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The two-mile Virginia Smart Road track at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute allows researchers the unique ability to test drones, autonomous vehicles and traffic challenges in a safe, contained environment where they can control everything from street lights to weather patterns.

The Smart Road is a 2.2 mile contained track featuring two paved lanes, three bridges, a connected-vehicle compatible intersection controller model, 14 pavement sections, in-pavement sensors, 75 weather making towers that can make up to four inches of artificial snow per hour, and a signalized intersection with complete signal phase and timing using remote controls. 28,000 hours of testing have occurred at the facility since it open ten years ago. Andrew Alden—a senior research associate and professional engineer who currently leads the I-81 Corridor Coalition as well as the Eco-Transportation and Alternative Technologies group—explained in an interview with R&D Magazine that the 10-year old track enables researchers to utilize sensor and drone technologies with the ultimate goal of making highways safer for motorists.

“It’s a closed test track, so we can do testing on there that we couldn’t do on public roads,” Alden said. “Really its claim to fame, initially, was that we had the ability to make weather on road. We can make rain, snow and fog depending on the conditions.”

Some of the initiatives Alden has worked on include using drones to support traffic patterns, examining using sensors to reduce animal/vehicle conflicts on the road, using low-speed autonomous shuttles to help people get to and from transportation hubs, and using sensor technology and drones to reduce the amount of salt needed for roads, while alerting drivers of particularly slippery conditions. Below are some highlights of ongoing projects being investigated on the smart road.

Drones for service transportation usages

Alden said researchers are primarily using drone technology to aid in the inspection of roadways, bridges and other parts of road infrastructure like lighting. However, his group is focusing more on pairing drones with imaging tools like LiDAR, infrared cameras, ground penetrating radar and multispectral cameras to try to reduce some of the congestion plaguing American highways, while also getting a bird’s eye view of accidents to aid the police.

“We are looking more at things like using drones to monitor real-time traffic and then you can use the camera video, along with things like machine vision, to actually measure the movement of traffic and the density of traffic and use that to inform a bigger system of traffic flow,” he said. “The flying part is fun, but we are really interested in is what sensors we can use, what data we can acquire and how can we use that data.”

Alden explained that drones could be paired with autonomous vehicles to enhance safety. For example, a drone could detect a possible pedestrian in advance of an autonomous vehicle approaching, and alert the vehicle to avoid a potential accident.

While this technology has promise, there are currently some restrictions that prevent wide-scale drone use. One of the issues, according to Alden, is that most drones that cost less than $10,000 have a battery life of about 30 minutes, severely limiting the potential usages.

To overcome the poor battery life, the researchers are examining using tethered drones that could fly 200-to-400 feet off the ground through a cable that is also able to power the device.

“It is just kind of like this persistent eye in the sky,” Alden said.

Weather and transportation

Another initiative being tested on the Smart Road is weather and how to mitigate potential accidents caused by slippery roads.

“A lot of crashes result from slippery roads,” Alden said. “The thing is, what we really need to do is try to determine before that happens where are those areas where the road is slippery enough for you to lose control and hit people.”

While some states have weather stations that are able to infer road conditions based on weather data, they can be few and far between. Alden said the researchers are trying to tie in the sensors already built into the wheels of modern vehicles and use them to detect slippery roads.

“We are looking at how we can take some of that data that is already on the car and use it to warn the driver—a human or a machine—about slippery roads,” Alden said.

Another byproduct of inferring data through sensors is that government entities could use less salt brine in preparation for a winter storm event. It is currently common practice for municipalities to salt major roadways the night before a winter storm is scheduled. This salt is known to have a negative environmental impact when it is washed away into nearby waterways.

Along with planting plants that can absorb the salt, Alden suggested that municipalities use sensor data to find out where some particularly troublesome areas are and refocus the salting to those specific locations.

Animal sensing

Alden is also hoping to reduce collusions between vehicles and animals, particularly deer. Alden suggested that drivers can crowdsource alerting other drivers of animals on the road, similar to how the popular navigation app Waze is used, as well as using sensors and digital street signs to detect the animal and alert the drivers.

“The human themselves can be a sensor, it is that Waze concept,” he said. “We can use that kind of car-to-car communication to warn and we can also see if an animal is detected on the roadway we can share that information with drivers.”

According to Alden, road mimicking urban settings were recently added and roads that simulate rural infrastructure are being planned. This will allow the Smart Road to test even more scenarios in the future.

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