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Could Highway Drones Fix Our Driving Woes?

Carlo Ratti, who is working with Italy’s road agency on a new project to bring drones to roadways, thinks so.

Could Highway Drones Fix Our Driving Woes?
[Image: Gary di Silvio/Gianluca Zimbardi/courtesy Carlo Ratti Associati]

You’re flying down the freeway at 80 miles per hour when you hear a whir overhead. On your dashboard a text message appears: “Slow down, a truck just flipped over a mile ahead.” Perhaps you hit on the breaks, or perhaps your autonomous vehicle does so on its own.

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This is the vision of Flying Poles, a new concept being developed by MIT professor Carlo Ratti’s firm CRA in conjunction with Italy’s roadway system. Italy is currently developing a smart highway program that will eventually span over 1,500 miles. The system will gather environmental and traffic data that could be shared with motorists to improve safety and commute times. To accomplish this, Flying Poles reimagines the normal street light as a nest for a drone.

[Image: Gary di Silvio/Gianluca Zimbardi/courtesy Carlo Ratti Associati]
Both the pole and drone are filled with sensors, tracking everything from wind speed to the flow of cars on the road. They’re also loaded with Wi-Fi to communicate with one another and the cars that drive by. Of course, this can also be done with static sensors and traffic cameras already, but drones add mobility to the service. Ratti proposes that individual drones might drop emergency supplies in case of a crash, or even lift off to examine nearby infrastructure–like viaducts or tunnels–for fires, floods, or the necessity of routine repairs.

In essence, Flying Poles could turn a highway into a real-time information network like Waze, but it would contain a lot more information, require no user input, and actually have the capability to fly in and help when needed.

[Image: Gary di Silvio/Gianluca Zimbardi/courtesy Carlo Ratti Associati]
Much like other drone infrastructure projects we’ve seen (check out this drone skyscraper if you haven’t seen it yet–because Amazon went ahead and patented the same idea!), Flying Poles has the feel of inevitability. But that doesn’t mean the drone is the perfect tool for fixing traffic or making driving any safer than it is now. Consider that 5G high-speed wireless data networks are being built across the world right now, and autonomous vehicles–loaded with cameras and sensors–are being developed by every major auto manufacturer. Do we really need mobile physical infrastructure to solve our problems, or might this distributed network of traffic sensors do the job just as well on its own?

In any case, it’s fascinating to watch as cities and scientists work these ideas out through projects like this one. Your Fiat is safe from buzzing quadcopters offering free Wi-Fi and road alerts . . . for now.

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started Philanthroper.com, a simple way to give back every day.

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