Transportation Systems Software – Reliable and Resilient

by Tracy Zafian, Research Fellow

A research team led by Dr. Lance Fiondella, UMTC Research Affiliate, and professor at UMass Dartmouth, studies software reliability related to various transportation systems; and has developed a quantitative approach to assess the dynamic vulnerability of transportation networks.

In September 2017, flights for many airlines worldwide were temporary disrupted when the check-in system software experienced a network glitch. (Mike Schuh/Twitter)

The role of computers in operating, optimizing, and securing transportation networks and systems has grown tremendously in the last few decades. Onboard computers help run, sometimes autonomously, individual vehicles for land, sea, and air. On a larger scale, computers assist with the monitoring of traffic and transportation infrastructure to help transportation networks operate safely and efficiently.

Unfortunately, the computers performing such tasks do not always run as intended. For example, in September 2017, the New York Times described how air travel was temporarily delayed at airports on at least four continents when airline software that manages customer reservations and check-ins for close to 200 airlines worldwide experienced network glitches. In another example, in February 2018, traffic signal lights for an estimated 600 intersections in New York City failed to work properly after a “routine software upgrade” was carried out overnight. CBS news reported that some signal lights became flashing red lights and others went completely dark. Drivers, pedestrians, and others traveling through those intersections needed to exercise extra caution until the impacted traffic lights were fixed; over 99% of the lights were fixed within 18 hours.

Dr. Lance Fiondella, UMTC Research Affiliate and a professor at UMass Dartmouth in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, conducts research on software reliability engineering, and transportation. The American National Standards Institute defines software reliability as the probability of failure-free operation for a certain amount of time in a certain environment. Unlike hardware, software does not fail due to physical flaws and wear, but due to design flaws, which as described in the Handbook of Software Reliability Engineering (Michael Lyu, editor), can be harder than hardware flaws to visualize, detect, and correct.

Dr. Fiondella and his Ph.D. student Vidhyashree Nagaraju authored a chapter in the recently published Handbook of RAMS in Railway Systems: Theory and Practice. RAMS stands for Reliability, Availability, Maintainability, and Safety, and Fiondella and their chapter focused on software reliability in RAMS management. As the chapter describes, “In the context of railway systems, software reliability is important in critical applications such as dynamic control of safe separation between trains in railway signaling, railway interlocking systems, monitoring and real-time control software, and hardware control software.” The chapter presents different software reliability models, discussing their mathematical formulation, the underlying assumptions, and procedures to fit these models to failure data obtained during testing with examples from the research literature. The chapter also provides a web link to an open source software failure and reliability tool created at Fiondella’s lab that implements many of the concepts discussed in the chapter.

Dr. Fiondella and his team have also developed a quantitative approach to assess the dynamic vulnerability of transportation networks. The approach uses methods from traffic simulation and incorporates traffic demand and congestion changes as a function of time, including the peaks in traffic volumes by time of day and for community activities such as large sporting events or other gatherings. Fiondella and his students, including lead author Ph.D. student Venkateswaran Shekar, presented a research paper describing this approach at the 2017 IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) Symposium on Technologies for Homeland Security, along with a series of examples. The paper stated that “this approach can quantify the time-varying criticality of [network] links, which can inform network defense and resilience planning. Because pervasive deployment of defenses is prohibitively expensive, identifying how the vulnerability of links changes over time will provide greater insight, enabling quantitative assessment of competing for defense strategies to preserve continuity of travel time reliability within a transportation network despite disruptions.”

Fiondella is currently part of a MassDOT sponsored project, multi-campus (Lowell, Dartmouth, and Amherst) UMass research team studying the use of unmanned aerial systems (UASs, commonly referred to as drones) for surface transportation applications. This study is being sponsored by MassDOT.  Fiondella’s project task includes researchers from UMass Dartmouth and UMass Lowell and focuses on the security of UAS systems and data. As described in the study proposal, “there is an urgent need to ensure that UASs are engineered with sufficient security to withstand and recover from inevitable cyber-attacks.” The researchers are conducting a detailed literature search and synthesis on state-of-the-art secure UAS engineering techniques including compliance with national and international standards. The results from this work and the other project tasks will be used to help develop a pilot program for using UASs at MassDOT.

Fiondella recently received a prestigious National Science Foundation CAREER Award and multi-year grant for his research on Software Reliability and Security Assessment: Modeling and Algorithms.


Prospects and Challenges for Automated and Autonomous Vehicles

by Tracy Zafian, Research Fellow

May 2018: A car driven with Tesla’s Autopilot driver assist system crashed into a parked police car. The Autopilot system is designed to be used on limited access highways, not on roadways such as this one. (Source: Uncredited/AP/Rex/Shutterstock)

In March 2018, an Uber Volvo operating in automated driving mode, with a driver at the wheel, hit and killed a pedestrian in Arizona. It was the first autonomous vehicle (AV)-related pedestrian fatality. There have been other crashes involving autonomous test vehicles and additional fatalities involving lower-level automated vehicles since.  Also in March, a driver in California was killed when his Tesla, in autopilot mode, crashed into a concrete highway lane divider and caught fire. Last month, a Tesla, in autopilot mode, crashed into a parked firetruck in Utah and into a parked police car in California.  Injuries were minor in these instances.

All of these crashes have occurred while there has been a driver at the wheel making decisions about when to use and disengage the automated driving assist system. As reported in a USA Today article, following the Utah firetruck crash, Tesla issued a statement saying, “When using Autopilot, drivers are continuously reminded of their responsibility to keep their hands on the wheel and maintain control of the vehicle at all time,” and, “Autopilot is designed for use on highways that have a center divider and clear lane markings.” These conditions are not always met when crashes occur; for example, the driver in the Utah crash admitted to being distracted by their phone before the crash. From the National Transportation Safety Board’s preliminary findings from investigating the Uber pedestrian crash, there was no warning given to the safety driver before the crash. Current AV technologies, such as Tesla’s Autopilot, are referred to by car manufacturers as “driver assistance systems” but it is not clear that all drivers understand their limitations, including the need for drivers to monitor the driving environment and stay involved in the driving process.

The Society of Automotive Engineers has developed a classification system for autonomous vehicles. The classification includes six levels (Level 0-5); with Level 5 being fully autonomous and Level 1, containing some automated features such as adaptive cruise control and parking assist. Most current automated driver assistance systems are Level 1 or 2, meaning that drivers still need to be actively involved.

Driver assistance systems and autonomous vehicles hold great promise for improving safety and mobility, but AV technologies are still relatively new, and numerous challenges remain. A number of universities and researchers in Massachusetts are exploring this topic. In April, a commentary by MIT AgeLab researchers, “People must retain control of autonomous vehicles,” was published in Nature magazine (link is for the article). In their remarks, Dr. Ashley Nune, Dr. Bryan Reimer, and Dr. Joseph Coughlin, Age Lab Director and UMass Transportation Center Research (UMTC) Affiliate, focused on two areas – safety and liability – that need urgent attention as policies and regulations are developed for autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicles. They write that, in their view, “some form of human intervention will always be required. Driverless cars should be treated much like aircraft, in which the involvement of people is required despite such systems being highly automated. Current testing of autonomous vehicles abides by this principle. Safety drivers are present, even though developers and regulators talk of full automation.” The researchers’ piece ends with key points for policymakers preparing AV legislation to consider:

  • Driverless does not, and should not, mean without a human operator
  • More information should be shared with operators/drivers about how well different autonomous and driver assist systems are working, including their reliability and limitations
  • Operators should need to demonstrate that they understand the autonomous and driver assist systems in their vehicles and should be tested on their understanding and competence at periodic intervals
  • Remote monitoring networks should be established and shift time guidelines considered for workers monitoring AVs.

In May, a forum held at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health on “Self-Driving Cars: Pros and Cons for the Public’s Health.” (A recording of this session and a transcript are available at this link.) Dr. Jay Winsten, Associate Dean for Health Communication at Harvard, said there is hope right now around the potential for autonomous and highly automated vehicles to reduce traffic deaths.  He also addressed the hype around this: “I think both the media and some of the manufacturers and developers have been going a little too far in setting public expectations for what to expect, especially in the short-term and in the medium-term.” The panelists discussed that initially most vehicles will be highly automated (SAE Level 2), not autonomous (Level 3-5), and the deployment of the autonomous vehicles is likely to occur first for long-distance, highway-based commercial transport and in urban areas for shuttles and other short-distance trips. There are some challenges including the current reliability and drivers’ understanding of AV technologies, including the need for drivers to stay alert while behind the wheel and the safety of vulnerable road users. There are also concerns regarding regulation. The federal government through the National Highway Safety Administration has developed some guidelines regarding autonomous vehicles and automated driving systems. However, there are currently no federal regulations in place regarding autonomous vehicles. Therefore, currently regulations are primarily set at the state level.

As described in an earlier Innovative Outlook article, Governor Baker and Massachusetts state officials have largely taken the approach that it is better not to regulate AVs through legislation, as the technologies are still evolving and legislation can be difficult to modify once passed. Panelist Deborah Hersman of the National Safety Council, shared those concerns, saying “We’ve got to find out how to do this differently” so that any regulations keep up with changing technology. Herman also urged there be more transparency and data sharing regarding specific AV technologies and how well they perform, saying that NTSB investigations after a crash can be challenged by lack of access to such data.

In June 2018, MassDOT entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with several municipalities to help facilitate and expand autonomous vehicle testing on roadways in Massachusetts. As described in a MassDOT blog article, “Following the signing of this MOU, MassDOT and the participating communities will finalize a universal application for companies to use when seeking to test autonomous vehicles and the participating municipalities will identify locations and roadways suitable for autonomous vehicle testing. ‘This agreement will allow companies to responsibly develop and test autonomous vehicle technology in Massachusetts, while ensuring there are uniform safety guidelines in place,’ said Governor Baker [at the MOU signing] . ‘The MOU builds on the existing autonomous vehicle testing framework while simplifying the process for municipalities to work with innovative companies that are seeking to advance transportation, create jobs in our nation leading innovation economy, and improve our quality of life in the Commonwealth.’  …Said Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito, ‘By creating a standardized process and working collectively with local officials, we can generate economic growth and support our communities as they play a role in the future of innovation and motor vehicle automation.’ Fourteen communities signed the MOU initially, including Boston, Worcester, Arlington, Boston, Braintree, Brookline, Cambridge, Chelse, Medford, Melrose, Newton, Revere, Somerville, Weymouth, Winthrop, and Worcester.  In addition, the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation also joined the MOU, allowing Commonwealth-owned parkways to be available for autonomous vehicle testing.



Beets…for Roadway Deicing

by Tracy Zafian, Research Fellow



Winter in Massachusetts has just recently ended, but already communities are starting to plan and budget for their roadway snow and ice removal next year. Road salt and salt and water mixtures have long been used to help keep roadways clear and safe during the winter. However, there are now some grain and sugar based-options that when combined with salt can be more effective than salt or salt brine alone, and more sustainable as well.

One issue with using salt for road deicing is salt’s corrosive impact on metal, including vehicles and roadway infrastructure. Another concern is the polluting impact that road salt runoff as snow and ice melts can have on waterways, ecosystems, and wells. Through its Salt Remediation Program and commitment to environmental stewardship, MassDOT has established specific initiatives, as the program website says, that is aimed at “promoting the effective and efficient use of deicing chemicals.” One of the initiatives was the creation of the Snow and Ice Materials Usage Committee. This committee is charged with examining Best Management Practices for snow and ice removal, evaluating potential alternative roadway deicing options, and reviewing and revising current deicing policies.

Different Departments of Public Works (DPWs) have tried combining different agricultural materials, such as beet juice, beet molasses, cheese brine, and others, to their road salt to create better deicing mixtures. These agricultural additives contain carbohydrates that work chemically with road salt to lower the freezing point of water. These liquid mixtures can be sprayed on streets in advance of storms, which reduces salt bounce and helps prevent ice from forming. Such mixtures are also less corrosive.

Beet-based deicing mixtures have long been popular in the Midwest. Here’s a 2008 NPR story on the use of beet juice for deicing in Ohio. The DPW in Waukesha, Wisconsin has used a beet juice-salt brine mixture it prepares itself, as has Washington, D.C. Some Massachusetts communities are now using commercially-prepared beet molasses mixtures. As reported in a recent Boston Globe article, Wellesley officials started researching carbohydrate-based deicing additives after hearing great things about their use in other parts of the country. Wellesley Highway Division general foreman Kevin Collins and his team have been happy with the product, Magic-0 (Magic Minus Zero), that they started using in 2017. The product combines sugar cane molasses and magnesium chloride into a liquid mixture. It has been used by many highway departments and state agencies throughout New England, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.   The town of Lexington, under DPW superintendent Marc Valenti uses something similar. Another popular deicing product made from beet molasses is Beet Heet. Beet Heet has been used by over 200 agencies in 8 states, mainly in the Midwest. The beet molasses products can offer the benefits of beet additives with better consistency and performance than beet juice mixtures. Some cities, such as Milwaukee, discontinued the use of beet juice additive after finding it clogged their truck sprayers.

Other tested deicing additives include cheese brine, which is the water remaining with cheeses such as mozzarella. Cheese brine has been used for deicing in Polk County, Wisconsin, since 2009, and was pilot tested a few years ago in Milwaukee. Pickle brine was pilot tested in New Jersey in 2014. Researchers at Washington State University have developed a deicer made of barley residue from vodka distilleries. With additives made from byproducts of food processing plants, location and access to the processing is a factor, and one reason, for example, that Wisconsin is the main adopter of cheese brine deicing.  For local byproducts, the costs of the additives can sometimes be negligible as processing plants are happy to share their waste products in a win-win situation that can lower their own production costs as well.

As discussed in the Boston Globe, for now, the City of Boston currently primarily uses salt and sometimes a mixture of salt and water. However, the City’s Public Works Deputy Commissioner Michael Brohel says that carbohydrate-based additives could be in the city’s future. “We’re always open to testing out new methods,” says Brohel.

Baystate Roads plans to include discussion of deicing additives in its Snow and Ice Operations training for the next snow season.

MassDOT Earns its First LEED Gold Certification

by Courtney Murtagh, UMTC Intern


In 2016, MassDOT’s Research and Materials lab was nationally recognized and awarded Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold certification. The award-winning MassDOT facility, located near the Massachusetts Turnpike, was designed by Elkus Manfredi Architects. The LEED certification is a globally recognized award commending sustainable and efficient building design.

The lab is used to run tests on concrete, soils, asphalt, chemicals, and other material for MassDOT Highway Division construction projects. The facility is responsible to evaluate materials for more than 500 ongoing construction projects at any given time.

The building achieved its high rating certification with its sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, renewable materials, and high indoor environmental quality, according to a MassDOT press release.

The building is also equipped with other state-of-the-art green technology including porous pavement for runoff rainwater to charge the water table directly, two dual-port Level-II Electric Vehicle charging stations and a photovoltaic (PV) system that is expected to generate about 675,000-kilowatt hours (kWhs) per year. That energy output is roughly equivalent to 75% of the facility’s projected annual demand, according to the press release.

The Baker-Polito Administration is committed to reducing greenhouse gases (GHG) and increasing energy efficiency. Improving transportation infrastructure is one way the administration is approaching this goal.  “MassDOT’s state-of-the-art Research and Materials lab has many environmentally-friendly features including approximately 500 kW of Solar-Carports, about 40 kW of Rooftop PVs, and south-side self-tinting windows that limit over-heating in the summer and winter, and increase energy efficiency while making the workplace more comfortable for people inside,” said Transportation Secretary and CEO of MassDOT, Stephanie Pollack. The Highway Division is focusing on reducing GHG emissions by reducing the energy and chemicals used in maintenance projects, bettering the ecological performance of land under MassDOT care and control, minimizing exposure to hazardous waste, adapting facilities for climate change resilience, and minimizing developed land use altogether.

The Baker-Polito Administration hosted a series of listening sessions throughout the Commonwealth in late October and early November 2017 to discuss possible ideas and solutions for reducing GHG emissions from the transportation sector. The listening sessions were held in response to the Massachusetts Global Warming Solution Act (2008) and Governor Charlie Baker’s Executive Order 569, An Order Establishing an Integrated Climate Change Strategy for the Commonwealth. The specific regulations of the Executive Order require the Commonwealth to reduce GHG emissions by 25% below the 1990 emissions level by 2020 and by 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. As of 2014, the Commonwealth had reduced emissions to below 21% of the 1990 emissions.


100% Renewable Transportation by 2045 – Hawaii is Leading the Charge

by Courtney Murtagh, UMTC Intern


In December 2017 Hawaii’s four Mayors committed to 100% renewable public and private transportation by 2045. Meaning all of Hawaii’s cars, busses, trucks and trains will use renewable energy as fuel.

The four mayors – Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell, Maui County Mayor Alan Arakawa, Kauai County Mayor Bernard Carvalho Jr. and Hawaii County Managing Director Wil Okabe, representing Mayor Harry Kim – signed their respective proclamations, solidifying Hawaii’s status as a nation leader in renewable energy.

Hawaii has always been on the forefront of sustainability and in many ways is leading the nation. In 2015, Hawaii’s Governor David Ige signed into law a bill to reach 100% renewable energy consumption by 2045. In June 2017, another law was passed and Hawaii was once again the first state to commit to the Paris climate accord, despite President Trumps decision to pull the U.S. out of the agreement.

Despite Hawaii being the second in the U.S for electric vehicles sales per capita, Hawaii’s ground transportation still accounts for over a quarter of the states imported fossil fuel consumption as well as a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions.

Exuberant gas prices due to the Islands geography and the high cost of importing oil are the reason many Hawaii citizens are readily accepting this act. Locals and leaders alike are hoping that renewable transportation will reduce the cost of living as well as attract businesses and create jobs.

Hawaii is the first state to commit to this goal, but other states including Massachusetts may not be far behind.

In September 2017, a hearing was held to consider the 100% Renewable Energy Act, which would put Massachusetts on the path to obtain 100% of its electricity from renewable resources by 2035, as well as heating and transportation by 2050.

The Bill (S.1849) passed the House on January 23 and is currently being referred to the joint committee on telecommunication, Utilities and Energy.

More than 40 U.S. cities and 100 global companies have committed to 100% renewable energy.

Uber, Lyft…Impacting Traffic and Economic Development

by Matt Mann, Research Program Coordinator



People are taking Uber, Lyft or Transportation Network Companies (TNCs) more these days and often to avoid both parking and drinking and driving.  Although the majority of users are urban base, demand has been increasing in suburbia for Ubering.  TNCs have changed the way people get around and have impacted traffic in many cities.  If these types of rides are a pre-cursor to autonomous vehicles, the additional passenger trips will continue to increase and will also impact economic development.

A recent U.C. Davis study that included 4,000 users in seven major metro areas—Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, and Washington, D.C., between 2014 and 2016 – points to cities increasing in passenger trips and in population, but transit rides and taxi trips decreasing.  The TNCs are the main source that are accommodating the increase in trips and in-turn causing more urban traffic congestion.

This study also found that around 50% of these trips would not have happened at all or would have been done some other way, via transit, walking etc…This coupled with the dead head time, when no passengers are in the vehicle, the TNCs are having a dramatic impact on vehicle miles traveled and congestion.

Currently New York City is the only major metropolitan city that mandates TNCs to report their travel data.  Other cities are able to obtain data but TNCs are not required to share it.  Being able to access and analyze this data can be the key to determining current and future traffic impacts.

Massachusetts passed legislation in 2016, creating a regulatory framework for TNCs. Speaking with Katie Gronendyke, Press Secretary, Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, the MA Department of Public Utilities Transportation Network Companies Division  does require some TNC travel data to be reported:

274.12: Reporting Requirements

(2) Annually, a TNC shall report to the Division the following: (a) By February 1st of each calendar year, a TNC shall submit a report for the number of Rides from the previous calendar year, including: 1. City or town where each Ride originated; 2. City or town where each Ride ended; 3. Aggregated and anonymized trip route and length (miles and minutes); and 4. Location of Vehicle accidents;

(b) By March 31st of each calendar year, a TNC shall report its intrastate operating revenues for the previous calendar year. If a TNC fails to report its intrastate operating revenues to the Division by March 31st of any calendar year, the Division may estimate a TNC’s intrastate operating revenues. A TNC’s intrastate operating revenue shall include but not be limited to any Rider picked up at the following: 1. Airport; 2. Train station; 3. Bus terminal; or 4. Any other kind of port.

Keeping Skies Safe with Drones

by: Michael Plotnikov, Research Fellow

Integration of unmanned aircraft into our national airspace poses complex security challenges that regulatory agencies may not be entirely prepared to face. While the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has done an excellent job preserving safety in the national airspace, no comprehensive effort has been made to protect critical infrastructure from the air, or to determine how to prevent unmanned aircraft from being hacked and used for malicious purposes.

Unmanned aircraft in the form of radio controlled model aircraft have been around for many years. However, with the addition of innovations such as on-board processors, GPS receivers, cameras, and other sensors, this old technology has evolved into a cyber-physical system that has both expanded capabilities and vulnerabilities.

While new capabilities of unmanned aircraft systems (UASs) are well-known, their vulnerabilities, especially related to hacking through communication links, navigation equipment, and malicious software are not well understood. In addition, vulnerabilities of critical infrastructure, particularly ground transportation to malicious UAS attacks should be thoroughly evaluated:

  • First, it is extremely important that technical measures be taken to prevent non-cooperative UASs from penetrating restricted areas by means of reliable detection, tracking, and deterrence. While most of the high-profile infrastructure objects are well-protected or difficult to access at the ground level, they are usually completely exposed to attacks from the sky. The increasing availability of small UAS and their greatly improved capabilities over recent years makes this vulnerability particularly dangerous.
  • Second, technical steps need to be implemented to ensure that wireless communication links used to guide and control unmanned aircraft are secure and cannot be hacked or jammed by hackers who intend to take over control of the aircraft. While the incidence of such successful hacks may indeed be less common, in relation to the general availability of UAS technology to a malicious party, hacking may be particularly dangerous as adversaries get access to a vehicle that is authorized to enter a restricted area and hence may not trigger a timely alarm as would be the case when entry occurs under the malicious control.

Two recent MassDOT research publications address the practices of drones and the impacts of drones around airports: The Practice of UAS in the Transportation System, developed by Research Affiliates Daiheng Ni and Michael Plotnikov, and Current Counter-Drone Technology Solutions to Shield Airports and Approach and Departure Corridors developed by Research Affiliates  Douglas Looze, Michael Plotnikov and Ryan Wicks.  Additional research is needed to determine what cyber-security based systems are available to preserve UAS security and prevent UAS hacking and cyber-attacks as well as what technologies are available to enable timely detection and tracking of unauthorized UASs. To this end, an initial step that should be taken is to conduct a study to determine the costs, capabilities, and limitations of readily available commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) cyber-security systems. From this, Jeff DiCarlo, Project Champion, MassDOT, will soon be kicking off The Application of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) in Surface Transportation project.

A Big GHG Reduction – An Entire Bus Fleet Goes Electric

by: Matt Mann, Research Program Coordinator

Image result for electric buses stations

Approximately 16,000 diesel buses were replaced with 16,000 electric buses, in the city of Shenchen, China.  This is the single largest replacement for electric buses to-date.  The mass overhaul included not only getting rid of over 16,000 diesel buses, it also included connecting over 500 charging stations and installing over 800 poles to charge the buses.

Not only are the environmental benefits big, with the reduction of Green House Gas (GHG) emissions; the city of Shenchen has become a quieter city, less the bus engine noise.  The city is also on track for long-term cost savings, in the order of not relying on 75% of the bus fuel coming from fossil fuels.

The recently completed MassDOT project Zero Emission Transit Bus and Refueling Technologies and Deployment Status, championed by Lily Oliver, Office of Transportation Planning. This report summarizes the characteristics of three Zero Electric Buses technologies: 1) battery electric buses; 2) fuel cell battery electric buses; and 3) fuel cell plug-in hybrid electric buses, as well as relevant implementations in the U.S., through a comprehensive review of the available literature, an online survey of several transit agencies that have implemented or are planning to implement ZEBs, and interviews with transit agency representatives. The focus is on performance and cost characteristics of these technologies as well as implementation approaches, refueling strategies, and funding mechanisms.

Keeping the Friendly Skies Safe

by Tracy Zafian, Research Fellow

Image result for drones crashes

Drones are becoming less expensive and easier to purchase, which is increasing their use exponentially. As their use grows, so do reports of aviation safety incidents involving drones. In October 2017, last year a drone crashed into a small commercial plane over Quebec City. This crash was the first confirmed collision between a drone and a commercial plane in North America. The FAA now receives an average of 250 reports per month of drones flying close or in a restricted airspace around airports, this is nearly a 60% increase in reported incidents compared to a year ago.

A recent FAA study simulated the potential dangers of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (sUASs) or drones, to other aircraft and found that small drones can cause significant damage to other aircraft and more damage than birds of similar size. The study, conducted by researchers at Mississippi State University, looked at the damage a drone can do to vulnerable sections of a plane, including the engines, wing edges, windshield, and horizontal and vertical stabilizers. Video simulating the potential damage are shown on the report web site.

The FAA report also recommends technological solutions such as geofencing, which programs drones to prevent them from entering restricted airspace. Geofencing has already been implemented by numerous drone manufacturers and One Center Affiliates. Dr. Doug Looze and Dr. Michael Plotnikov at the UMass Aviation Center, recently completed a research report on other technology options for keeping airport airspace clear of drones.

Other recommendations from the FAA report include requiring UASs operators to follow current guidelines and restrictions, and enforcing those rules. In addition to the regulations mentioned earlier, drones are restricted from flying within 5 miles of an airport and from flying at night or at speeds over 100 mph. They are also required to yield the right-of-way to manned aircraft.  According to Forbes magazine, some drone operators in the U.S. have been fined in the range of $400 to $5500 for not following UASs regulations, and at least one has been convicted of a crime the pilot of the aforementioned incident was charged with reckless endangerment, after two people were injured by his falling drone.

Are Your Lights Iced?

by: Tracy Zafian, Research Fellow

Image result for train rail flashing lights

Many highway and rail signals now contain Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs). The switch to LEDs was made because of its energy efficiency. However, a one side-effect of this efficiency is that the LED lights don’t give off enough heat to melt snow or ice on their own. This can lead to the lights being obscured during winter conditions which can create potential safety hazards. In 2016, for example, there was a crash in Windsor, Ontario where a school bus entered an intersection against a red light and ran into a car. The bus driver did not see the red light-an LED, because the light was obscured by snow. Fortunately, there were no major injuries during that crash. Early this winter, the Minnesota DOT worked to clean off LED traffic signals after snow obscured signals in the Twin Cities area of the MN Highway 36, leading to at least one serious crash and many near misses.

In 2014, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) released a report on LED traffic signal operations in snow conditions which suggested a number of proactive and reactive measures transportation departments can take to keep LED signal lights free from ice and snow. Reactive measures, employed after a snowfall, include manually cleaning the lights or spraying them with antifreeze, deicing spray or compressed air to clean them off. Each of these measures requires personnel to visit and work on each light. Proactive measures include installing signal lens heating elements or lens covers, or spraying deicing spray on the lights before it snows. As documented in the report, such proactive measures have had various degrees of success.

Two current research studies are testing new proactive approaches, both of which involve redesigning the LEDs lights used in traffic signals. Researchers at the University of Kansas have developed and tested self-de-icing LED technology and are now working on creating a full prototype for field testing. . Their approach is to mount the LEDs in the traffic signals “backwards” to harvest the heat generated by the LEDs to heat the light lenses and keep them above freezing. With this system, no additional heating is needed to prevent ice and snow from collecting on the traffic lights. The researchers have estimated that replacing the current LED lights with new LEDs will save about $28 per signal light annually, with a payback time of 4.5 years.

A second research study is looking at developing a super hydrophobic (anti-icing) surface coating for the lenses of traffic signals. The research is being conducted at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and is investigating femtosecond laser surface processing (FLSP) techniques for producing thin (nanoscale) anti-wetting surfaces on hard materials, such as tungsten carbide. Testing is being conducted find the best FLSP-functionalized hard material to use as a durable stamp for imprinting an anti-icing surface on the lenses of traffic signals. This study is scheduled to be completed later this year.