Robotic message painter could help keep road crews safe

Using rollers and stencils to draw turn arrows and crosswalk stripes on roads seems a bit archaic to MnDOT District 3 Maintenance Superintendent Randy Reznicek, who asked researchers if they could develop an automated road message painter.

University of Minnesota-Duluth Associate Professor Ryan Rosandich has taken that vision and created an robotic arm that can spray-paint pavement signs, with the goal of saving crews time and keeping them safer.

Designed to be mounted to the front of a maintenance vehicle, the robot is operated remotely by a laptop, programmed with numerous types of messages.

In an earlier prototype, researchers developed a trailer painter that could be pulled behind a truck.

Crews currently use heavy, eight-foot by four-foot stencils and rollers to paint designs, with an estimated 75 percent of such work involving the repainting of existing markings.

“It takes two people to lift the stencils,” explained MnDOT maintenance worker Joe Gilk, whom Reznicek presented with the idea about five years ago. “This would eliminate one position. One person could just run the truck and you could use that other person in another area of our job.”

Rosandich, who heads the Mechanical and Industrial Engineering Department at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, led the initial development of a software system and trailer painter.

MnDOT has funded further research to develop the more technically difficult robotic arm, which it anticipates could be used in other aspects of maintenance work as well.

MnDOT District 3 maintenance worker Joe Gilk, left, and maintenance superintendent Randy Reznicek watch the demonstration of the robotic message painter, an idea that came from their office.
MnDOT District 3 maintenance worker Joe Gilk, left, and District 1 traffic engineer Rob Ege watch a demonstration of the robotic message painter, an idea that came from Gilk’s office.

Rosandich recently demonstrated the mechanical arm to a MnDOT road crew (no paint was used during the demonstration), but additional software and mechanical tweaks remain before researchers take the machine out for final testing on the pavement this spring.

A companion vision system is being developed to identify existing markings to guide the robot in the repainting of existing messages.

The robot’s three-segmented aluminum shell arm is capable of painting up to a 12-foot wide lane and has enough battery power for a whole day’s worth of work, Rosandich said.

Once the prototype is complete, researchers hope to find a manufacturer to develop and produce a machine that could be used by maintenance crews across the state. MnDOT has already had great success in deploying automated pavement patching systems in some districts.

Not only would a robotic message painter free up maintenance crews and speed up sign-painting, but Rosandich sees worker safety as its “biggest selling point.”

The start-up cost for manufacturing such a device is estimated to be $150,000.

Transitways spurring economic growth and development, improving mobility, and supporting equity

Landmark regional investments such as the transit expansion underway in the greater Minneapolis-Saint Paul metropolitan area have the potential to significantly change long-term land-use patterns and travel behavior. They also raise important questions for policymakers and elected officials regarding the potential return on investment.

ImageA new synthesis report from the Transitway Impacts Research Program (TIRP) pulls together seven years of research conducted by University of Minnesota researchers to help answer these questions. The report summarizes the actual and projected impacts of transitways on the Twin Cities region, offering lessons learned to help guide the build-out of the rest of the network most effectively. It concludes with a set of implications for policymakers.

The Twin Cities metro region is in the midst of a transit build-out. The Metro Blue Line (formerly known as Hiawatha), Red Line (Cedar Avenue Bus Rapid Transit), and Northstar Commuter Rail are in operation, and the Green Line (Central Corridor) opens next year. All are part of an expanding regional transit network.

Under the TIRP program, which was launched in 2006, University of Minnesota researchers provide an objective analysis of data, public perceptions, and complex impacts resulting from transitway investments. Their research is unique in its breadth, scope, and ability to provide real-time analysis of the changes experienced when a region introduces high-quality transit service.

“This body of research and objective analysis confirm the many positive ways that expanding our transit network supports economic competitiveness, greater accessibility to jobs, opportunities for populations with low incomes, and enhanced livability for our whole region,” says Kate Wolford, president of The McKnight Foundation, the synthesis sponsor. “This report undergirds why the accelerated build-out of our transit system is so important for the future prosperity of our region and its residents.”

More information about the synthesis and key findings

New videos show how frost heave ravages roads

Regardless of whether you’re familiar with the term “frost heave,” if you live in Minnesota and drive on the roads, you’re already familiar with its destructive capacity. Many of the dips, bumps, potholes and cracks that appear on our roads every spring are a direct result of frost heave, which occurs when water accumulates in the soil beneath the pavement and begins freezing and then thawing along with the changing seasons. The resulting expansion and contraction weakens the road base and leaves it susceptible to damage from traffic loading.

These new videos produced by the Local Road Research Board explain how frost heave works, and describe some of the strategies public works departments use to combat it. The top video is is the shortened, executive-summary version, while the bottom video is the full, 13-minute version meant for transportation professionals.

Patching pavement with microwaves and magnetite

On Wednesday, I had a chance to watch a demonstration of a uniquely Minnesotan pavement patching technology that combines an industrial-strength microwave with a special asphalt mix. What makes it “uniquely Minnesotan?” In addition to having been developed by University of Minnesota researchers and a Monticello-based company (and with some funding from MnDOT), this innovative method involves a special asphalt mix using magnetite, a mineral that abounds on Minnesota’s Iron Range.

It also addresses a very Minnesotan transportation problem: winter pavement repair. In the video above, Kirk Kjellberg of Microwave Utilities, Inc., highlights some of the benefits of using the 50,000-watt microwave to heat the pavement during patching. In addition to creating a longer-lasting patch, the microwave is considerably faster than many alternative techniques. The technology is still relatively new, but its supporters claim it allows for pavement repairs in the middle of winter that are as strong and durable as the ones road crews do in the summer.

The demonstration, which was organized for members of the Local Road Research Board, took place at MnDOT’s District 3 training facility in St. Cloud.

See also:

Bicycle and pedestrian research roundup

Judging by the response we get whenever we post anything bicycle- or pedestrian-related on MnDOT’s social media channels, people seem to be hungry for research into this area. We recently had several new reports arrive on the topic, and I thought I’d share them here for those who missed them, along with links to any related webinars or news articles.

The Minnesota Bicycle and Pedestrian Counting Initiative: Methodologies for Non-motorized Traffic Monitoring

This study examined ways of counting non-motorized traffic (bicycles and pedestrians), with the goal of helping planners and engineers better incorporate these modes into our transportation systems. The report discusses the pros and cons of various counting methodologies (i.e. manual field observation, active and passive infrared systems, magnetic loop detectors, etc.) and looks at how Minnesota agencies are using them. The project also included a webinar, workshops and a coordinated statewide pilot count in dozens of communities around the state.

Best Practices Synthesis and Guidance in At-Grade Trail-Crossing Treatments

At-grade trail crossings have frequently been the sites of bicycle, pedestrian and snowmobile crashes in Minnesota and throughout the nation. The goal of this document is to synthesize best practices observed statewide and nationally in order to provide engineers and other transportation professionals with guidance on safety treatment applications at trail crossings.

Minnesota’s Best Practices for Pedestrian/Bicycle Safety

This Local Road Research Board-funded guide is designed to be used as a resource to assist local agencies in their efforts to more safely accommodate pedestrians and bicyclists on their systems of roads and highways. It discusses the relative merits of a wide range of strategies to reduce crashes involving bicycles and pedestrians.

Complete Streets Implementation Resource Guide for Minnesota Local Agencies

In this project, investigators developed a guide to help local agencies implement Complete Streets programs, including sample policy language from agencies in Minnesota, systems for classifying roadways that are appropriate for use in context-sensitive planning and a worksheet to help develop specific project plans.

Bike, Bus, and Beyond: Extending Cyclopath to Enable Multi-Modal Routing

Researchers incorporated multimodal routing into the Cyclopath bicycle route-finding tool to allow users to find routes that combine biking and transit for journeys where biking alone is impractical. Increasing the percentage of trips made by methods other than cars is a MnDOT priority, and providing route information can help to make alternative transportation options more viable.

Minnesota hosts annual meetings of transportation librarians

Last month, the Center for Transportation Studies and the MnDOT Library hosted the joint annual meetings of the Transportation Library Connectivity & Development Pooled Fund Study TPF-5(237), the Midwest Transportation Knowledge Network (MTKN), and the Western Transportation Knowledge Network (WTKN). Librarians from fourteen state DOTs, several universities, the Portland Cement Association, and the National Transportation Library met on the University of Minnesota campus and at MnDOT’s Central Office building, with some members attending portions of the meetings remotely.

Photo of a group of librarians in the MnDOT Library
MnDOT Librarian Qin Tang leading a tour of the library. Photo by Nick Busse

The packed agendas included:

  • Business and committee meetings
  • A presentation on bridge inspection by David Hedeen, P.E., from MnDOT’s Bridge Office
  • A copyright workshop led by Nancy Sims of the University of Minnesota Libraries
  • Tours of the MnDOT Library and the Minitex Document Delivery area and MLAC (Minnesota Library Access Center) Cavern at the University of Minnesota

“Each individual library cannot collect everything. Filling these gaps from our partner libraries is one of the benefits of transportation libraries networking. Our customers and ultimately our agencies benefit from this relationship-building.” – Sheila Hatchell, MnDOT Library Director

About Transportation Knowledge Networks

Transportation knowledge networks (TKNs) are organized groups of transportation libraries and others that collaborate to share their information resources and improve information access. There are currently three regional TKNs in the United States. The ultimate goal of sharing resources and working together cooperatively is to help transportation practitioners find information they need, when they need it—saving time and money, and getting better results for their organizations. The MTKN’s DOT State Stats is one example of a collaborative tool developed by TKN members.

Emerging topics

A few topics emerged as common themes for members:

  1. How to value library services: Sheila Hatchell from the MnDOT Library shared her recent experiences with developing a valuation methodology. The Library Connectivity Pooled Fund study is considering a proposal for multiple libraries to conduct valuation studies. Last year, the Library Connectivity and Development Pooled Fund Study developed Proving Your Library’s Value: A Toolkit for Transportation Librarians (PDF), led by members A.J. Million (formerly of Missouri DOT), Sheila Hatchell, and Roberto Sarmiento (head of the Northwestern University Transportation Library). This is a terrific resource for all libraries to use in developing their own valuation studies.
  2. Data curation: The ubiquity of data, large size of data sets, and stronger requirements for data management plans for federal research grants mean that skills in data management and curation are more important than ever. Librarians can help researchers understand and comply with open data requirements as well as help our organizations manage data. Leighton Christiansen of Iowa DOT will take the lead to assist TKN members in this area.
  3. TKN planning: The National Transportation Library and the AASHTO RAC TKN Task Force are working with the regional TKNs and the Library Connectivity and Development Pooled Fund Study to develop a national transportation knowledge network. (See the business plan for TKNs: NCHRP Report 643: Implementing Transportation Knowledge Networks)

New report: NEMT Coordinators in Minnesota

Under Minnesota’s fee-for-service Medical Assistance (MA) program, Minnesota counties are responsible for providing transportation assistance to MA recipients so they can obtain health-care services. This assistance is commonly referred to as non-emergency medical transportation (NEMT).

NEMT_cover_screenshot.jpgA new report, NEMT Coordinators in Minnesota: A Survey of How Minnesota Counties Use Coordinators to Deliver Non-Emergency Medical Transportation, published by the Minnesota Council on Transportation Access based on research conducted by researchers at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs documents how select Minnesota counties use transportation coordinators in providing and administering NEMT under the state’s fee-for-service MA program.

In the surveyed counties, the use of a coordinator generally made the delivery of NEMT more efficient and streamlined than it had been with previous approaches. Coordinators have increased efficiency principally by centralizing both transportation expertise and the ride arrangement processes, either internally within the county government or externally with an outside coordinator.

About the Council

The Minnesota Council on Transportation Access (MCOTA) serves as a clearinghouse to address transportation coordination topics from a statewide perspective. The Minnesota State Legislature established the group in 2010 (MN Statute 2010 174.285). The group includes member representatives from thirteen agencies.

MCOTA’s work focuses on increasing capacity to serve unmet transportation needs, improving quality of transit service, improving understanding and access to these services by the public, and achieving more cost-effective service delivery. In addition, fostering communication and cooperation between transportation agencies and social service organizations leads to the creation of new ideas and innovative strategies for transportation coordination and funding.

Learn more at www.CoordinateMNTransit.org.

Congestion-reduction measures on I-35W: How well do they work?

In an effort to combat congestion in our country’s urban areas, the United States Department of Transportation launched the Urban Partnership Agreement (UPA) program in 2007. The program infused nearly $900 million into transportation-related projects in four cities nationwide, including the Twin Cities metropolitan area. Minnesota’s projects—which include the installation of MnPASS dynamic toll lanes and variable message signs—focused on improving traffic flow in the I-35W corridor between Minneapolis and the city’s southern suburbs.

To understand the effectiveness of measures implemented under the UPA program, a team of University of Minnesota researchers examined three separate but related areas: the effects of a new variable speed limit (VSL) system, the impact of severe weather conditions on road safety, and the behavior and traffic impacts of bus rapid transit operations. Their work was funded by the Intelligent Transportation Systems Institute, a part of CTS.

Key findings included:

  • Drivers don’t typically comply with advisory speed limits posted on VSL signs along the I-35W corridor during congested conditions, but they may use them to help gauge and prepare for downstream congestion—resulting in a smoother and possibly safer traffic flow
  • Some parts of the corridor’s shoulder lanes—which are opened to traffic during specific times of the day as part of the UPA program—contain low areas that can flood during heavy rains
  • Buses traveling on the corridor underuse the MnPASS lane. In addition, bus lane changes (from stations located in the median to those located on the right side of the highway) can generate visible disturbances during moderate and heavy congestion, but they don’t seem to contribute to the breakdown of traffic flow

For more information, read the full article in the September issue of Catalyst.

CTS to lead $10.4 million regional consortium on transportation safety

In a national competition held by the U.S. Department of Transportation, CTS has been selected to lead a new $10.4 million regional University Transportation Center consortium focused on improving transportation safety.

The new Region 5 Center for Roadway Safety Solutions will be a regional focal point for transportation safety research, education, and technology transfer initiatives. The region includes Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin.

The two-year consortium will focus its research on regional issues related to high-risk road users and systematic safety improvements. Within these areas, the consortium will address multiple modes of transportation across a variety of topic areas, including roadway departures, urban and rural intersections, pedestrians and bicyclists, and commercial vehicle drivers. The consortium will also explore transportation safety engagement in the region’s Native American communities.

The CTS-led consortium was one of 33 federal grant recipients selected out of 142 applicants. Other consortium members in CTS’s winning proposal are the University of Akron, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, and Western Michigan University.

“The new consortium will allow us to bring together the diverse strengths and expertise of our members to work toward the shared goal of improving safety,” said Laurie McGinnis, director of CTS and chair of the new regional center’s Advisory Board. “Together, we can do much more to save lives on our roads than we could do alone.”

Max Donath, professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Minnesota and an internationally recognized leader in transportation safety research, will serve as the director of the new Region 5 center.

More Information

Minnesota transportation research blog