45870468_1997712390275759_6678215674701021184_nWhen something unexpected like a traffic crash happens, getting first responders to the scene to treat you if you’re injured is the first priority. While this is happening, law enforcement and other first responders, including the Iowa Department of Transportation, are completing investigations and doing whatever they can to get the road cleared so traffic can get moving normally again.

In the Iowa City area, we’re working with our Highway Helper contractor, Autobase, to test the use of drones to clear these incidents even more quickly. The idea for the project came up when our Traffic Operations Bureau Director Andy Lewis learned about drones being used for quick clearance in other states. He said, “Being a licensed drone pilot myself, I’m always interested in new technology and uses for that technology. When I learned about states using drones to get traffic moving more quickly, I looked for ways to bring that to Iowa. It makes sense to have the Highway Helper provide this service since they are already on the scene.”

Lewis and Autobase were able to work out a process to add a drone to the Highway Helper tool kit. Travis Schooley, our Autobase project manager, said, “We’re always looking for ways to improve safety on the road. That includes the safety of all travelers and first responders. If we can use drones to visualize a scene and help clear it more quickly, everyone benefits.”

Iowa Traffic Management Center
Our Traffic Management Center uses a network of stationary cameras to see what's up on Iowa roads.

Lewis said, “Staff in our Traffic Management Center in Ankeny often use live video feeds from our stationary cameras to assess an incident and relay information that may help the boots on the ground get the road cleared as quickly as possible. Using the drone, we can quickly get a camera out to areas where we don’t currently have those stationary cameras. The drone we’re using in Iowa City has the capability to stream live video as well as take high-resolution still photographs.”

Robert launching the drone
Our Highway Helpers in the Iowa City area now have the option to use drones to get a bird's eye view of traffic and incidents.

Robert Rutledge, a Highway Helper in Iowa City, is already well-versed in traffic incident management. Now, as a licensed drone pilot, he can marry those principles with his flying skills to capture video and still images that will not only immediately help first responders at the scene, but also those who review the incident’s aftermath.

In addition to the live-streamed video, the footage and still images can be captured and saved for review to see if the traffic incident management principles that were used could be improved. Lewis said, “Using the drone provides a whole new vantage point that we’ve not had before. We can use it when we’re setting up a work zone to make sure all elements are positioned correctly to make the area as safe as possible. If an incident does happen, we can use the drone footage to review the road set-up and how responders worked together during the incident to make suggestions that may improve safety even more.”

Drone image of I-80/380 interchange
Using the drone, we can get a bird's eye view of what's happening in the area.

The pilot project has just recently gotten off the ground, Lewis said it is going to take some time to evaluate the effectiveness and determine the next steps. He explained, “We are always hopeful that traffic flows smoothly and we don’t have many incidents. The reality is that we will have some crashes. When those happen, we’ll work with the responders on-scene to determine if the drone was helpful in getting the road cleared more quickly. If we see a benefit to this technology, it is possible we’ll expand it to other parts of the state in the future if we can secure funding for equipment and work out an agreement with our Highway Helper provider.”

The project is working towards two of our five-year priority goals of improving transportation system safety and performance and growing innovation.

I feel that this is great opportunities for the DOT as well as the traveling public. To insure the safety and security of all our citizens and emergency personnel. However i also feel that the core values of of our services sometimes go un noticed or overlooked. As a IDOT employee and a fire department member sometimes the training offered is not always utilized by ALL public safety agencies. Example: In my county all fire departments have participated in the T.I.M.s training, however I have been unsuccessful in getting the County Sheriff and his department involved and on board with this type of training to ensure that we all stay safe. I feel this SHOULD be a Requirement for ALL emergency Responders… PERIOD!
We need rules and laws in place before grant money and state assistance dollars are handed out.

Often emergency vehicles shut down lanes in a desire for a safe working zone contributing to additional congestion. Efforts should be concentrated on minimizing lane closures. Law enforcement should be provided with resources to enforce "move over" laws.

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