UFTI’s T2 Center Drives Innovation Through Groundbreaking Remote-Controlled Trucks to Protect Road Ranger Service Patrols

by Charles Brown, UFTI-T2 Research Communications

If you’re on the side of a Florida Interstate with no gas, a flat tire, or something more serious, you might see a Road Ranger Service Patrol truck pulling in behind you to provide aid. The Road Ranger Service Patrol (RRSP) is a program of the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) in which Road Rangers patrol Florida highways to provide rapid response to roadway incidents. Road Rangers can provide minor assistance, which is all that most sidelined motorists need, but they can also provide traffic control to help prevent secondary incidents and call for additional resources to resolve the incident as quickly and safely as possible.

Unfortunately, this places the RRSP vehicle in a vulnerable position, and RRSP personnel and vehicles are regularly struck by inattentive or distracted motorists, often with serious consequences all around. When possible, another truck carrying a special crash-absorbing device called an attenuator is deployed to the incident scene and parked behind the RRSP vehicle. However, this transfers the risk to the driver of the attenuator truck, and – same story – these drivers can be injured or killed when their vehicle is struck by another vehicle that is heavier or travelling faster than the attenuator can absorb.

The University of Florida Transportation Institute’s Florida Technology Transfer Center – T2 for short – is working with the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) to make the work of Road Rangers safer by using an exciting new technology: remotely controlled trucks. These trucks carry a crash attenuator, and when fully developed, there will be no driver. This could provide the protection needed by Road Rangers while not endangering another driver.

To develop this technology, T2 is working with Kratos Defense and Security Solutions, specifically, its division in Fort Walton Beach. Kratos has worked with T2 and FDOT before on a similar concept, an attenuator truck that autonomously follows a maintenance truck to a work site to protect road workers and maintenance vehicles. In the new application to protect Road Rangers, a similar technology is used, but the attenuator truck is driven to the incident scene by a remote driver at a control center.

While the two cases are similar, there are also many differences. FDOT, T2, and Kratos worked closely to develop detailed specifications for every aspect of the new system, dubbed the remote-control truck-mounted attenuator, or RCTMA, including how it would be structured, connected, and function. Special attention was paid to safety features that assure that the RCTMA is always under positive control, and if anything happens to interrupt communications or otherwise disrupt positive control, the RCTMA automatically comes to a safe stop.

It took several months to build the new system, with its remote driver console, the retrofit of the attenuator truck with electronics, communications, and servomechanisms to control steering and braking, and the software code that runs several computers in the system. This is a complex undertaking, but preliminary testing has demonstrated that the system works. Recent trials at a test facility put the RCTMA through it paces. It executed accelerations, stops, turns, and complex maneuvers without incident. Emergency stopping was tested under several conditions and worked each time. The T2 team was present to document procedures and tests and to develop measurement approaches that will be used in full-scale testing of the RCTMA in the fall.