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Central Florida Uses First-in-U.S. Tech to Keep Roads Clean

The Central Florida Expressway Authority is using four autonomous devices similar to dashcams to monitor road debris in real time while keeping drivers anonymous. Created in England, this is their first use on American roads.

An aerial view of the 408 East West Expressway in Orlando, Florida.
(TNS) — Autonomous technology used nowhere else in the nation is helping workers gather couches, washing machines and other trash totaling 400 tons annually along the 125 miles of Central Florida Expressway Authority roads.

The state agency, which operates a network of expressways in the region and charges drivers to use them, strives to provide motorists with safe, clean roadways in return for their tolls.

Achieving this is a challenge requiring CFX to spend over $130 million annually, according to Don Budnovich, director of maintenance.

Budnovich said that money is doled out for expenses such as contractors who drive roads daily; vehicles with so-called lane blades to push debris onto shoulders for safe removal; and technology that aims to help speed up repairs to damaged highways.

Last year, CFX began using a system of four dashcam-like devices called Route Reports secured to patrol vehicles that autonomously takes photos every 32 feet — while blurring faces and license plates. The photos feed into a database of changing road conditions in real time, with the agency receiving alerts to damage or debris. The technology created in England is used on many European roads but CFX is first to use it on American ones.

“In the past I would start with Google Maps or I would use our traffic cams to look at an issue but in the case of Google Maps the photos can be as old as a year or two,” Budnovich said. “This system gives me an up-close view in real time.

“It doesn’t eliminate the need to see an issue on-site but it does reduce the amount of items that require this level of attention.”

He told CFX board members in June the system, which costs $24,600 annually and is in its second year of use by the agency, has made it easier to identify road problems so they’re fixed faster. Going forward his department plans to renew the contract annually.

CFX spokesman Brian Hutchings said the agency also uses impact-detection sensors that alert the agency to guardrail damage after detecting a collision.

The devices in use are provided by manufacturer 3M at no cost to CFX during the demonstration period, Hutchings said.

“They’re small devices that are about the size of a hockey puck that you attach to the guardrail,” Budnovich said.

The devices currently are being evaluated by CFX’s engineering consultant. If the products are considered effective, the agency will spend $850 apiece to add an as-yet-undetermined number of them to its collection of tech that monitors roads.

Budnovich said the system of 13 sensors installed in September has been successful so far and he plans to expand use across the road network. He said they’ve accurately detected 16 collisions into traffic attenuators — the typically yellow-and-black-striped devices on guardrails meant to absorb some damage from collisions — and six metal cable barriers.

The two new tech systems have transformed the way CFX detects damage to guardrails and clutter along road infrastructure, allowing for more-rapid fixes, he said. Before them, Budnovich said his team of nine had to rely on manual inspections or wait for a traffic incident report.

Hutchings said because the intersection of State Road 408 — the East-West Expressway — near Interstate 4 has multiple recycling centers along its length, the agency occasionally picks up couches, appliances and other large items people didn’t secure properly to vehicles. It’s important to have timely knowledge of their presence, he said.

“Road rangers with a lane blade will move the washing machine to the shoulder out of harm’s way and then litter patrol will pick it up,” he said.

And with the agency set to introduce Flex Lanes later this summer, keeping shoulders clean is vital. Flex lanes will allow drivers to pass accidents on the left shoulder when overhead signs signal the lanes are open, according to CFX. In a few years, the agency expects to begin using them for daily rush-hour traffic, as well.

CFX board members say road maintenance is important not only for area residents but also for tourists who use the agency’s expressways traveling to and from theme parks.

“The millions and millions of people that come through our region every year, thousands every day, it’s a great first impression,” board member Sean Parks said at the June meeting. “It’s the best in any metropolitan area around that I’ve ever seen.”

©2024 Orlando Sentinel, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.