Paths of traffic cones hit by a car at different speed

Wireless sensors in traffic cones to protect workers

UK companies are spearheading a European scheme aimed at reducing highway work zone deaths and injuries.

The €1m (£800,000) Safelane project is developing a wireless defence system for site perimeters, using ‘intelligent’ traffic cones and alarm sounders to give workers prompt warnings of vehicle incursions. Improved rechargeable battery technology is another element of the project.

Research for the Highways Agency (HA) indicates that a third of pedestrians killed or injured at maintenance sites are road workers, and half of all UK road workers have reported a near miss with a vehicle during their careers. The Agency is putting increased emphasis on safety alongside its current £1.4bn road improvement programme.

HA maintenance contractors are already deploying new-style cones developed by the Safelane project leader, Highway Resource Solutions (HRS), on motorway and trunk road sites across England. The Intellicone is an upgraded version of the conventional nightwork beacon, with its battery-powered lantern adapted to include a contact sensor.

If the cone detects impact from a straying vehicle, it sends out a radio frequency signal that triggers a portable site alarm (PSA), located within 50m, to ‘scream’, alerting road crews.

The curling stone-shaped PSA also contains a communications module, enabling it to send an automated text message to the site supervisor to organise remedial work, activate a variable message sign to give a visual warning, and inform the system Web portal. A prototype device management system and Web portal has already been developed.

The PSAs can also respond to secondary contactless ‘sentry’ sensors, introduced to detect the nearness to a site of pedestrians or vehicles – including, in a recent enhancement, overheight plant at risk of striking bridges, gantries or overhead cables.

With the Intellicone model at its core, Safelane partners are now developing impact algorithms that will enable perimeter systems to distinguish between impacts of differing severity. UK transport consultancy TRL has been carrying out test-track and in-lab tests looking at factors such as debris scatter patterns.

Meanwhile, the project is within a few weeks of producing a prototype rechargeable battery that will be integrated into the sensor-equipped lantern. Conventional disposable batteries have short lifespans and so need frequent changing. With the introduction of on-site recharging capability, Safelane aims to cut replacement rates by 90 per cent, saving on labour, disposal and environmental costs.

HRS managing director Roger Poeth sees potential for using the integrated sensor unit in other transport and environmental applications, such as traffic and air quality monitoring.

TRL is also exploring potential overseas markets for the system, over and above the EU Member States represented in the project – Germany, Lithuania, the Netherlands and the UK. Other technology partners include Colas and Philips Industries.

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