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Keeping Nevada's Drivers Safe and Connected

The Silver State's award-winning Intelligent Transportation System serves the traveling public today with an eye on the future

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Beyond getting from point A to point B

Each year, Nevada's citizens and visitors rack up over 27 billion miles across 5,000 miles of state-maintained roads and highways. Ensuring drivers and commerce flow smoothly and safely is part of the Nevada Department of Transportation’s (NDOT) mission. Whether it is busy urban corridors in Las Vegas and Reno or rural and mountain roads, travelers rely on an advanced information system to get themselves and goods safely to their destinations.

NDOT's Intelligent Transportation System (ITS) connects thousands of devices across the state. It provides drivers with timely visibility into road closures and weather updates and is slated to inform truckers of available parking slots at rest stops. Sensors, cameras and other Internet-of-Things (IoT) devices gather and deliver valuable information such as traffic volume, delays and crashes, often alerting public safety agencies before they get the first 911 call.

Even snowplows got into the act as mobile weather stations. "We participated in a pilot program equipping plows with sensors and cellular modems, providing valuable information such as precipitation levels based on wiper activation or raising and lowering the blade," said Jim Whalen, NDOT traffic engineering technology manager. "Usage of sand, salt and brine was monitored from a cost and usage perspective and to ensure minimal environmental impact," he noted.

The ITS platform does more than keep drivers aware and informed. It is an integral part of a system comprised of public and private partners, including traffic and weather research organizations. "We provide data to NOAA and private partners who use the information to forecast weather, analyze traffic patterns or provide roadside assistance," said Seth Daniels, NDOT's assistant chief traffic operations engineer.

The network supports partners such as Waycare, which works with NDOT, the Nevada Highway Patrol and the private vendor that provides freeway services and incident support such as fixing flats or filling empty gas tanks. The Waycare platform uses artificial intelligence, taking feeds from the ITS platform to both reduce crashes and help stage incident response resources if needed.

"A fast incident response that alerts drivers and recommends alternate routes has an economical and quality-of-life impact," noted Daniels. "A minute of delay results in four minutes of back up, and the faster we can respond to clear an incident, the better. Our goal is to improve travel-time reliability."

The journey toward the connected transportation future

NDOT uses advanced data network technology to connect the ITS platform and devices throughout the state. The network serves NDOT, other state and local government agencies, and transports traffic on Nevada's statewide public safety radio system serving police, fire and emergency medical services.

The current network is a far cry from the one which initially supported the ITS platform. The state's enterprise data network provided connections for ITS and other services such as application support and email. That network managed configurations and operations using the Spanning Tree Protocol.

"The various, inconsistent configurations and mix of vendor equipment throughout the years, namely with Spanning Tree, was a headache for us," said Gary Molnar, ITS network manager. "Every time we fixed one concern, another would pop up. It was like whack-a-mole."

The traditional enterprise network served NDOT's administrative business needs very well. Still, the emerging ITS platform required a highly secure IoT-ready network that was strong and flexible at its core and able to handle harsh conditions in remote areas, roadside cabinets and even mobile signage trailers. The network had to deliver ubiquitous connections along Nevada's highways, connecting thousands of devices, far beyond those on the enterprise network.

"The number of devices we were bringing online increased dramatically and rapidly surpassed the enterprise network," noted Molnar. "We needed a way to reliably handle this growth and provide secure multitenancy capabilities to support other state and local government agencies."

Thinking differently to connect drivers today and tomorrow

"We decided to build a separate ITS communication network and designed it from the ground up," said Daniels. "We also embedded IT professionals into the traffic engineering team to create an innovative cross-functional team."

This approach was part of the traffic engineering section's Agile project management methodology toward planning and prioritizing work. "Like many government organizations, we don't have all the resources we need to fully optimize operations,” said Daniels. "We use Agile and methods like SCRUM to help us get more work done with the people we have."

This 'inside out' approach enabled IT technologists to walk in the shoes of the traffic engineers. "I was skeptical at first," said Whalen. "But now, I love working with the team and have a better understanding of what our traffic engineers want to accomplish."

As the team assessed its options, all roads led to Shortest Path Bridging (SPB) as the optimal technology to address both its tactical and strategic priorities. The network employs SPB to make configurations easy and enable the network to reroute around trouble quickly. It virtually eliminates the Spanning Tree Protocol that had burdened the ITS team's support structure. SPB also perfectly lends itself to NDOT's ITS vision for the future to accommodate multitenancy services and emerging advanced applications.

The network management system provides in-depth visibility to every part of the network, making it easy to manage, maintain and expand. "Shortest Path Bridging makes the network easier to maintain, which is essential because our resources are limited," said Daniels. "The ability to support remote sites without having a technician visit saves us time and money."

The ITS communication system utilizes ruggedized Ethernet switches throughout the state — roadside cabinets, remote radio sites and even trucks and trailers. These enterprise-class switches enable the ITS platform to collect and transmit sensor readings and video back to a data center, making this information available to the driving public and NDOT's private and public partners.

"Everything is moving to the edge of the network," noted Whalen. "This is where we'll eventually see mobile edge computing, connected vehicles and even cars talking to each other. That's why the switches at the edge must stand up to harsh conditions and keep working."

"The separate network also provides a vital measure of security," noted Molnar. "Security is a top priority since we carry public safety radio traffic and control signs to guide drivers safely and efficiently around the state."

The network at the heart of the ITS communication system

NDOT selected Alcatel-Lucent Enterprise (ALE) to closely collaborate with the ITS team to design and deploy its new ITS network. At the edge of the network are hundreds of ruggedized Ethernet switches, Alcatel-Lucent OmniSwitch® 6865s. Additionally, Alcatel-Lucent OmniSwitch Stackable 6860E and 6900 switches are at the network's core and distribution hubs.

"Our goal was not only to address our Spanning Tree issues, remote locations and mobile needs but also to build a future foundation," noted Whalen. "Just as important were the great people we worked with at ALE who supported us every step of the way."

"We initially sat down with the NDOT team to design a solution for their immediate Spanning Tree challenges and give them greater visibility into the network," said Kevin Jennings, ALE director of sales, state and local government, transportation and utilities. "That effort slowly evolved into a strategic direction for multitenancy and advanced applications such as connected autonomous vehicles."

"For us, ALE is not just a LAN switch vendor," noted Molnar. "Whether it is quickly resolving problems or helping us plan for the system's growing demand, they have been a true partner."

Ready for the connected future of transportation

The work of the ITS team has not gone unnoticed. In 2019, NDOT received the Intelligent Transportation Society of Nevada's Best ITS Project of the Year Over $2 Million. NDOT's 2019 Facts and Figures also featured the ITS communication system.

These accolades are all in a day's work for the NDOT ITS and Traffic Operations Engineering teams. They are committed to ensuring a safe and connected Nevada. And they are looking forward to a connected future of 5G, vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) communications, driverless cars and other innovations that are just on the horizon.

“The adaptable platform we have in place helps us realize our mission of providing and operating a transportation system that enhances safety, quality of life and economic development,” noted Daniels. “And it has prepared us well for the next generation of ITS to serve our citizens and visitors better no matter where they travel in Nevada.”