Tag Archives: technology

New work-zone warning app featured on KARE 11

A new app that sends warning messages to drivers as they approach work zones was featured on KARE 11 News on Thursday. The app was developed by U of M researchers in a project sponsored by MnDOT.

The story aired as part of KARE 11’s #eyesUP campaign to end distracted driving.

The app works by pairing with Bluetooth low-energy tags placed in work zones, triggering audio warnings in smartphones that are within their range. This allows drivers to get a warning message without having to look down at their phones—or at warning devices such as changeable message signs outside their vehicles. And if a driver is being distracted by their phone, the app will interrupt whatever they are doing to provide a warning that a work zone is up ahead.

U of M researchers Chen-Fu Liao and Nichole Morris, who worked on the project, are interviewed in the story, along with Ken Johnson, work-zone, pavement marking, and traffic devices engineer at MnDOT.

New manual helps agencies count bike, pedestrian traffic

As part of an ongoing effort to institutionalize bicycle and pedestrian counting in Minnesota, MnDOT has published a new manual designed to help city, county, state, and other transportation practitioners in their counting efforts.

The Bicycle and Pedestrian Data Collection Manual, developed by University of Minnesota researchers and SRF Consulting Group, provides guidance and methods for collecting bicycle and pedestrian traffic data in Minnesota. The manual is an introductory guide to nonmotorized traffic monitoring designed to help local jurisdictions, nonprofit organizations, and consultants design their own programs.Bicycle and Pedestrian Data Collection Manual

Topics covered in the manual include general traffic-monitoring principles, bicycle and pedestrian data collection sensors, how to perform counts using several types of technologies, data management and analysis, and next steps for nonmotorized traffic monitoring in Minnesota. Several case studies illustrate how bicycle and pedestrian traffic data can be used to support transportation planning and engineering.

The manual was completed as part of the third in a series of MnDOT-funded projects related to the Minnesota Bicycle and Pedestrian Counting Initiative, a collaborative effort launched by MnDOT in 2011 to encourage nonmotorized traffic monitoring across the state. U of M researchers, led by professor Greg Lindsey at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, have been key partners in the initiative since its inception.

In addition to the manual, U of M researchers have published a final report outlining their work with MnDOT on this project. Key accomplishments include:

  • A new statewide bicycle and pedestrian traffic-monitoring network with 25 permanent monitoring locations
  • A district-based portable counting equipment loan program to support MnDOT districts and local jurisdictions interested in nonmotorized traffic monitoring
  • Minnesota’s first Bicycle and Pedestrian Annual Traffic Monitoring Report
  • A MnDOT website for reporting annual and short-duration counts that allows local planners and engineers to download data for analysis
  • Provisions added to MnDOT equipment vendor agreements that enable local governments to purchase bicycle and monitoring equipment
  • Annual training programs for bicycle and pedestrian monitoring
  • Provisions in the Statewide Bicycle System Plan and Minnesota Walks that call for bicycle and pedestrian traffic monitoring and creation of performance measures based on counts

“This is an excellent resource that steps through all aspects of managing a count program, and I think it will be very helpful to other states and organizations that want to implement their own programs,” says Lisa Austin, MnDOT bicycle and pedestrian planning coordinator. “Since Minnesota is a leader in counting bicycle and pedestrian traffic, it also fulfills what I think is an obligation to share our story with others.”

Work-zone warnings could soon be delivered to your smartphone

Imagine that you’re driving to work as usual when your smartphone announces, “Caution, you are approaching an active work zone.” You slow down and soon spot orange barrels and highway workers on the road shoulder. Thanks to a new app being developed by University of Minnesota researchers, this scenario is on its way to becoming reality.

“Drivers often rely on signs along the roadway to be cautious and slow down as they approach a work zone. However, most work-zone crashes are caused by drivers not paying attention,” says Chen-Fu Liao, senior systems engineer at the U’s Minnesota Traffic Observatory. “That’s why we are working to design and test an in-vehicle work-zone alert system that announces additional messages through the driver’s smartphone or the vehicle’s infotainment system.”

As part of the project, sponsored by MnDOT, Liao and his team investigated the use of inexpensive Bluetooth low-energy (BLE) tags to provide in-vehicle warning messages. The BLE tags were programmed to trigger spoken messages in smartphones within range of the tags, which were placed on construction barrels or lampposts ahead of a work zone.

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The researchers also developed two applications for the project. First, they designed a smartphone app to trigger the audio-visual messages in vehicle-mounted smartphones entering the range of the BLE work-zone tags. A second app allows work-zone contractors to update messages associated with the BLE tags remotely, in real time, to provide information on current conditions such as workers on site, changes in traffic, or hazards in the environment.

Field tests proved the system works. “We found that while traveling at 70 miles per hour, our app is able to successfully detect a long-range BLE tag placed more than 400 feet away on a traffic barrel on the roadway shoulder,” Liao says. “We also confirmed the system works under a variety of conditions, including heavy traffic and inclement weather.”

“This was a proof of concept that showed that smartphones can receive Bluetooth signals at highway speeds and deliver messages to drivers,” says Ken Johnson, work-zone, pavement marking, and traffic devices engineer at MnDOT. “Future research will look into how we should implement and maintain a driver alert system.”

This future work includes using the results of a human factors study currently under way at the U’s HumanFIRST Laboratory to create recommendations for the in-vehicle message phrasing and structure. Then, researchers plan to conduct a pilot implementation with multiple participants to further evaluate the system’s effectiveness.

According to MnDOT, another phase of the project may investigate how to effectively maintain the BLE tag database. This phase could also investigate implementation options, such as how MnDOT can encourage drivers to download and use the app.

Thicker may not equal stronger when building concrete roadways

Transportation agencies have long placed high importance on the thickness of their concrete roadways, making it a major focus of control and inspection during construction. While it is commonly believed thicker concrete pavements last longer, there is little data to support this claim.

“One big reason for the lack of data on the relationship between concrete pavement thickness and performance is the destructive nature of these measurements,” says Lev Khazanovich, a former professor in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Civil, Environmental, and Geo- Engineering. “Concrete thickness is typically assessed by coring—a destructive, expensive, and time-consuming test that only offers widely spaced measurements of thickness.”

In a MnDOT-funded study, U of M researchers set out to fill this knowledge void by leveraging recent advances in the nondestructive testing of pavements that allow for large-scale, rapid collection of reliable measurements for pavement thickness and strength. They conducted four evaluations on three roadways in Minnesota using ultrasonic technology to collect more than 8,000 measurements in a dense survey pattern along with a continuous survey of observable distress.

“We found that both pavement thickness and stress measurements are highly variable, with a half-inch of variation in thickness about every 10 feet,” Khazanovich says. “Interestingly, three of the four surveys averaged less than design thickness, which is contrary to typical accounts of contractors building slightly thicker slabs in order to avoid compensation deductions.”

Data analysis showed that exceeding design thickness did not seem to increase or decrease pavement performance. However, a measurement of pavement strength and quality known as “shear wave velocity” did produce valuable findings. “A drop in the shear wave velocity strength measurement corresponded to an increase in observable pavement distresses such as cracking and crumbling,” Khazanovich explains. “This was especially apparent when we were able to easily identify locations of construction changes, where significant changes in shear wave velocity matched up with observable distress.”

The results of this study illustrate the importance of material quality control and uniformity during construction, since alterations in pavement strength and quality may significantly influence pavement performance. In addition, researchers say that despite inconclusive thickness results, it is still important that pavement has significant thickness to carry its intended traffic load over its service life. Finally, the study demonstrates that new methods of ultrasonic shear wave velocity testing are useful for identifying changes in construction and design that could lead to higher rates of pavement distress.

Project seeks to ease traffic congestion in a roundabout way

Freeways and highways aren’t the only urban roads with traffic congestion, even though traffic management strategies have been largely directed toward improving traffic flows there. So, U of M researchers have taken to city streets to reduce congestion in an innovative—albeit roundabout—way.

“There’s been a lot of research focused on controlling congestion on major highways and freeways, but there’s relatively less when it comes to looking at controlling traffic on urban arterials,” says Ted Morris, a research engineer with the Department of Computer Science. “It’s a very different picture when you get into urban arterials and the traffic behaviors going on there, because of the dynamics of route choice, pedestrian interactions, and other factors.”Image of overhead view of roundabout

Morris is part of a research team that aims to create a framework for testing and evaluating new urban traffic sensing and control strategies for arterial networks. The goal is to balance safety and efficiency for all users—especially in places where new types of urban transportation facilities are planned in the next few years.

The team is using the 66th Street corridor in Richfield as a test bed for its research. The city, along with Hennepin County, is in the process of converting a series of signalized intersections along the route to roundabouts over the next few years. The roundabout designs also incorporate new facilities for pedestrians, bikes, and bus transit as part of a multimodal approach.

Initially, the researchers sought to create a larger network of interconnected sensors and a live test bed, Morris says. But funding limitations kept the project area to approximately 10 miles of arterial roads, a portion of which will be supported by a network of interconnected traffic sensors. The research team is instrumenting major intersections along 66th Street with a reliable, low-cost, high-resolution camera mounted on a center pole and supporting electronics as the intersections are being reconstructed.

“You can zoom in pretty closely to capture all the different movements and events that we need to use for measurement and detection,” Morris adds. “The key to this, to really make it reliable, is you need to very carefully quantify gap acceptance and how that varies in time and time of day. You also need to know how pedestrian activities interact with the traffic flow.”

The use of roundabouts has grown in the region because they cost less to build and maintain than signalized intersections, they meet the latest design standards, and they improve safety by reducing traffic conflicts. But predicting the capacity of roundabouts can be especially challenging when factoring in pedestrian traffic, uneven traffic origin-destination flow, heavy vehicle volumes, and approach vehicle gap-selection timing.

In addition to creating a sensor network to obtain real-time vehicle and pedestrian data to help control traffic and keep it flowing smoothly, the researchers also are developing a traffic simulation model that includes almost all of Richfield—more than 140 signalized intersections covering 21 square miles, including the arterials. The simulation model will be used to develop and test traffic control strategies under different scenarios. Minnesota Traffic Observatory director John Hourdos is leading that effort.

This research and the field deployment system are funded through a collaborative grant from the National Science Foundation Cyber Physical Systems program. SRF Consulting is the industrial partner to help design the sensor network and evaluate the system.

Knowing While Mowing: GPS Keeps Maintenance Workers Out Of the Weeds

As temperatures fall and days get shorter, MnDOT Metro District maintenance workers are wrapping up a season of mowing grass along roadsides and in medians that they hope will prove a little more efficient than in the past.

Thanks to a research project that installed GPS devices in tractor cabs, operators have a better sense of exactly which areas they need to mow and which areas should be left alone. Five Metro District tractors were tested in 2015. This year, more than 40 tractors were fitted with the automated vehicle location (AVL) technology, which includes a GPS antenna, an on-board central processing unit (CPU) and an in-cab screen with a user interface.

Trisha Stefanski, Metro District asset management engineer, expects one of the biggest benefits of the project to be a reduction in herbicide use. Maintenance crews use herbicide to control the spread of noxious weeds that sometimes get spread during mowing operations. Mapping exactly where noxious weeds are, and providing that information to operators on a real-time, in-cab screen and user interface helps them mow around those areas.

“We’re really hoping it will reduce the amount of herbicide that we’re putting on our roadways by 50 percent,” Stefanski said. “We’re not certain that will be the number, but that’s what we’re hoping for. We think just not mowing those areas will not spread as many noxious weeds and so we don’t have to apply as much herbicide.”

Metro District operators, such as Jesse Lopez, give the AVL technology rave reviews.

“Basically you can see what you shouldn’t mow and what you should mow. So, it makes it easy for me. It’s just like playing a game,” Lopez said. “This actually helps me to optimize what my job is. I know exactly where I’m at and where I’m going. I think everyone should use it – absolutely everybody who is in a mowing situation or a plowing situation.”

In addition, the AVL technology helps maintenance supervisors keep tabs on exactly where their operators are in real time. It also helps supervisors complete reports by automatically providing the geographic areas where mowing has been completed.

Stefanski says the project has gone really well, and she hopes collecting more data over another mowing season will show real savings on herbicide use. In the meantime, she is thinking of other ways AVL technology could be applied to maintenance operations.

“What I really like about the project is that we are taking something used in a lot snow plows and a lot of other technologies – cars, other things, maybe UPS uses them – and we’re putting it into maintenance operations,” Stefanski said. “Having it for mowing, we can also use it for smooth pavements. We can also use it for other things in mowing operations.”

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.

Teen Driver Support System helps reduce risky driving behavior

Although teen drivers make up a small percentage of the U.S. driving population, they are at an especially high risk of being involved in a crash. In fact, drivers between ages 16 and 19 have higher average annual crash rates than any other age group.

To help teen drivers stay safe on the road, researchers at the U of M’s HumanFIRST Laboratory have been working for nearly 10 years on the development of the Teen Driver Support System (TDSS). The smartphone-based application provides real-time, in-vehicle feedback to teens about their risky behaviors—and reports those behaviors to parents via text message if teens don’t heed the system’s warnings.

TDSS provides alerts about speed limits, upcoming curves, stop sign violations, excessive maneuvers, and seat belt use. It also prevents teens from using their phones to text or call (except 911) while driving.

The research team recently completed a 12-month field operational test of the system with funding from MnDOT. The test involved 300 newly licensed teens from 18 communities in Minnesota.

To measure the effectiveness of the TDSS on driving behavior, the teens were divided into three groups: a control group in which driving behavior was monitored but no feedback was given, a group in which the TDSS provided only in-vehicle feedback to teens, and a group with both in-vehicle and parent feedback from the TDSS.

Preliminary results show that teens in the TDSS groups engaged in less risky behavior, especially the group that included parent feedback. These teens were less likely to speed or to engage in aggressive driving.

Although these results demonstrate that the TDSS can be effective in reducing risky driving behavior in teens, Janet Creaser, HumanFIRST research fellow and a lead researcher on the project, stresses that technology is not a substitute for parent interaction.

“The whole goal of our system is to get parents talking to their teens about safe driving.” Creaser says. “And maybe, if you’re a parent getting 10 text messages a week, you’ll take your teen out and help them learn how to drive a little more safely.”

Read the full article in the November issue of Catalyst.

Continuous Scour Monitoring Improves Bridge Safety

A leading cause of bridge failure is bridge scour, which occurs when rapidly moving water erodes riverbed soil around abutments or piers.

Monitoring bridge scour with traditional inspection methods can be dangerous and difficult, so MnDOT has been working with researchers from the University of Minnesota’s St. Anthony Falls Laboratory to develop a continuous monitoring system to test certain bridges more safely and efficiently.

MnDOT currently monitors 45 scour-critical bridges — and local Minnesota agencies monitor 360 more — using visual inspections or water data websites during flooding events. Once a predetermined threshold is exceeded, portable scour monitoring equipment is deployed to measure scour depth.  If scour has undermined the foundations of a bridge, inspectors close it for repair.

But portable scour monitoring systems can be difficult and dangerous to deploy from the bridge deck or boat in fast-moving water. It can also be difficult to get inspectors to sites quickly enough in areas subject to flash flooding.

A better alternative for such situations are fixed scour monitoring devices that continuously monitor scour and send data wirelessly to bridge personnel, alerting them when scour reaches a dangerous level.

The Highway 43 Bridge in Winona was affixed with continuous bridge scour monitoring equipment.
The Highway 43 Bridge in Winona was affixed with continuous bridge scour monitoring equipment.
New technology

MnDOT has not historically made use of fixed scour monitoring equipment, but as advances in technology have made these devices more affordable and reliable, the agency  became interested in exploring the use of fixed monitoring equipment at locations where the use of portable equipment is problematic. ( A major concern for fixed scour monitoring is damage from debris and ice.)

Researchers have installed fixed remote monitoring stations on four such bridges.

Stations on the first two bridges (Highway 14 over the Minnesota River in Mankato and Highway 43 at the Mississippi River in Winona, pictured at top) ran successfully for three years, with outages due to primarily to power and communication issues.

Researchers learned valuable lessons from these bridges and have now installed monitoring equipment on two more: The Old Hastings Bridge (Highway 61 over the Mississippi River), on which float-outs were installed; and the Dresbach Bridge (Interstate-90 over the Mississippi River), which had a tilt meter and underwater sonar device installed.

“The less familiar personnel are with technical equipment, the less they tend to use it,” said Andrea Hendrickson, State Hydraulics Engineer, MnDOT Office of Bridges and Structures. “This research project gave us the familiarity and technical information we need to be comfortable using fixed scour monitoring equipment on bridges that warrant it.”

Related Resources

*Editor’s note: This article was adapted from an article in the latest issue of our newsletter, Accelerator. Read it online, or sign up to receive it by mail. 

Unmanned aircraft systems create buzz of activity, but challenges remain

In late 2013, Amazon.com announced that it plans to someday use unmanned aircraft systems (UASs) to deliver packages. Amazon is not alone in considering these systems—the list of potential uses for this technology is rapidly expanding. Where is this technology headed, and what does it mean for the region, and for transportation?

State and national experts discussed these issues at an April 30 forum hosted by the Airport Technical Assistance Program (AirTAP), a part of CTS.

Often referred to as drones, modern UASs can be used for a broad range of activities, from aerial photography, surveying, precision agriculture, and communications to disaster response, wildlife research, and infrastructure protection.

Potential uses of UASs include precision agriculture.
Potential uses of UASs include precision agriculture.

A hurdle to broader use is the lack of rules and regulations. Last November the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) released its first annual roadmap outlining policies, regulations, technologies, and procedures needed to safely integrate UASs into U.S. airspace; it plans to issue regulations by 2015.

“The greatest challenge is integrating UASs into the National Airspace System,” said Brigadier General Alan Palmer, director of the Center for UAS Research, Education, and Training at the University of North Dakota. “We want to do this safely, we want to do no harm, and we want to be sure not to violate somebody’s personal space. We do not have any regulations for standards, training, certification, or anything like them. But we will get there.”

Other concerns include privacy issues and the existing aviation/navigation infrastructure, which did not account for a future including UASs when it was built 50 years ago.

To learn more about the forum, read the full article in the June issue of Catalyst. In addition, a proceedings from the event will be available on the AirTAP website this summer.