Jun 16, 2004

Cones come marching in

New technology appears ready to save lives in the construction work zone

Computers and robots may indeed rule the Earth one day. For now, however, it’s all about obeying commands and paying the ultimate sacrifice on the battlefield.
Shane Farritor, a roboticist at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, may have already earned the purple heart in work-zone safety. He has developed the first traffic cone that can crawl on its own, which could save the lives of thousands of highway workers every year.
These robotic three-wheelers are ordered into action by an operator sitting in a specially equipped truck. After a camera snaps a picture of the area of road marked for the work zone, the cone composer, through the use of software, clicks each marker’s final position on a laptop computer screen. The computerized group has its own road general equipped with a Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite navigation receiver. The software calculates the GPS coordinates and sends a radio signal to the general, which moves into position and tells the others where to go. The leader also can keep an electronic eye on its squad. A laser-based radar system can correct any positional errors, and if one is continuously falling out of line the general will move it off the road and simply shut it down.
Farritor recently ran a test using six of his markers and said they were able to come close to the performance of humans. The Cornhusker inventor believes the smart cones will be able to open and close lanes of traffic faster and safer. Improvements also are expected in the area of price. Each prototype costs $700, but cheaper motors could reduce the tag to $200. Farritor also is working on upgrading the graphical positioning software on the laptop.
Work-zone safety has certainly been the beneficiary of patents with potential over the last couple of years. Farritor’s robotic army marks the second major creation in the industry this year. The first, an automatic flagger system, was unveiled at the American Traffic Safety Services Association’s annual convention back in February. A remote control allows the operator to stand a safe distance from traffic while switching a sign mounted on a wheeled base from “slow” to “stop.” In 2003 the market saw the introduction of a traffic cone dispensing system. Though not as “computer intelligent” as Farritor’s idea, the concept of removing people from the work zone was coated in brilliance.
I was able to attend my first ITS America show in San Antonio in late April, and during the opening session Chairman Robert Darbelnet verbally emphasized the industry’s new slogan, “Vision Zero.” It’s a quest for zero highway fatalities year in and year out.
So far technology has only encouraged the fatality number to drop. Variable message signs and speed display units have helped increase awareness, but the statistics continue to rise. Why? Because some people will continue to drive carelessly, regardless of the electronic words and numbers placed in front of them miles before a work zone. The computerized cone platoon and the other devices give the drunk, distracted and disorderly zero chance at taking a life.
Now, the world of electronics is always vulnerable to a breakdown or two, and the mere movement of real robots on the road may cause a few gaper delays. However, it’s still progress, and anything is worth removing all the grief and anger one feels when receiving the news of a fallen loved one.
This accelerated evolution doesn’t appear to be job-threatening, either. Contractors and DOTs will still need someone to operate the automatic flagger, and the ones who are now placing the cones will move to programming the cones in the future. If anything, it could actually create a few openings, with more importance placed on equipment maintenance.
And there will always be a need for the variable message signs and speed indicators, devices which have proven to be invaluable at the outskirts of a work zone. The newest technology will only complete the safety crusade—and make it a king-size success.

About the author

Bill Wilson is the Editor of Roads & Bridges magazine and can be reached at [email protected]