Traffic control UAVs – keeping roads safe

Britain’s roads are often gridlocked. Traffic officers struggle to reach congested areas, but drones could fly to the rescue and offer a mobile solution to monitoring the country’s motorists…  

The Department for Transport recently calculated that the UK has around 246,500 miles of road (2016 data). That’s a lot of tarmac to cover. Patrol cars are usually deployed around the busiest motorways and A-roads, leaving thousands of miles without immediate cover. At minimal cost, here’s where drones can make a huge difference to the lives of motorists and those who police them.

When you drill down the statistics, major roads account for only 12.7% of total UK road length. That means that a lot of minor roads (87.3% of the UK’s roads) are potentially very isolated. Response times are usually driven by numbers of vehicles using certain stretches of road. Because so many cars travel along the key arteries (M1 motorway, M6, M25, M62 etc), that’s where many of the bottlenecks, accidents and breakdowns occur.

The issue for emergency services is getting to scenes quickly and transmitting accurate data so that other support teams and the driving public can respond appropriately. Although traffic cameras exist along many of the country’s busier routes, they are static, prone to weathering and even birds!

How will drones improve traffic flows?

Drones are supremely mobile. Lightweight, stable, quick and easily manoeuvred, they can be sent to specific map locations and then remotely coordinated at incidents by control room operators.

Data captured by UAVs (such as the volume of traffic, average speeds and specific crash data) can be shared with operators, but also via data networks with connected devices. This could involve electronic road signs (“Congestion ahead”) and even with Satnav systems in vehicles to warn motorists ahead of the usual manual service updates.

Crucially, a drone hovering at a crash site will allow the most appropriate emergency vehicles to be deployed – and from the most convenient, safe and logistically accessible directions. When data networks allow, live footage could be shared with media channels to keep the public fully informed.

The pothole drone!

Drones could perform many roles monitoring Britain’s roads. However, one regularly contentious topic is the condition of road surfaces. It’s almost impossible for highway patrols and councils to visit every pothole and assess the urgency to repair. There are limited vehicles, plus with traffic flowing 24/7 it’s hard to check the damage. It’s the motorists that notice how bad they are.

Drones could gather such data on potholes as part of regular surveys of the roads, even when sent to assess specific incidents. Video and static photos could be transmitted for assessment, so maintenance teams could respond to specific complaints by the public to decide if immediate action was required.

How can drones keep flying longer?

Battery technologies are improving all the time, but the demand for the power on offer increases as software and Apps become more sophisticated. Electric cars are about to flood the market and drivers will demand improved ranges if they are to ditch petrol and diesel vehicles in line with government targets.

For UAV operators, fly times of around 15-20 minutes are the norm, depending on drone size, weight and its cargo. Military drones are larger and have enhanced power capacities. With car batteries being developed, these advances will hopefully pass to drone power units.

For emerging battery powered machines, the next phase will be to create charge points. Drones will dock into place and charge up just as some of the latest mobile phones can do. This could be at roadside locations on motorways, or on platforms connected to Smart Motorway overheads.

As with all drone ideas, the possibilities to harness the capabilities of unmanned aerial vehicles increase constantly. If they can help to ease traffic, highlight congestion and assist the emergency teams, they will be welcomed by everyone.