New Van Provides Better Road-Condition Pictures in Arkansas

October 23, 2008

The Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department’s newest vehicle carries a steep price tag.

At $1.39 million, plus tax, it costs almost as much as a 1,000-horsepower 2008 Bugatti Veyron super car. But while the Bugatti can hit a top speed of more than 250 mph, the highway department’s high-priced ride – an Automatic Road Analyzer, or ARAN, by name – is more at home at 50 mph or slower.

Of course, the Bugatti doesn’t monitor and record the surface condition of the road it’s traveling.

Painted road-sign yellow, the Dodge Sprinter looks like a van on steroids, festooned with an array of infrared and laser sensors, computers, antennae, high-definition cameras and flashing lights.

As it rolls down the road, the van’s sensors assess pavement for its smoothness, texture, faults, ruts, cracks – down to a millimeter in length – and other pavement metrics, all the while recording accurate location information and high-definition images of the highway pavement and rights of way.

The van “really is state of the art,” said Mark Evans, pavement management engineer for the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department.

The ARAN replaces a faltering 14-year-old Ford E350 that has piled up 343,000 miles assessing the condition of the pavement on the state’s 16,000 miles of highways. The Ford’s computers, measuring instruments and recording systems – remember VHS? – were breaking down more frequently and parts for the systems were increasingly difficult to find.

“We were fixing to have to go on eBay,” Evans said.

The van purchase was carefully weighed. The Federal Highway Administration requires states to measure, using certain metrics, the condition of every mile of state highway built with mostly federal dollars. Other states also operate ARAN vehicles; yet others contract with outside companies to perform the work. By having its own ARAN vehicle, the department can pull it off its regular duties to perform special projects, Evans said.

Further, he said, the visual and condition data the vehicle collects have an integral role in creating a database of the state’s entire highway system accessible by engineers from their computers. Instead of heading into the field to check on a road, they now can check via their computer monitors. The database ties separate databases of information together for the first time, said Bobby Bradshaw, department coordinator for the Multi-Media Highway Information System.

The system software was initially developed by a University of Arkansas civil engineering professor, Kelvin C.P. Wang, earlier in this decade during the state’s $1 billion interstate rebuilding program, Evans said.

Clicking on a section of road for viewing allows an engineer to tap a separate database of condition measurements; another one gives the history of work performed on that section over the years. Seven of the state’s 10 highway districts can access the system directly; the other three use hard computer drives that contain information on their highways culled from the system, Bradshaw said.

Other parts of the agency routinely tap into the system, Bradshaw said. Internal auditors have used it to verify work performed under federally funded contracts. The environmental division has used it to verify placement of billboards.

Shortly after noon one day last week, the system had already had 42 queries.

“It’s been pretty amazing,” Bradshaw said.

The calculations on how much the system saves aren’t precise, but Bradshaw estimates the amount is as much as $600,000, assuming engineers make 15 fewer field trips per day. Such savings means the vehicle could pay for itself in a little more than two years.

The system all begins with Thomas Baker of Conway and Scott Simpson of Little Rock. They are the two department employees who operate the ARAN vehicle. Baker is the driver while Simpson operates and monitors the onboard equipment. They were on the old ARAN vehicle for the past five years and now are putting the new vehicle through its paces.

During a large part of the year, they work four days a week, 10 hours a day, spending the night wherever they stop. When daylight-saving time ends Nov. 2 and the days become shorter, they will go to a regular five-day schedule. Before taking over the new vehicle, the pair underwent an additional 40 hours of training to familiarize themselves with the new systems.

“It does have the excitement of being a new vehicle,” Simpson said. “It’s interesting to see the way it collects the data.”

The new systems have “made it a challenge” again, Simpson said.

With Baker at the wheel, Simpson sits next to him monitoring the instruments from a flat screen monitor that can switch to different camera views or to the realtime measurements as the vehicle rolls over the pavement.

On board, the 10 computers can hold up to 1,000 gigabytes of information, enough to hold images and other information on 600 miles of highway. In all, the department records about 26 terabytes to 27 terabytes of images per year with ARAN, Bradshaw said. Recording those images are five high-definition cameras to capture images of the highway rights of way. The old vehicle had just one camera.

Since the ARAN was purchased, the two men have already racked up several hundred miles, measuring and recording the pavement conditions on Interstate 30 from Little Rock to Texarkana, Interstate 40 from Memphis to the Oklahoma border, and Interstate 55 from West Memphis to the Missouri border.

Federal regulations now require the state to measure pavement conditions on interstates and U.S. highways every year. The states have to check pavement conditions on the rest of their highway networks every other year. The ARAN is expected to cover 9,500 miles of the state highway system annually compared with the 6,000 the older vehicle routinely covered.

Information from: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette,

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