Enquirer Washington Bureau
- 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.
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.
holds the radio-control transmitter for a drone that was
part of a demonstration last week.
Data on traffic flow now comes from detectors embedded in
pavement or those black pneumatic tubes stretched across
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
"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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