Eyes in the sky will help travelers, down the road

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Across the country, researchers are building high hopes for how data collected by drone aircraft can be used for transportation purposes. Although transportation agencies aren't yet launching drones to handle their everyday work, experts believe it's only a matter of time. Recent tests have demonstrated the promise of drones for helping manage traffic, evaluating road and bridge repair needs, facilitating communications during disasters, informing emergency responders and more. In fact, a plethora of studies on transportation management is driving changes in drone design; software programs used to collect, store, and evaluate data; and methods of encryption to protect data streams. "We see opportunities to use unmanned aerial systems in multiple ways, including maintenance, to inspect roads, road surveys, in con-struction, for emergency response, and in general photogrammetry [using photography in surveying to measure distances between objects]," said Gary Cathey, chief of the division of aeronautics at the California Department of Transportation. Once perceived as a military technology, drones are now mainstream, sold everywhere from Amazon to neighborhood hobby shops. Private ownership of these aircraft—also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) or unmanned aerial systems (UAS)—has outpaced the creation of legislation to control their use, spurring the federal government to action. In February, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) released a set of proposed rules for drones under 55 pounds conducting non-recreational activities. The regulations would limit flights to daylight, prohibit users from flying them out of sight, set height restrictions, and demand certifications for operators and registration for aircraft, among other operational parameters. When the rules are finalized and take effect, likely between one and two years from now, they will ultimately allow more commercial uses for drones, including tasks related to transportation. Recreational operators, who must abide by separate model aircraft provisions, will be exempt. So will government agencies, which will continue to apply through the FAA's Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA) permitting process. Federal statistics indicate the heightened interest in drones by government agencies, with the number of COAs issued nearly tripling from 2009 (146) to 2013 (423). Although there is a lot of controversy and discussion surrounding UAVs now, researchers have been experimenting with the devices for decades, according to Dr. Benjamin Coifman, professor of civil, environmental, and geodetic engineering at Ohio State University. "Maybe eight years ago [my research team] had a demonstration project to look at the feasibility of using UAVs to monitor traffic and traffic-related issues," Coifman said. However, a great deal of work needs to be done on the policy side before UAVs can fulfill their potential, Coifman said. "Are they accepted? What are the public's perceptions of government? What is government using the data for? How long is the information going to be stored? The privacy questions are definitely big and they should not be ignored," he said. Monitoring traffic in Florida Zhong-Ren Peng, professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Florida, has been experimenting with drones over the last few years to monitor travel speeds and behaviors at intersections and on highways and neighborhood roads around the city of Gainesville. Peng and a team of student researchers have monitored drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians passing the intersection of University Avenue and 13th Street, a busy area with unusual driving patterns near the main entrance to campus. The team also guided a UAV down a stretch of State Road 441 that claimed 18 lives in a multi-car pile-up in the rural Paynes Prairie area in 2012. "If we can capture an accident, we can do some predictions to prevent future, similar accidents," Peng said. "We create models based on the data concerning traffic conditions and vehicle behavior to predict when a car accident is about to happen." Image processing programs automatically extract data from the videos, including the speed and volume of traffic, the numbers and times of lane changes, and the development of car-following behaviors of drivers. Peng's group is currently working to improve the processing of images that the UAVs have captured. "If a person is watching the video, they see the same things over and over. The eye gets tired," he said. "Right now we're working on getting a computer [program] to automatically identify traffic conditions and accidents." In China, Peng worked with a team of former students at Shanghai Jiao Tong University and the Shanghai Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau to study air quality using UAVs. "We integrated mobile air pollutant sensors onto the UAV. The advantage of the UAV and mobile sensors is you can capture the air pollution in three dimensions and in larger geographic areas," Peng said. "That, together with the land use on the ground and meteorological conditions will help us to better understand the sources and distributions of air pollution in China." NJIT tests show communications capabilities In New Jersey, recent tests demonstrated drones' reliability for relaying information clearly and from long distances during emergencies. Michael Chumer, professor of information systems at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) and director of UAS research at the university's New Jersey Innovation Institute, led a team in January that conducted three drone flights at the U.S. Coast Guard Training Center in Cape May. The tests were a joint effort between NJIT's Crisis Communication Center, SRI International, American Aerospace Advisors and NC4. The small single-propeller airplane-style drone was equipped to carry a mapping sensor, a communications relay device and a high-definition video package in its payload bay. The UAV monitored and mapped the shoreline while flying over the ocean, which presented the lowest crash risk. A camera fixed to its tail provided a continuous, streaming video of each flight, which allowed the pilot in command to see where the UAV was going. "The output of the tail camera was fed to the Cape May Operations Center van, which passed that feed to eight other operations centers in New Jersey and one in Albany, New York," Chumer said.

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I am a California and Florida-licensed attorney in good standing in both states, who has also worked as a professional journalist for Knight Ridder Corporation and The New York Times Company, as well as many other magazines, newspapers, and websites. I currently live in the San Francisco Bay Area and have also lived in Florida and Georgia. I have worked at a number of science and art museums, including The American Museum of Natural History in New York and the Exploratorium in San Francisco. I have a background in biology and have been nationally recognized for excellence in science reporting. I currently work as an educator, writer, and attorney.
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