The University of Arizona

UA Engineers Help Demonstrate Emergency Responder Traffic System in Anthem

By Steve Delgado, College of Engineering | June 6, 2012

The prototype "smart drive" traffic system, developed by the University of Arizona and Maricopa County, can clear red-light signals and warn of traffic blockages.

A fire truck responding to a mock emergency incident gets the green light though Daisy Mountain Drive during a live demonstration of the MCDOT SmartDrive traffic management system in Anthem. (Photo courtesy of UA College of Engineering)
A fire truck responding to a mock emergency incident gets the green light though Daisy Mountain Drive during a live demonstration of the MCDOT SmartDrive traffic management system in Anthem. (Photo courtesy of UA College of Engineering)
An emergency vehicle
An emergency vehicle "talks" to a smart traffic system. (Illustration courtesy of the U.S. Department of Transportation)

The small but newer community of Anthem, just north of Phoenix, has the potential to become the nation's leader in traffic safety technology.

The Phoenix suburb is the test site for a new federally funded and state-supported traffic management system that, if successful, would not only protect emergency vehicles from colliding with traffic during rapid response, but would enable them to "talk" to each other and prioritize each other's routes to an emergency incident.

The MCDOT SmartDrive program – developed through a partnership between the University of Arizona, the Maricopa County Department of Transportation, the community of Anthem and others – could also be expanded to give city buses, special-needs vehicles and other mass-transportation providers a clear path through traffic tie-ups.

A live demonstration of the MCDOT SmartDrive system in April included equipping several street intersections and vehicles in Anthem with system components to demonstrate the capabilities of the system to manage emergency vehicles during a mock incident response. Traffic signals at six intersections along a 2.3-mile stretch of Daisy Mountain Drive were retrofitted with components that allow the signals to "talk" to not only each other, but with at least two emergency vehicles involved in the demonstration. The SmartDrive system uses a combination of short-range radios, WiFi and Bluetooth to maintain connection.

When the incident alert alarm was given to the system, it began clearing a path of green lights for the mock emergency vehicle – in this case, a Valley Metro bus loaded with demonstration observers – while at the same time disclosing the location of the vehicle to coordinators and other vehicles connected to the system. Traffic detection and data collection software were used to display the data live to observers.

Individual emergency vehicles can "talk" to each other via the SmartDrive system, receiving real-time information during an incident response and assigning priority right-of-way to fire trucks, police vehicles or ambulances, depending on the circumstances of the individual incident.

"It's the capability to talk to several responding vehicles at once that makes this traffic system unique, and is the focus of our research," said Larry Head, associate professor and  head of the Department of Systems and Industrial Engineering at the University of Arizona College of Engineering.

Operators of vehicles in the system would know which lanes are closed and could select alternate routes to more efficiently reach emergencies or to find a clear outbound corridor to, say, a hospital or other emergency services destination. If additional emergency vehicles are heading in the direction of the incident, they would be able to find the fastest routes through traffic, Head said.

Assisting in the research are UA engineering graduate student Jun Ding, who is studying for both his master's in systems engineering and his doctorate in electrical and computer engineering, and Wei Wu, a visiting scholar from Tongji University in Shanghai, China.

The MCDOT SmartDrive test site in Anthem is part of a larger, federal research initiative called ITS, or the Intelligent Transportation Systems program. It gets support from the U.S. Department of Transportation as part of a broader series of research initiatives that eventually would connect all vehicles involved in surface transportation to maximize safety, increase ground mobility and decrease environmental impact. A second national test site in California is operated by the California Department of Transportation.

The SmartDrive system technology has another beneficial application that's also in the works: increasing city bus efficiency. Buses and shuttles could operate more efficiently, stay on schedule and provide better service, if given traffic signal priority at SmartDrive intersections.

"Providing transit vehicles access to SmartDrive would make public transit more attractive because the vehicles would run on time more reliably," said U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, in an April 26 blog post describing the Arizona SmartDrive project.

While officials finalize the details of getting the SmartDrive system fully operational in Anthem, Head confirms the next step in the development of the system is adding public buses and school buses.

Head also said there are plans to use the Anthem test site to support other research, including field testing an application that would allow pedestrians to send need-to-cross signals directly to traffic lights from their mobile phones. The phones also would be able to let visually impaired pedestrians receive red or green light signals. This research is being developed in partnership with Santa Clara, Calif.-based Savari Inc., he said.