Tag Archives: work zone

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.

Smartphone app guides blind pedestrians through work zones (updated)

Each year, approximately 17 percent of road construction work zone fatalities nationwide are pedestrians.

At special risk are the visually impaired, who rely on walking and public transportation to get around.

A major challenge  for them is crossing the street — which is even more difficult if an intersection is torn up.

MnDOT has invested significant effort to accommodate pedestrians, particularly those with disabilities, in temporary traffic control situations. This includes requiring temporary curb ramps and alternative routes when a sidewalk is closed.

Researchers, funded by MnDOT, have now developed a cell phone application to guide blind pedestrians around a work-zone.

Illustration of Bluetooth beaconplacement at decision points around a work zone.
Illustration of Bluetooth beacon placement at decision points around a work zone.

Building on previous work to provide geometric and signal timing information to visually impaired pedestrians at signalized intersections, the smartphone-based navigation system alerts users to upcoming work zones and describes how to navigate such intersections safely.

The smartphone application uses GPS and Bluetooth technologies to determine a user’s location. Once a work zone is detected, the smartphone vibrates and announces a corresponding audible message. The user can tap the smartphone to repeat the message, if needed.

The federal government strongly encourages states to provide either audible warnings or tactile maps at work zones where visually impaired pedestrians are expected to be impacted.

“The smartphone application is a step in that direction,” said MnDOT technical liaison Ken Johnson. “It’s a way to see if this type of way-finding device would work.”

Since smartphone use is still limited, the state is also interested in special equipment that could relay the audible warnings at affected work zones.

“However, smartphone use is increasing in the general population, as well as with persons with disabilities, and there will likely be a day when it will be rare to not have a smartphone and this tool could meet road agency needs,” Johnson said.

Before developing the smartphone application, researchers surveyed 10 visually impaired people about their experiences at work zones and what types of information would be helpful in bypass or routing instructions.

The University of Minnesota research team, led by Chen-Fu Liao, tested the smartphone application by attaching four Bluetooth beacons to light posts near a construction site in St. Paul.

Additional research is now needed to conduct experiments with visually impaired users and evaluate system reliability and usefulness.

*Update 4/29/2014: Check out this story from KSTP on the app.

More information

Development of a Navigation System Using Smartphone and Bluetooth Technologies to Help the Visually Impaired Navigate Work Zones Safely — Final Report (PDF, 1 MB, 86 pages)

‘Intelligent’ traffic drum could help prevent work-zone tragedies

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A prototype of the Intelligent Drum Line system.

Work-zone safety is a serious, ongoing challenge for transportation agencies. According to MnDOT, the current three-year average for Minnesota work zones is 1,819 crashes and seven fatalities per year. And that’s not counting near-misses: just talk to anyone who has worked as a flagger, and they will likely have a story about diving into a ditch to avoid being hit by a distracted driver. Consequently, MnDOT is constantly exploring ways to make work zones safer — which brings me to the photo above.

What you’re looking at is no ordinary traffic cone. It’s a prototype of a new warning device called the Intelligent Drum Line system — basically a modified orange traffic drum packed with electronics that can detect speeding drivers and blast them with audiovisual cues to let them know they’re entering the work zone too fast.

Our new technical summary explains the details of the new system, which was developed at the University of Minnesota, with funding and in-kind assistance from MnDOT:

The prototype design uses two modified traffic drums placed 1 to 3 feet from the shoulder of the road and 300 to 400 feet apart. Sensors in the first drum detect vehicles, measure their speed and distance, and communicate this information to the second drum…

When the IDL system detects an oncoming vehicle traveling faster than a threshold speed, the system activates visual warning systems in both drums and initiates a countdown. When the speeding vehicle is approximately 1 second away from the first drum, the system activates an air horn to warn the driver.

As the vehicle passes the first drum, the audible alarm terminates and the system transmits a command to the second drum to start another countdown. When the vehicle is approximately 1 second away from the second drum, the system activates another audible alarm.

Testing of the IDL system at MnROAD has been successful; however, researchers still need to study how drivers react to the system in real-world conditions. Before they can do that, the design will have to be refined so that it can pass Federal Highway Administration crashworthiness tests. On a related note, MnDOT is currently funding a separate University of Minnesota study into which technologies are most effective at capturing drivers’ attention in work zones. The study will include visual and auditory cues similar to the ones used in the IDL prototype.

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