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Searching for a smoother ride

Photonics Spectra
Mar 2009
Hank Hogan, hank@hankhogan.com

BOSTON – Potholes had better watch out. Their days of delivering jarring jolts to cars could be shortened if sensor technology being developed under a grant to Northeastern University pans out. The goal is to develop inexpensive sensors that will be attached to common vehicles. A combination of acoustics and radar will monitor conditions below and on the surface of roads. When a problem is detected, global positioning technology will fix the general location of the vehicle.

PotHole_iStock_5964395Med.jpgBut the precise determination of where a pothole or other problem is located will be the purview of cameras and perhaps lasers, said Dr. Ming L. Wang, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Northeastern and principal investigator of the Versatile Onboard Traffic Embedded Roaming Sensors project. “[The sensors] will be used to pinpoint the exact location of the abnormality while the vehicle is moving at regular speed.”

The project recently received a $9 million federal research grant that will fund its five-year run. The goal is to develop techniques and products to monitor the nation’s roads and infrastructure, which the American Society of Civil Engineers recently estimated needs $2.2 trillion in repairs.

The multisensor technology envisioned as a result of the project will ride on delivery trucks, buses, and possibly even passenger cars, if the cost of the technology can be held low enough. From these moving perches, the sensors will collect data on roadway conditions, transmitting the information wirelessly to processing locations, where the nature of specific problems and the appropriate responses will be determined.

For the scheme to work, the sensor modules cannot be costly – a challenge given that they must detect problems, pinpoint their locations and communicate this information. Furthermore, the monitoring must be done without distracting drivers or burdening vehicles. Such requirements are one reason why radar and acoustics are current front-runners for the sensing technology, but Wang said that the group would consider a video camera with the right characteristics.

He added that current camera technology is not up to the task. Research into and development of the sensor modules is under way. The first products resulting from these efforts are expected in about three years.


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