By Carl Weiser
Enquirer Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - Pilotless planes, which the U.S. military has used to snoop out Iraqi tanks and assassinate an al-Qaida terrorist, will be tested in Ohio to see whether they can battle a more down-to-earth hazard: traffic jams.
Ohio transportation officials and university researchers believe that unmanned aerial vehicles, sometimes called drones or UAVs, hold promise as a way to keep an eye on traffic, route trucks and fix stoplights so traffic flows better.
Kelly Carter holds the radio-control transmitter for a drone that was part of a demonstration last week.
(Gannett News Service photo)
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Data on traffic flow now comes from detectors embedded in pavement or those black pneumatic tubes stretched across roads.
But aerial monitoring has the potential to yield far more - and more detailed - information to help traffic planners, emergency workers, truck companies and commuters, said Benjamin Coifman, an Ohio State University professor of civil and electrical engineering who is one of the researchers on the project.
"We're hoping within the next half year to do a test flight," he said.
Drivers and traffic engineers have some tools now: ground sensors, some stationary cameras, traffic helicopters and, in the Tristate, the Advanced Regional Traffic Interactive Management and Information System, or ARTIMIS. Its Web site and billboards warn of accidents or congestion on major highways.
But a drone could track groups of cars as they turn, revealing the way traffic winds through a network of roads. It could measure the way vehicles line up at red lights, and how fast they travel between lights. It could count trucks at rest stops or cars at park-and-ride lots, all in one trip.
By quickly viewing a number of roads at the same time, a drone could help police cars or ambulances find the best route to an accident scene.
Some come equipped with "sniffers" that would let police know whether a truck has spilled ammonia or gasoline before a dispatcher sends emergency workers. Smaller ones can be sent through a tunnel.
Most have infrared cameras for working at night.
"You could beam this down to a little monitor and put it on a visor of a police car to see what the traffic situation is," said Mary Ellen Brown, vice president of operations for GeoData Systems.
The Fairfax, Va., company will supply the plane for the Ohio test.
Unlike stationary TV cameras now used in some places to monitor road congestion, a drone's cameras could move around and check out several roads. Within a few years it could be cheaper and more informative to use unmanned planes than current fixed cameras and sensors, researchers said.
"The UAV can give you the big picture," said president Stephen Morris of MLB, a California unmanned aerial vehicle company with a 15-pound Labrador-size drone that launches via a bungee-powered catapult.
The GeoData Systems drone is larger, about 55 pounds, with a wingspan of 12 feet - still closer to a model airplane than a military-style UAV. The plane is equipped with a video camera that can beam images to the ground. A person on the ground controls its flight.
Some glitches need to be worked out: At a demonstration of the GeoData Systems plane Wednesday near Washington, heavy rain kept the drone grounded. That particular prototype was intended for use in checking crops during sunny weather, company president Ernest Carroll said.
But a rival, MLB's smaller "Bat" drone, flew over the scientists assembled at an I-95 rest stop and provided real time video of I-95 traffic.
"It was pretty cool, and pretty interesting, since it was working well during pretty bad weather," said Mark McCord, another Ohio State engineering professor who traveled to the Washington area last week for a UAV conference and demonstration.
A 1998 highway bill ordered the Department of Transportation and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to team with universities on better ways to improve traffic flow using what it calls "remote sensing."
Ohio State is leading a consortium of universities working on a $600,000-a-year project to figure out the best way to do that.
Among the ideas to be tested: tethered balloons flying 50 stories up, and even satellites.
"ODOT is looking for the most value of the money it spends," Ohio Transportation spokesman Joel Hunt said. "If one satellite picture could give us the same data that 1,000 road sensors could, that's certainly something we want to pursue."
Many possible uses
Tracking traffic from the air is nothing new: Maryland first did it in 1927, watching traffic between Baltimore and Washington. And the military has been developing drones since 1964.
Now the Pentagon can use drones to send back real-time images of battlefields. Its Predator UAV can remain airborne for up to 20 hours. The CIA used one in November in Yemen to fire a missile into a car carrying six alleged al-Qaida members.
The Department of Homeland Security is considering using drones to patrol the U.S.-Mexico border.
"It's just mind-boggling what the possibilities are," said Sam Bonasso, who runs the Department of Transportation's Research and Special Programs Administration. It is overseeing the Ohio drone research.
The drones envisioned in the skies over Ohio's highways are much smaller than military or CIA drones - closer to model aircraft, said Mark McCord, another Ohio State engineering professor who was in Washington last week for the UAV conference.
One of the main obstacles to using drones - and one of the main topics of conversation at the conference - was confusion about the Federal Aviation Administration's exact rules on drones.
"Interesting question," FAA spokesman William Schumann said. "The short answer is there are no formal rules that I can refer you to or cite."
Over a congested metropolitan area like Columbus or Cincinnati, drones would have to fly at least 1,000 feet above the ground.
"It's one thing if you're over open water or flying along the Mexican border in Texas, compared with flying over Columbus, Ohio," Schumann said.
But most of the UAV operators say their drones are closer to model airplanes, and thus have far fewer restrictions. As long as they're less than 55 pounds and fly lower than 500 feet, these drones should be able to avoid the bureaucrats.
Other obstacles are financial: The GeoData Systems drone costs about $150,000 with the ground station and software. MLB's package costs about a third of that.
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