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Connected cones make for safer sites

First publishedin ITS International on www.ITSInternational.com
May June 2013
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Intellicones being unloaded at a workzone
Intellicones being unloaded at a workzone

David Crawford welcomes new lives for old road safety products.

Traffic cones and barrels have traditionally been on the bottom shelf of the road construction and maintenance industry, typically forming visible soft safety barriers for temporary works at a lower cost than concrete alternatives. On both sides of the Atlantic, however, they are fast gaining new roles as instrumented components in advanced construction safety arrays.

The EC-sponsored €1 million (US$1.31 million) Safelane collaborative innovation project is responding to the fact that road maintenance is one of the most dangerous occupations in Europe. At the same time, the number of temporary road workv zones is increasing in reaction to growing volumes of heavy traffic.

Running between November 2012 and October 2014 and with participation from four EU Member States, Safelane is working on the integration of upgraded cones into a sophisticated wireless work zone perimeter protection system. This will automatically detect and report on vehicle impacts to enable earlier and wider safety alerts and faster barrier restoration.

Leading the project is Highway Resource Solutions (HRS), the manufacturer of the wireless Intellicone product, an upgraded, battery-powered sensor equipped version of the familiar existing work zone traffic management equipment. The product was showcased at the 2013 Traffex traffic engineering event in Birmingham, UK, as the winner of the Chartered Institute of Highways and Transportation’s Health and Safety at Work Award.

To create a wireless perimeter, deployed units are RF-linked for two-way communication. On vehicle impact, this sends an immediate alert to a crew (portable site) alarm, which can be standalone or (on a larger site) part of an array.

The alert activates an audio-visual warning for crews. At the same time it sends an automated text message to a central control room and to the site supervisor, who can then organise the rapid repair of any breach and minimise disruption to other road users.

A currently optional GPS module can give accurate locational information for each alarm. Its GPRS capability is designed to enable long-range communication between an unlimited number of alarms that are set to the same code, so that crews working in different sectors of the work zone can be alerted to a breach. 

HRS head of operations Dale Courtman told ITS International: “The technology is designed not to interfere with the operation of existing traffic management equipment, nor does it need any changes in operational procedures for TM deployment”.

The system will allow all unit deployments and incidents to be automatically recorded on a remote database for subsequent evaluation and analysis. Its digital mapping is available to users to enable real-time location of deployments.

Launched, in August 2012, Intellicone is currently in a number of early wireless perimeter protection systems across the UK. Advanced products resulting from the Safelane development programme are due to become available in 2014, says Courtman.

With the unit at its core, Safelane is focussing on three main research areas:

  • Impact algorithm development and verification, to enable the final system to distinguish between the seriousness of impacts, as determined by the speed and size of the vehicle;

  • The delivery of a rechargeable battery - currently in development - for powering both the new sensor and the routinely-installed cone lanterns necessary for night-time working. (Current disposable batteries last for only a short period of time and have to be changed frequently. The project aims to reduce the disposal rate by 90%).

  • Creation of an advanced web portal to enable two-way communications to and from work zones to enable data extraction and remote upgrading. This will incorporate a device management feature to support maintenance contractors in managing their temporary work sites more efficiently via a graphical user interface.
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i Cone deployment at a Golden Gate Bridge site in San Francisco
i Cone deployment at a Golden Gate Bridge site in San Francisco
Says Courtman: “The portal will make possible significant operational efficiency gains. The crew alarms will each report a range of activities (on/off; deployment/ alarm) and upload this with a time stamp for later analysis or processing. The information can be used for reporting and management purposes.”

US safety barrels

In 2011, the most recent year for which data is available, 587 people (15% of them road workers and the other 85% drivers and passengers) died in work zone-related accidents in the US - an increase of 11 on 2010 – and there were almost 40,000 injuries. The seriousness with which the US takes the issue is evident emerges from its annual staging of a National Work Zone Awareness Week, which in 2013 ran between 15 and 19 April.

Technology is playing its part in reducing this toll, and among newly emerging solutions is the icone traffic barrel, designed to pick up real-time traffic data and beam it over the internet to a central website for use by highway officials in making work zones safer and less likely to generate traffic congestion. FHWA crash test approved and with single switch operation for ease of use, the rentable product consists of a typical highway construction barrel housing a computer chip, circuit board, radar sensor, networking capability and a GPS module.

Ross Sheckler, CEO of iCone Products, says: “Agencies can scatter units around a proposed work zone to help them develop a realistic model of traffic speeds and densities reflecting time of day and day of week. Accessed from the iConetraffic.com website, this will enable them to enhance traffic control planning, derive traffic impact analyses, organise individual lane closure charts to minimise traffic disruption and optimise available working hours.”

In February 2013, as part of its technological assistance to the Texas Department of Transportation on the north-south Interstate (I)-35 expansion project, the Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI) recommended deployment of the system to give end-of-queue warning alerts to motorists approaching night-time interstate work zone lane closures. A major concern was to lessen the risk of the decades-old problem of rear-end collisions in and around construction zones.
Safelane consortium members

Highway Resource Solutions - www.intellicone.co.uk
Philips Electronics Nederland - www.philips.com
Delta Kunststoffe                - www.delta-kunststoffe.de
TRL                                   -  www.trl.co.uk
New Wave Innovation          -  www.newwaveinnovation.com
Netmania IT                       -  www.netmania-it.com
Colas                                -  www.colas.co.uk
Uab Eldes                          -  www.eldes.lt

In recent months there have been several deaths at I-35 construction zones, some involving 18-wheelers, a tally which drove a November 2012 stakeholder meeting to find a solution. This analyses sensor data and, as traffic slows down ahead of a work zone site, an algorithm sets messages for display on portable changeable message signs (PCMSs) upstream of the construction site, examples including ‘Slow Traffic – 3 miles’ or  ‘Stopped Traffic Ahead’. In the absence of any queue, the signs show a generic ‘Road Work Ahead’ message.

Sheckler also claims benefits in terms of the more cost-efficient use of traffic police patrols, whose visible deployment is known to have a positive effect on driving speeds and thus on drivers’ and workers’ safety. With agencies able to monitor speeds remotely from their control centre, they can send patrols only where they are needed.

According to Sheckler, tests have shown traffic speed data to be consistently within 3% of actual speeds.  

If an agency wants, the data can be made available to the travelling public – eg by being integrated into existing navigation information tools - which Sheckler would like to see happen. He envisages drivers having in-vehicle access to PCMS content before reaching the sign itself.

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