Iowa DOT Testing Drones for Highway Incident Use

In the Iowa City area, the Iowa Department of Transportation is working with its “Highway Helper” contractor, Autobase, to test the use of drones to help clear highway incidents faster so traffic can get moving normally again.

[Above image by Iowa DOT]

The idea for the project came up when Andy Lewis, traffic operations bureau director for the agency, learned about drones being used for quick clearance in other states.

“Being a licensed drone pilot myself, I’m always interested in new technology and uses for that technology,” he explained in a blog post. “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 noted that staffers in Iowa DOT’s Traffic Management Center in Ankeny often use live video feeds from stationary cameras to assess highway incidents and then relay information to the “boots on the ground” to get the road cleared as quickly as possible.

“By using the drone, we can quickly get a camera out to areas where we don’t currently have those stationary cameras,” he said. “The drone we’re using in Iowa City has the capability to stream live video as well as take high-resolution still photographs.”

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

Lewis added that, 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.

“Using the drone provides a whole new vantage point that we’ve not had before,” he explained. “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.”

As Lewis noted earlier, other state departments are testing drones in similar use cases. For example, in February 2022, the North Carolina Department of Transportation began testing a “tethered drone” system in conjunction with the agency’s highway patrol service to improve safety on North Carolina roadways.

The agency’s incident management assistance patrol or IMAP and its Division of Aviation tested drones tethered to specific IMAP vehicles to help responders assess incidents, provide situational awareness to NCDOT’s Statewide Transportation Operations Center or STOC and Traffic Management Centers or TMCs, and assist with overall traffic management of the incidents.

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