All the Buzz: Drones Could Help Highway Crash Scenes Stay Safe

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The blistering pace of technological advancement may have put a target on the back of many modern-day conventions, but it’s also left the future of traffic crash assessments up in the air—literally.

Researchers at Purdue University have enlisted drones to aid in post-accident cleanups, and the method is already proving to be faster, more accurate, and safer than current human-led efforts.

The increasingly-common tiny helicopters have been hailed for their ability to offer whole new photographic perspectives, and their bird’s eye view has been especially helpful for mapping out accident scenes, an integral component to analyzing and understanding what went wrong in a crash.

Easily sailing above any pile-up, the drones utilize a program developed by the school to capture about 100 photographs at 2-second intervals while following a grid-type path. The photos can then be processed later to create a scaled map of the scene, which can be reproduced through a 3D printer.

All told, the process of capturing the scene takes between 5 and 8 minutes—a marked improvement over the 2 to 3 hours it can sometimes take for manual crews to walk away with a proper map.

And when it comes to accident assessment, timing is nearly everything.

The laborious process of first analyzing then clearing a wreck often calls for closing at least 1 lane of traffic, if not an entire road, and almost always results in serious congestion. But the issue runs far deeper than inconvenience.

Drivers approaching the accident scene—and subsequently stalled traffic—are far more likely to be coming in at higher speeds, leaving them unprepared to make the sudden stop and much more likely to cause a crash of their own as a result.

According to the Federal Highway Administration, the likelihood of these so-called “secondary crashes” occurring increases by 2.8% for every minute the initial accident scene is not cleared. And with a traffic fatality rate hovering near historic highs, that timing could make all the difference between life and death.

Still, it seems the drones have as much promise in practice as they do on paper.

Throughout 2018, the program was used more than 30 times by Indiana’s Tippecanoe County Sheriff’s Office to assess an accident, with officers reporting that it cut accident cleanup time by up to 60%.

Purdue researchers say the programs also lead to more accurate assessments overall, making the high-flying technology anything but for the birds.

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