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Satellites Monitor Tiny Roadway Changes Along Texas Highway

Texas State Highway 130, which connects Austin with San Antonio, is an innovation corridor using high-tech satellite imaging to find tiny flaws in pavement and other structures in need of maintenance.

A sign for Texas State Highway 130
Texas State Highway 130
Tiny shifts in highway pavement serve as an indicator to maintenance officials about where to direct attention before any actual roadway failure occurs.

Texas State Highway 130, a public-private toll road connecting Austin with San Antonio, uses satellite imaging technology to scan the entire roadway for flaws.

“If movements get out of a certain tolerance range, then we will know to identify those for the purpose of preventative maintenance, or predictive maintenance,” said Doug Wilson, chief executive officer for SH 130.

SH 130 Concession Company, the private firm operating and maintaining a 41-mile section of State Highway 130, uses technology provided by EO59 to monitor the roadway’s condition via satellites to track even millimeters of movement every few days.

A data dashboard displays the rate of change from one imaging session to another, giving maintenance monitors a close look at how ground shifts or other dynamics are affecting the roadway structure.

“The road is a living thing. And the EO59 system is almost like a road EKG. It allows us to track how the road behaves,” said Wilson.

The technology itself goes back to Cold War-era spycraft and is based on satellite radar imaging.

“Unlike tools that rely on the virtual stacking of images, this approach is advanced signal processing without images at all but rather the shifting phase of radar data samples,” Carl Pucci, president of EO59, explained in an email.

“That ability to accurately know how much something has moved in the past, and the rate at which it moves today,” said Pucci, “is invaluable when integrated with the engineering experience, site awareness and other instrumentation.”

The soil in this particular area of Texas has a high clay content, which tends to expand and contract more than other soils during wetting and drying periods, said Wilson, adding the roadways are prone to wear with small movements over time.

“And while there are structures in place to dampen those movements, we want to make sure that those structures are performing the way they should,” said Wilson.

SH 130 is dubbed an “innovation corridor” and is poised to test and deploy next-gen highway technology to both improve safety and efficiency. It is already the fastest highway in the country with a posted speed zone of 85 mph.

“Much of the future of transportation, obviously, is going to be electric and autonomous,” said Wilson, signaling technology areas for SH 130 to grow into.

“The technology is still evolving. So we’re not making any commitments. But we are very interested in how connected and advanced vehicles are going to work, and what infrastructure on the ground level is going to be necessary for that,” he added.

Texas is not afraid to innovate in the transportation space. A 2021 pilot project in Arlington that integrated autonomous on-demand transportation into the region’s transit system provided some 28,000 trips in its first year and is being extended two more years, and includes some 18 miles of downtown streets.

Trucking company J.B. Hunt has teamed up with Waymo to introduce autonomous freight vehicles along Interstate 45. And in Houston, Nuro autonomous delivery robots have partnered with major retailers like CVS and Kroger to provide deliveries.
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.