I just finished a cross-country driving marathon, moving the family from Seattle to New Jersey. It was six days of nomadic adventure with my wife, three kids, three cats, and the dog packed into a minivan. Low points included a 24-hour stomach flu that swept the car, one flat tire, and the travails of dealing with kitty litter boxes on the road.
High points included the panoramic grandeur of the USA, including stops at Mount Rushmore and Yellowstone, truly one of the earth's best places. Despite the awesome scenery, the trip was also one of those times where you really appreciate mobile electronics: the miracles of Marconi and Motorola and, more recently, the geniuses behind books on CD and Gameboy SP.
The adventure included sighting some intriguing roadside electronics as well. Along the freeway in Indiana, I saw the Roadway Animal Detection System (RADS). I was curious to find out more about this system and how it works.
RADS grew from an initiative two years ago at Montana State University's Western Transportation Institute, a national and international center for transportation research. WTI noted that animal-vehicle crashes are a growing problem, accounting for more than 4% of all crashes and as many as 35% of collisions on some rural roadways. Statistics for 2000 show that 750,000 annual animal-vehicle collisions resulted in over 120 human deaths and tens of thousands of injuries, with an estimated cost of $1.2 billion. That's up from 500,000 crashes and 110 human deaths in 1996. So, 12 states pooled funds to sponsor the initial project and do substantial research.
According to WTI, drivers often become desensitized to static animal warning signs, since the signs are there whether or not an animal is present. The RADS system, which is being tested on a one-mile stretch on Highway 191 in Yellowstone and on a six-mile stretch of Interstate I-90 in Indiana, detects animals taller than three feet entering the roadway and automatically triggers a flashing signal. The warning light times out after a designated period, assuming the animal crossed the road. (The system could also trigger warnings inside vehicles equipped with a receiver.)
The installation zones are well targeted. Records show that between 1996 and 1999, the six-mile stretch of I-90 had more than 221 accidents resulting in deer kill. The one-mile Montana stretch had 134 animal accidents in the last 10 years, most of them involving elk.
Animals are detected via low-power RF sensors, each with a 1/4-mile detection range beamed parallel to the roadside. The sensors relay the signals via contact closure to a wireless communications network with cellular-phone capability, powered by a solar battery-charging system. The data for each animal crossing is recorded and stored by the system and can be communicated to a remote monitoring location via the onboard cellular-phone capabilities.
RADS was designed by Sensor Technologies & Systems (STS) Inc. of Scottsdale, Ariz. STS vice president Nick Nikula explains that the one problem with the system during the test period has been the radio's inability to handle the temperature extremes in Montana. Radios are being revamped. Specs for the system call for the ability to withstand −40°C to 85°C.
System effectiveness is still under study. Purdue University has purchased the Indiana installation for continued evaluation. "We believe RADS will prove to be a reliable and effective system," says Nikula, adding that it has proven to have an extremely low false reporting rate.
I think RADS is a timely, smart idea and bet that it will prove effective and become widely adopted. RADS is another prime example of how you, as a community of electronic designers, are continually helping to improve our lives—and in this case, the lives of animals as well! Animal-car accidents are an increasingly large problem as people continue to migrate into wilder parts of the country and as wild animal populations grow. (Here in New Jersey, bear hunting was just legalized for the first time since the 1970s.)
Luckily, our "close encounters" with animals during our cross-country trip were mostly Kodak moments, but the amount of roadkill we saw en route told the story of encounters of a more deadly variety. Post your experiences or suggestions regarding animal detection systems as well as stories of your own close-encounters with the online version of this column at ED Online 5533.