CRA designs radical ‘Smart Road’ concept for Italian highway network


International design and innovation agency, Carlo Ratti Associati (CRA), has been working with Italy’s highway operator, ANAS, to design a ‘Smart Road’ system, featuring multi-sensor ‘flying poles’, facilities for self-driving cars, and on-demand drone swarms.

The Turin-based studio has been working with ANAS to design a Smart Highway program that will be implemented on more than 1,550 miles (2,500km) of Italian roads and highways. The project involves a pioneering infrastructure system featuring drones that are able to deliver first-aid support, as well as sensing poles that can send useful information to both today’s drivers and tomorrow’s self-driving vehicles. The program experiments with new ways of gathering and sharing data about mobility, with the objective of improving safety conditions and traffic management.

The new infrastructure centers around a series of ‘flying poles’, which incorporate multiple sensors and in-motion wi-fi connection services. Located at regular intervals, the poles’ array of sensors will detect all major environmental variables, from air pollution to wind speed, humidity, and weather changes. Using the data collected by the poles, the system can inform drivers in real-time about the conditions on the road ahead. Direct, customized messages can be sent to each driver’s cell phone or to each vehicle’s onboard navigation system, which in turn can give their own feedback back to the system, while pole-mounted low-energy information panels display useful information to the driver.

On top of each pole is a recharging station, from which drones can take off and start monitoring the road. The drones offer a dynamic integration with the new infrastructure, as they can serve different purposes primarily related to safety and maintenance; from monitoring tunnels, viaducts or other remote pieces of infrastructure, to bringing medicine or other first-aid equipment to drivers, to detecting accidents, fires or floods happening close to a highway.

In December 2017, ANAS launched a €30m (US$37.3m) call for proposals from contractors to build the new Smart Road infrastructure according to CRA’s design specifications, including the development of new data centers. The CRA collaboration is part of a larger digital transformation initiative put forward by ANAS over the last few years, covering about 10% of its 16,156 miles (26,000km) road network.

“The internet has radically transformed the way we get around, and how we design our roads,” said Carlo Ratti, founding partner at CRA and professor of urban technologies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“With this project, we aim to superimpose a digital layer over the existing physical infrastructure of our road network, to gather better data about our highways. The next step will be to pool this data with information already collected by individual cars, in an ‘Internet-of-Roads’ scenario.”

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Tom has edited Traffic Technology International (TTi) magazine and its Traffic Technology Today website since May 2014. During his time at the title, he has interviewed some of the top transportation chiefs at public agencies around the world as well as CEOs of leading multinationals and ground-breaking start-ups. Tom's earlier career saw him working on some the UK's leading consumer magazine titles. He has a law degree from the London School of Economics (LSE).