Orange Promenade

Randy Grider
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Have you ever been almost hypnotized by staring at mile after mile of orange barrels as you make your way through a construction zone? Your peripheral vision can create a swirling orange sherbet effect that, at the very least, makes you a little dizzy if you don’t blink a couple of times or change your line of sight.

Now imagine if the barrels were also moving – apparently on their own in Star Wars R2-D2 fashion. This scenario sounds like enough to have you swearing off caffeine and calling your eye doctor.

But self-moving construction zone barrels could be a reality in the very near future, according to U.S. engineers. A University of Nebraska-Lincoln team is in the middle of a project aimed at improving roadside safety. They are developing the robotic barrels to self-deploy and self-retrieve, and to reduce the dangers of construction workers moving barrels in traffic zones, work that has proven deadly for both the workers and motorists.

“It’s a very dangerous job deploying these barrels,” says Shane Farritor, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and inventor of the robots. “And it’s not a very difficult job in that it doesn’t require a lot of thinking. It just makes sense for robots to do jobs that are dangerous and easy.”

Basically, a wheeled robot replaces the base of regular construction barrels, allowing a computer user miles away to change the location of a single barrel or realign an entire group. The robotic barrels also can be programmed to move at a certain time each day. For example, they could block off a lane of traffic right before workers arrive for the day and move back to the shoulder of the road when they leave.

Farritor says he sees the robotic barrels being most useful in two situations. The best application would be having a group of barrels follow a slow-moving road maintenance project such as asphalt replacement or lane striping. With the barrels moving along with workers and equipment, a smaller section of the road could be blocked off than if the barrels had to be moved manually each time the operation progressed. The other top function for the robots would be an urban lane closure in which the barrels would align in a wedge formation to gradually close off the lane.

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Even though the barrels have wheels that allow them to move easily when commanded to do so, Farritor says they remained motionless at their destinations when tested against 90 mph winds.

So far the robotic barrels haven’t been used on an open highway. Researchers are testing them on new roads that haven’t opened to traffic and at a Lincoln, Neb., airport. Farritor is working with Nebraska transportation officials to find out how the robots would be most useful.

Farritor began working on the project in 2002 using a National Academy of Sciences grant and has had help from graduate students and a computer science assistant professor. They are currently working on a program that will allow the person managing the barrels to relocate them with a simple mouse click. A camera at the site would transmit a view of the barrels to the computer screen, the user would click on the spot where a barrel should go, and the device would then scurry into place.

I have to admit after watching an Internet demonstration of the new technology it seemed a little creepy. It reminded me a little of the movie Maximum Overdrive, in which machines come to life and kill people. But rest assured that’s Hollywood, and these barrels come in peace.

Farritor says several construction safety device manufacturers have contacted him, and he is thinking about starting his own small business as early as this summer. He hopes to keep the cost of building the robots to $200 each.

While it almost always takes time for me to become confident and comfortable with new technology, I’m for any innovation that has potential to improve safety for the transportation industry. If Farritor’s idea pans out, be on the lookout for his robotic barrels moving to a highway near you in the near future.