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Robotic Traffic Cones Proposed to Mark Road Repair Zones

May 4, 2004

Herds of robotic traffic cones could soon be swarming onto a highway, closing down lanes and slowing the traffic, according to a story in New Scientist magazine on April 28. The new road markers have been developed by Shane Farritor, a roboticist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, in a bid to help reduce the $100 billion per year that the Department of Transportation estimates is lost to the U.S. economy through accidents and delays caused by highway lane closures. The self-propelled markers take the form of robotic three-wheeled bases for the brightly colored barrels that are set out to mark road repair zones. Farritor says they can open and close traffic lanes faster and more safely than humans. The markers are delivered to the roadside by a specially equipped truck, from which an operator controls their deployment using a laptop computer. Each fleet of robots is made up of a lead robot or "shepherd", which is equipped with a global positioning system satellite navigation receiver, plus a number of less expensive "dumb" units. The laptop screen displays an image of the road, captured by a camera mounted on top of the truck. Using software developed by Farritor's team, the operator marks on the screen where the barrels should be placed. From this the software calculates the point where the shepherd should be placed, and this is sent to the shepherd via a radio link. The shepherd takes up its position, and also tells the other markers, by radio, where to go. They then use dead reckoning - counting how many times their wheels turn, for instance - to work out their position. The shepherd checks its "sheep" are in the right place using a laser-based radar (or "lidar") system to correct any positional errors. The lidar also has a safety role. If a marker is detected consistently straying out of position, the shepherd moves it out of harm's way and shuts it down. On a test track, Farritor and his team used a swarm of six markers to form wedge-shaped lane barriers. He says they were able to achieve an accuracy close to that of humans. "Our tests proved these robots can work in teams to provide traffic control," he says. "Deploying and retrieving highway markers on open roads is hazardous so the robots will reduce risks for workmen," he adds.
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