New Drone Technology Could Improve Assessments of Traffic Crash Sites

For both highway safety officers and drivers, idling in an extended highway line of slowed or halted traffic on a busy highway can be a tad inconvenient.

3D prints of accident scenes can help law enforcement and first responders better study and document vehicular crash scenes. (Image credit: Erin Easterling/Purdue University)

According to the Federal Highway Administration of the U.S. Department of Transportation, it is one of the most susceptible times for “secondary accidents,” which usually can be worse than an original source of the slowdown. As a matter of fact, secondary crashes increase by a factor of nearly 24 during the time that highway safety officers are evaluating and recording the site of the crash.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in the year 2016, the cops reported more than 7 million traffic-related crashes, in which an estimated 3,144,000 people were injured and 37,461 were killed.

It’s the people at the back of the queue where you have traffic stopped who are most vulnerable and an approaching inattentive driver doesn’t recognize that traffic is stopped or moving very slowly until it is too late. The occurrence of these secondary crashes can be reduced by finding ways to safely expedite the clearance time of the original crash.

Darcy Bullock, Professor, Lyles School of Civil Engineering; Director¸ Joint Transportation Research Program, Purdue University

According to Bullock, traditional mapping of a fatal or severe crash can easily take two to three hours based on the severity of the accident.

Our procedure for data collection using a drone can map a scene in five to eight minutes, allowing public safety officers to open the roads much quicker after an accident,” stated Ayman Habib, Purdue’s Thomas A. Page Professor of Civil Engineering, who devised the photogrammetric procedures and foresees even more applications for the technology.

The novel technology is already being used. With the help of drones, the Tippecanoe County Sheriff’s Office mapped the scenes of crash 20 times in 2018 and also another 15 times in the same year in an effort to support specialty law enforcement groups across Tippecanoe County and in adjacent jurisdictions and counties.

Overall, it can cut 60 percent off the down time for traffic flow following a crash,” stated Captain Robert Hainje of the Tippecanoe County Sheriff’s Office.

Habib, Bullock, and coworkers from Tippecanoe County Sheriff’s Office presented their findings on January 14th, 2019, at the annual Transportation Research Board meeting held in Washington, D.C., in the “Traffic Law Enforcement: Innovative Tools, Policy and Countermeasures for Law Enforcement Safety” session.

The collaboration with Purdue faculty and students has been tremendously effective in helping our law enforcement, first responders and special teams. The drone technology with the thermal imaging capability helps with all types of emergencies such as search and rescue, aerial support over water for diver teams or in wooded areas and for fugitive apprehension.

Robert Hainje, Captain, Tippecanoe County Sheriff’s Office, Purdue University

As a research assistant on the project and sophomore in the School of Mechanical Engineering, John Bullock collaborated with local public safety coworkers to devise field procedures and post-processing of images to generate orthorectified images that vividly show the infrastructure, position of vehicles, and general terrain adjacent to the site of the crash. The drones are programmed in such a way that they can apply a grid-type path and record approximately 100 photos at intervals of 2 seconds. Using these post-processed data, a precise scale map is produced, which along with photos at the scene, offers sufficient data to produce a 3D print of the scene.

The technology is so much faster than traditional ground-based measurements and provides a much better comprehensive documentation that it opens up all different kinds of research. It can provide high-quality maps, imagery, and models for post-crash investigation by engineers and public safety officials. This technology has many other civil engineering applications beyond crash scene mapping and can be used to estimate the volume of material needed or used for a construction project within a couple of percentage points. It is very rewarding to see how this technology can be used to improve safety by reducing secondary crashes and exposure of colleagues to the hazards of working adjacent to highway traffic.

Ayman Habib, Thomas A. Page Professor of Civil Engineering, Purdue University

Video credit: Purdue University

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