Iowa DOT highlights technology in an unexpected setting

Many times at the Iowa Department of Transportation, we go about getting the job done, not always realizing that some of the work we’re accomplishing could be breaking new ground.

The Iowa DOT, like every other state’s transportation agency, is part of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. Within AASHTO there are several committees and subcommittee that meet periodically to share ideas and best practices. Recently, the subcommittees on Design and Environment both met in Des Moines, where the Iowa DOT was able to showcase some of our work during technical tours held at Living History Farms.

You might think Living History Farms is a strange place to highlight what is being done in Iowa in the transportation engineering and environmental fields. However, the location ended up being perfect for the engineers and also for the environmental folks visiting from other states.

Environmental technical tour explores Living History Farms in new ways

Marc discussing stream mitigation
Marc Solberg (far left) discusses the stream mitigation project with the group.

Marc Solberg, with the Iowa DOT’s Office of Location and Environment, said, “A few years ago, we partnered with Living History Farms and the Natural Resources Conservation Service on a stream mitigation project at Living History Farms. The I-235 construction project created impacts to streams in the area of the project. If we are not able to find ways to help those stream impacts in the direct project area, we are required by law to find ways to help streams and waterways in nearby areas. For years Living History Farms had wanted to do something about their erosion problems in the stream. It has turned out to be a great partnership. This project not only gave us the opportunity to improve this particular stream but to highlight the successful collaboration to encourage other state DOTs to explore partnerships with nonprofit groups and others who may not be considered typical partners for transportation projects.”

IMGP0101Since the stream mitigation project is a few years old, the visitors were able to see the natural revegetation at the site. Solberg said, “Some of the people couldn’t tell the site had been disturbed. That led to some good discussion about what we did and what other states are doing as best practices for future stream mitigations.”

In addition to highlighting the stream mitigation project, the Location and Environment staff were able to demonstrate how they use hand-held remote sensing technology known as LiDAR (light detection and ranging) to document cultural resources. Brennan Dolan, with the Office of Location and Environment, said there was a lot of interest in using cutting-edge technology to document history.

Dolan said, “LiDAR is a great technology for that application. The Office of Location and Environment has been using LiDAR since the mid-2000s and working with a hand-held scanner for three field seasons. There is really no other tool that can do what LiDAR can.”

Brennan demos LiDAR
Brennan Dolan, right, demonstrates to the group how the hand-held LiDAR unit operates.

He continued, “The AASTHO tour was a great way to highlight this technology and to explain to other states that this kind of work is not years away, you can do it now. Sharing some of our LiDAR results make this technology a clear reality for folks who haven’t had much exposure to this tool before.”   

Brennan with the structure
Brennan Dolan, right, explains how the LiDAR unit was able to map this structure.


LiDAR of structure
LiDAR demo data from Living History Farms’ 1700 Ioway Village.












Carol Lee Roalkvam, an environmental policy branch manager for the Washington DOT, said, “I thoroughly enjoyed the tour. I was impressed by the demonstration of the hand-held LiDAR for cultural resource mapping. I enjoyed learning a bit about the history of the area. It was interesting to hear about how Iowa DOT was able to partner on the stream restoration project.”


Engineering technical tour– worlds collide

IMG_1465During the engineering technical tour at Living History Farms, attendees were able to compare old and new when The University of Iowa brought both of its automated vehicles to rest near the Living History Farms’ 1924 Model T.

Mike Kennerly, director of the Iowa DOT’s Office of Design, said, “When it comes to automated vehicles, every transportation agency is trying to prepare itself for the emerging autonomous vehicle fleet. The issues associated with an autonomous fleet have been the focal point of many national conferences, and what few people know is the role the state of Iowa has taken in leading that conversation and helping identify potential solutions to the issues that are being raised. This is crucial because while many view it as the wave of tomorrow, the reality is much of the technology is in use on a smaller scale today. Companies like Volvo and Tesla already have vehicles that are semi-autonomous. This tour gave designers and transportation officials a firsthand look at not only the technology but how it operates with a real world driving experience.”

Participants were able to hear from one of Iowa’s leader of automated vehicle research Dan McGehee, director of both the National Advanced Driving Simulator and Transportation and Vehicle Safety Policy Research Program at The University of Iowa Public Policy Center, about Iowa’s efforts in digital mapping and other technologies.

During the discussion, McGehee highlighted the benefits of automated vehicles:

  • Reducing the number of crashes related to human factors and weather.
  • Making significant improvements to highway capacity without the need for additional
  • Reducing aggressive driving.
  • Improving travel efficiency and reliability.
  • Improving mobility to disabled and senior citizens.
  • Improving fuel efficiency through vehicle drafting.

The group members were then treated to a spin in the vehicle of their choice.

Chin-Ta in the Tesla
Chin-Ta Tsai of the Iowa DOT's Office of Location and Environment like the Tesla.



Engineering technical tour  – virtual reality in the transportation realm

A second engineering technical tour brought attendees to Iowa State University’s Virtual Reality Applications Center (VRAC). The virtual reality tour gave participants an opportunity to experience firsthand the cutting-edge work in virtual reality conducted by Iowa State University.

VRAC tour group
SCOE technical tour number two took participants to VRAC at ISU.

Virtual reality applications have enormous potential in the transportation world. Using VR, the Iowa DOT can get a sense of how traffic will travel through new roadway configurations before they are built. Kennerly said, “The Iowa DOT is currently working on a project with ISU that will use virtual reality to evaluate the operational characteristics of the modifications to the U.S. 30/I-35 interchange just east of Ames. Once completed, we will be able to drive through the interchange as if we were in our own car, which will help us evaluate the impact of the new bridge on sight distance for traffic merging from eastbound U.S. 30 with northbound I-35 traffic.”

John Deere VRAC demonstration
For the SCOE technical tour, participants were able to see how companies like John Deere are utilizing virtual reality to evaluate and enhance the products they produce.

For the public, the Iowa DOT is working toward having virtual reality at public meetings so people can “drive” the virtual roadway changes before they are constructed. This technology will also let us show property owners how proposed improvements will impact their property as if they were standing there themselves.

Kennerly said, “This will be a much more powerful tool to convey design intent to all stakeholders, including designers. I think everyone on the technical tour came away impressed with the potential uses of virtual reality and the achievements of ISU.”

Kennerly concluded, “The glimpse inside tomorrow’s technology today was extremely valuable for all of the participants.”


An outstanding achievement by the Iowa DOT!

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