo by Micheal Foley, MnDOT)
Event attendees move around the sedan to see how the LiDAR sensor views them. (Photo by Micheal Foley, MnDOT)

After the presentation, Davis led the group to the parking lot for a close-up look at the technology and how it collects data and displays that data in real time. Le Sueur County GIS manager Justin Lutterman was among those who could envision possible applications for LiDAR.

“It’ll be interesting to see where this can go,” Lutterman said. “I’m sure the private industry will take off with this and emergency management, or the sheriffs and ambulances, would appreciate this kind of technology on their vehicles for a situation they might have to recreate. Roads and traffic designers  would be able to monitor their resources, pavements, traffic counts and things like that.”

Over the coming months, researchers will gather more data to develop a workshop for county personnel interested in learning more about LiDAR and how it can be applied in their transportation systems.

“The next steps for this project are to collect some data with the car at intersections. Then we can use that information to fine tune our algorithms,” Davis said. “What the algorithms are going to do is take that raw data and give us useful information, like the number of cars, or the time a car passes through an intersection. That all feeds into the workshop we’re developing. The workshop is going to be for county GIS workers, traffic engineers and county engineers who are interested in learning about these technologies.”

Riprap grout protects bridge abutments

Bridges over Minnesota waterways need to be protected from currents by a field of interlocking angular rocks called riprap. Without these rocks along the abutment, moving water could wear away the soil that supports a bridge’s foundation. The faster the water, the larger the riprap must be to provide adequate protection.

While some parts of Minnesota have quarries rich with angular rock, other parts don’t – particularly the northwest and western regions. Bridge projects in those areas sometimes resort to the expensive practice of trucking in stones. Other times field stones are used, but they are less effective and must be replaced more often.

There soon could be a better option thanks to research coordinated by the Minnesota Department of Transportation and funded by the Minnesota Local Road Research Board.

At a few test sites around the state, researchers have used a grout mixture to cement smaller, rounded rocks together at a bridge abutment. Once applied to the rocks, the mixture forms what is called “matrix riprap.” The concept is in use in Europe for many bridge piers, but MnDOT was more interested in learning how it could be used on bridge abutments.

Matrix riprap is currently in use in Minnesota at the following bridges:

  • Highway 23 over the Rum River in Milaca
  • Highway 8 over Lake Lindstrom channel in Lindstrom
  • Prairie Road over Coon Creek in Andover
A MnDOT crew applies grout to rounded rocks at a bridge abutment in Milaca in May 2012. The grout cements the rocks together to form matrix riprap, which has shown to be significantly stronger than conventional riprap.
A MnDOT crew applies grout to rounded rocks at a bridge abutment in Milaca in May 2012. The grout cements the rocks together to form matrix riprap, which has shown to be significantly stronger than conventional riprap.

In May 2012, matrix riprap was placed at the Milaca bridge, which sits alongside a high school. Researchers hoped the use of matrix riprap would prevent vandals from removing the riprap rock and throwing it into the river. According to Nicki Bartelt, a MnDOT assistant waterway engineer, the matrix riprap has proven to be extremely strong and effective.

“Not only is matrix riprap significantly stronger than regular riprap, but it helps prevent vandalism as well,” Bartelt said. “The Milaca installation has been in place for three years now. It looks pretty good and it’s weathering well.”

In the lab, matrix riprap held up extremely well on mechanical pull tests and hydraulic flume tests. In fact, researchers were unable to determine the matrix riprap fail point on many tests, even after applying 10 times the shear stress that regular riprap can withstand. Matrix riprap was tested with both angular and round rock with no change in performance.

A new matrix riprap installation recently went in on the Highway 95 bridge over the Rum River in Cambridge. Later this summer, plans call for an installation on the Highway 60 bridge over the north fork of the Zumbro River in Mazeppa.

“The Highway 60 bridge is being replaced, and the river there has extremely high velocities, so we’re using the matrix riprap instead of regular riprap just because of the size of rocks that would be needed,” Bartelt said.

At least two more installations are planned for 2016. In the future, researchers plan to determine the fail point for matrix riprap. They also hope to study potential environmental effects the grout may have underwater.

MnDOT has also worked with local governments that have tried matrix riprap for themselves. One municipality is trying it as a heavy duty erosion control measure. The concept is catching on outside Minnesota as well.

“We have gotten a lot of inquiries from other states, and we have lent out the spec a lot,” Bartelt said. “Iowa, New Hampshire, Maine, Indiana, Wisconsin and Illinois are among the states to express interest. We have talked to a lot of people about it, so they tend to use our research.”

Read the research