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ITS Partnering Pays Off

'I-Cubed' lab reaches new heights

by Kelly Bartling and Deb Derrick

It’s called the “I-cubed” laboratory—a state-of-the-art intelligent transportation systems facility at the Peter Kiewit Institute that’s partnering with government and industry on Intelligent Traffic Systems (ITS) educational and research activities.

The Intelligent Transportation Systems Information and Infrastructure Laboratory provides a research-intensive educational environment for students and faculty, said Elizabeth “Libby” Jones, I3 lab director and associate professor of civil engineering.

“In establishing the lab, we wanted to build upon existing strengths to interconnect the stand-alone components involved in ITS,” Jones said. “We also wanted to look for opportunities to collaborate.

The lab itself represents a successful collaboration between education, government and industry. Much of the initial equipment, valued at more than $500,000, was provided through a combination of university and federal government sources and donations by the City of Omaha and Cox Communications. Current partners include the City of Omaha, Nebraska Department of Roads, IBM and Econolite.

The lab also involves faculty and students from civil engineering, computer and electronics engineering and computer science. Hamid Sharif, professor of computer and electronics engineering and director of the Telecommunications Engineering Laboratory, is collaborating with Jones to provide students access to Internet2 connections. Quiming Zhu, professor of computer science at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, is bringing PKI’s computational facilities, particularly in data management, data warehousing and data mining, to bear on ITS-related projects.

The lab was designed around students’ educational needs, Jones said. “It’s very student-focused. We’ve worked hard to get students, particularly undergraduates, involved in our activities.”

Major equipment in the lab includes an Autoscope Solo Pro system for traffic control and monitoring, NEMA and 170 traffic controllers, Global Position Satellite System equipment, and a mobile traffic data collection van with Autoscope Solo Pro cameras mounted on a 42-foot extendable mast. The lab also can serve as a Traffic Operations Center along Pacific Street from 67th to 69th Streets in Omaha.

“We’re supporting basic research in traffic flow theory, human factors, communications, and computer/machine image processing,” Jones said. “In the applied research area, we’re providing ITS engineering support, systems development and integration, and equipment testing.”

Future plans include partnering with the Nebraska Department of Roads in the Scott Technology Center, Jones said. “This will enhance ITS activities throughout the state and ITS educational and research activities at The Peter Kiewit Institute.”

Have Van, Will Travel

Omaha-area motorists have already noticed the bright van emblazoned with colorful traffic-emblem graphics and rooftop cameras. And motorists all over Nebraska will eventually see it as it travels around to help researchers studying problem traffic situations.

“The van allows us to go out and do detailed traffic studies in a wide variety of locations, and be able to collect the data in a pretty sophisticated way while analyzing it on the fly,” Jones said.

Jones and students use the mobile van to collect detailed traffic data such as how many vehicles are passing a particular spot, when they pass by and how fast they are traveling; measurements of traffic flow; and determination of how many vehicles are clustered in a given space. With either of the two cameras mounted on the mast, they can bring visual data into the van’s VCRs, monitors and computers to observe and collect video and data.

Being mobile has its advantages, Jones said. It allows the researchers to do detailed studies with one piece of equipment instead of having people scattered with radar guns, cameras and traffic counters.

“The real advantage to this van is it makes collecting data a lot easier,” she said. “It’s actually dangerous to be down on the interstate, and we can be up on an overpass above the traffic. Besides that, we’re able to do two studies at once with the two cameras so we can get both directions of I-80 or two directions of traffic at an intersection. And we’re also able to process all that data here in the van. This is a much more efficient way to collect data than what we’ve done in the past.”

Although traffic analysis vans are becoming more common in government and industry, Jones said what’s uncommon about this van is that it was designed around student education needs.

“We’re very lucky to have what we have here because most universities don’t have this type of equipment available for students to actually use,” she said. “Plus, it gives them great hands-on experience with this new traffic equipment that’s coming out. When they get out working as traffic engineers, they’ll be using this equipment on a daily basis, or at least having to understand how it works in transportation systems.”

Putting Students to Work

The lab also provides numerous educational and training opportunities for students, faculty and transportation professionals. “We want to serve as a resource for professionals who are interested in ITS capacity building,” Jones said. The lab has successfully supported training in traffic control devices and ITS systems. The lab serves as a resource for university courses in transportation engineering, computer and electronics engineering, computer science and other ITS disciplines, as well as K-12 educational activities.

Students and faculty currently are using the lab to conduct research on projects sponsored by the National Science Foundation, Nebraska Department of Roads and the Nebraska Research Initiative. Projects under way include the scalability of theoretical traffic flow models, a rural bicycle compatibility index and development of an XML application to facilitate transportation information exchange.

Students also are working on a project that integrates web-based video with dynamic message signs, anti-icing technology and remote weather information systems.

Jones said interest in traffic engineering is way up and students are eagerly awaiting their hands-on time in the traffic van.

“I’m not only learning the basics of traffic studies and traffic engineering, but I get to work with this high-tech equipment that will get me a head start on my career in traffic engineering,” said Bryan Guy, a junior civil engineering major from Hartington.

Last summer, students tested some NDOR equipment on I-80 near the 96th Street overpass, doing traffic counts for the Omaha transportation system near a trail and a proposed pedestrian bridge. Senior students in computer and electronics engineering are designing a wireless LAN for the van which will make it capable of transmitting data over a 20-mile distance, thus expanding its capabilities.

“That will allow the van to connect back to either our lab at the Institute or some other location for monitoring incidents or managing traffic in difficult situations,” Jones said. If a bridge goes out, an accident occurs or a snowstorm closes down part of a highway, the mobile lab technology could help the roads department or State Patrol divert traffic before a pileup occurs.

As in all traffic engineering projects, safety is still the key goal.

“What this does for Nebraska primarily is that it can help us reach our goals of saving lives, time and money,” Jones said.

The van's 42 ft. extendable mast is used to collect traffic data when the van is stationary.

Civil engineering students Bryan Guy and Andres Torres set up the van for demonstration at the Nebraska Union on a game day Saturday. Guy is a senior and a Scott Scholar, and Torres is a graduate student.

Libby Jones attaches a camera to the mast of the mobile traffic data collection van.
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The I3 laboratory includes an Autoscope Solo Pro System for traffic control and monitoring.

ITS Programs Benefit Travelers, Taxpayers

by Deb Derrick

America’s transportation system is used by virtually every American, every day. Among public and elected officials, there is a rising concern over transportation-related problems such as traffic congestion.

Advances in technology have brought many innovations that can help increase safety and provide more efficient traffic flow and streamlined services. Intelligent transportation systems (ITS) combine computer and wireless technologies to achieve these purposes.

ITS programs, according to a NCSL Transportation Program report, are categorized into sets of user services. Traveler management systems assist drivers in planning their commutes, help relieve congestion and provide information to emergency personnel who are responding to incidents. Public transportation services help streamline transit, allow transit companies to identify where the vehicles are in the system and offer safety to passengers. Electronic payment systems use computer technology to make payment simple and automatic. These include “smart cards” that have a dollar value and can be swiped through a scanner to pay for services. Commercial vehicle services make truck transport more efficient and cost-effective.

There is a national level effort under way to establish an integrated ITS infrastructure. In 1996, former Secretary of Transportation Federico Peña set a goal of deploying the integrated metropolitan ITS infrastructure in 75 of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas—including Omaha—by the end of 2005.

The Federal Highway Administration and each state transportation department are working on deployment of ITS technology in urban and rural areas. In Nebraska, ITS deployment is being spearheaded by the Federal Highway Administration, Nebraska Department of Roads, Metropolitan Area Planning Agency and the City of Omaha.

Here are some of the applications that have already been implemented statewide and some that are on the drawing board.

511 Traveler Information System

Nebraska’s high-tech weather and road condition reporting system, operational since October 2001, was the first in the United States to be deployed statewide.

The 511 system offers localized reports on weather and road conditions. Eventually the system will carry construction and detour information and tourist information on hotels, motels and restaurants on or adjacent to Nebraska’s nearly 10,000 miles of state and federal highways.

511 operates 24 hours a day, year-round. The Advanced Traveler Weather Information System, developed by Meridian Environmental Technology, Inc., of Grand Forks, N.D., is the backbone of the 511 system. When travelers call 511, a recording asks for their location, highway number and direction of travel. Current conditions are then provided for the next 60 miles ahead of them.

The system can be accessed free of charge by dialing 511 from any cellular telephone or land line telephone. In addition, 511 information is available via the Internet (www.nebraskatransportation.org).

Dynamic Message Signs

Dynamic message signs on highways, freeways and city streets warn motorists about major accidents, construction areas, rush hour traffic jams and information concerning road conditions during inclement weather. Drivers are able to slow down or take alternative routes to avoid problem areas, thus reducing traffic congestion and increasing safety.

The Nebraska Department of Roads has used these signs on several occasions. After closing a section of Interstate 80 due to flash floods in the Ogallala area last July, NDOR set up signs and personnel at area checkpoints to re-route traffic along the detour routes.

The signs also were put to use in construction work zones along I-80 in the Omaha area last year. For several weeks, portable changeable message signs informed drivers about traffic conditions in the work zone on northbound I-680 between Pacific Street and West Dodge Road.

Sensors along I-680 around the construction near West Dodge Road measured the average speed of cars on the interstate. That information was sent to a central computer. If the average speed dropped below 50 mph, computers activated road signs to inform motorists about the upcoming slowdown.

NDOR is in the process of installing nine permanent overhead signs. Eventually there will be 14 permanent signs around the state. The larger signs will have a visibility range of 900 feet, while the smaller signs will have a visibility range of 600 feet.

State-of-the-Art Commercial Vehicle Enforcement

With the construction of state-of-the-art commercial vehicle enforcement facilities at North Platte and Waverly on the I-80 corridor, Nebraska has become a national leader in the application of technology in commercial vehicle operations Nearly 20 percent of carriers crossing Nebraska have been qualified to participate in Nebraska’s commercial “electronic clearance” program.

The program has the capability to check administrative credentials such as a driver’s and trucking firm’s safety record and fuel tax payments, as well as vehicle’s weight while moving at freeway speeds. Transponders and automated weigh-in-motion devices communicate information to enforcement officers, who make a split-second decision to allow a vehicle to bypass an enforcement facility or require it to pull in for a detailed inspection.

Electronically clearing vehicles with good records enables enforcement officers to focus on drivers and vehicles requiring more scrutiny. This also results in safer highways because fewer trucks are moving into and out of weigh station and enforcement facilities. The Commercial Vehicle Information Systems Network requires carriers to conform to administrative processes if they want to be pre-qualified for the program. Stopping takes time, and to truckers, time equates to money.

Smart Work Zone Technology

Smart work zones are another focus area of the U.S. Department of Transportation. The technology incorporates and integrates video, weather, communications and advanced traveler information systems. Researchers at the Mid America Transportation Center at the College of Engineering & Technology are facilitating a five state, pooled-fund project, the Midwest States Smart Work Zone Deployment Initiative (MwSWZDI). The goal of the project is to develop better ways of controlling traffic through work zones, thereby improving the safety and efficiency of traffic operations and highway work.

“This multi-state pooled fund project has given us the opportunity to evaluate a number of new work zone technologies and share that information on regional and national levels,” said Geza Pesti, MATC Research Assistant Professor. The MwSWZDI project was the recipient of a 2001 National Highway Safety Award sponsored by Federal Highway Administration and the Roadway Safety Foundation. NDOR is the lead state agency for the project.

The Omaha-Lincoln corridor will be under construction until the year 2012 with additional lanes being added. In this area and in other parts of the state, NDOR will employ smart work zone technology for the continued safe, efficient and secure movement of people and goods.

Nebraska Statewide Joint Operations System

By the year 2004, Nebraska’s I-80 corridor and key points on the 10,000 mile state highway system will be instrumented and integrated with a Joint Operations System. Three state agencies—NDOR, Nebraska National Guard/NEMA and the Nebraska State Patrol—will share information, providing better coordination of operations and services.

“We’re developing relationships and operating procedures with other agencies and governmental jurisdictions,” said Jim McGee, ITS project coordinator for the Nebraska Department of Roads. “This will enable 24/7 operations and help us better serve the taxpayers.

“ITS helps us add value to things we already do,” he said. “This helps us manage our highway infrastructure so that it can work at maximum capacity.”

Thanks to Jim McGee at the Nebraska Department of Roads and NDOR’s Roadrunner magazine for source material for this article.

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