Ohio’s DOT Set to Deploy Drones to Help Manage Federal Highway Traffic

State departments of transportation are hoping to utilize drones in a variety of applications that support planning, construction, maintenance, and operations within their jurisdictions.  In most cases, a host of technical, regulatory, and operational issues still limit their actual deployment.  However, a number of pilot studies are getting underway that promise to reveal what drones can do to make highway safety management cheaper and more efficient, all the while reducing road injuries to motorists and pedestrians alike.

Last week, the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) gained FAA approval to monitor road traffic along a portion of US Route 33 north of Columbus using a large Censys Santaero drone.  The 20-pound drone, with a wingspan of 7.5 feet, is believed to be the largest UAV aircraft ever to be deployed by a state agency for a traffic management study.  It’s also the first to fly on a Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) basis, without a parachute.  Despite its newfound freedom, all of the Censys drone’s surveillance flights will remain under close visual observation for the length of the trial, which is scheduled to last four years.

Why use drones?  Past studies have found that UAVs offer many operational and cost advantages over current traffic observation methods that rely on static roadside cameras.  These cameras provide ground based video footage from oblique angles that tends to obscure important dimensions of traffic flows, highway safety experts say.  In addition, drones like the Censys Santaero equipped with 3D photogrammetry cameras can be used to construct dynamic models of traffic flows over longer periods.  These models can inform highway construction planning while also identifying short-term traffic flow problems.

Drones also have substantial cost and sustainability benefits.  Drone video footage can be collected rapidly – and at night, if need be – without the need to hire and manage expensive field crews whose ground deployment tends to interrupt traffic flows, costing businesses time and money.  And because drones substitute for gas-powered road vehicles and helicopters, their deployment substantially reduces a project’s carbon footprint.

“Drones can do a lot of things. Depending on the aircraft, they can be equipped with object detection and analytics, which form a critical piece in improving safety on the roadway,” Rich Fox, who heads drone operations at ODO, said last week. “This is only the beginning. We’re excited to test the potential benefits and leverage this special approval to continue integrating new drone technology into agency operations.”

The stretch of U.S. 33 where the ODOT drones will operate is a well-known IT test site.  State officials refer to it as a “smart mobility corridor,” thanks to a plethora of fiber-optic cables, road sensors and other equipment that mark it as the state’s leading center for innovative automotive technology. U.S. 33 connects Columbus with Marysville, which is the site of a large Honda factory.  It’s also where the state’s main vehicle safety testing site, known as the Transportation Research Center, is based.

ODOT officials say they chose the forward-flying Censys Santaero drone for its versatility and endurance.  The aircraft is highly wind-resistant, uses hot swappable batteries and can cruise at speeds up to 45 mph for 72 minutes over 55 miles – specs that make it ideal for long-distance traffic monitoring.

Censys Technologies, the Daytona, FL-based company that produces the Santaero, specializes in drones that can be adapted to a range of aerial surveillance missions, from pipeline inspections to law enforcement.  Its contract with ODOT marks its first venture into highway safety management.

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