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New CMU system is set to cut road surveying costs with the use of ordinary, consumer digital cameras

A senior project scientist at Carnegie Mellon University’s (CMU) Robotics Institute is researching how smartphones and ordinary, cheap digital cameras could be used as reporting tools for inspecting road infrastructure problems for municipalities.

Christoph Mertz, principal project scientist at CMU in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA, is working on a smartphone-based road infrastructure inspection project that examines ways a device, as common as a smartphone or digital camera, can give municipalities a fast and inexpensive method for inspecting their roadways for problems, such as potholes, cracks in sidewalks or pavements, graffiti on stop signs, and icy surfaces that need salting.

In two basic steps, the technology collects images and then examines the data to identify areas that need care. Using computer vision algorithms, the system analyzes high-resolution images of the road and categorizes them. When looking for road damage, for example, it can quickly discover where the ratio of cracked to un-cracked surfaces is high and flag the locations for repair. In other instances, it can find signage that is missing or damaged, or detect snow or slush on the road. Software displays the data using easy-to-read maps and visuals.

A big appeal to Mertz’s system is the simplicity of integrating it with existing procedures. For example, he suggested mounting garbage trucks with smartphones in order to routinely assess the roadways. Similarly, snow plows with smartphones could provide real-time road conditions in winter, which Mertz has already pilot-tested with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT). As well as the state agency, Mertz’s technology has been deployed with Marshall Township, the City of Pittsburgh, and Cranberry Township.

“It is essential to get eyes on every road, every year, to stay ahead of what could become costly repairs,” said Jason A Dailey, director of public works for Cranberry Township, which lies about 20 miles north of CMU’s Pittsburgh campus. “Expensive services are available that have onboard tools and sensors, but these are typically out of the price range of the average community. Mertz has demonstrated a viable advancement that may bring inspection technology into the everyday operations, making it not only affordable, but practical.”

CMU’s Traffic21 initiative, which is part of the Metro21 partnership with the City of Pittsburgh, helps fund projects such as this, and others in smart transportation. Its goal is to design, test, deploy and evaluate information and communications technology-based solutions to address the problems facing transportation systems. The institute fuels multidisciplinary collaboration in the area of transportation. Nine students currently participate in the research and specialize in different aspects, from localization to optics. The data the team collects through the project may be useful for other transportation projects, such as research for autonomous vehicles.

“The work of Mertz is an ideal example of Traffic21’s vision of research, development and deployment,” said Stan Caldwell, executive director of Traffic21 and Technologies for Safe and Efficient Transportation (T-SET), a National University Transportation Center funded by the US Department of Transportation (USDOT).

“The exciting stage is deploying the technology in the field, making our region a smart transportation living lab.” Existing work conducted by Traffic21 and Metro21 was used as part of Pittsburgh’s successful application to become a finalist in USDOT’s Smart City Challenge.

To see a video of Christoph Mertz explaining more about the project, click here.

March 24, 2016

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