Kinect, Robotics, Highway Safety, and Saving Lives

Flagger

There’s been a lot of talk about the use of Kinect and robotics. Yes, people have figured out how to use Microsoft’s awesome gadget to manipulate robots. And Microsoft even has a Robotics website and development toolkits for this purpose. But so far, most of the demos I have seen focus on using robots to help with housework or serve as a companion. Not that this is bad, but I wonder if anyone has been looking at the use of this technology in public works. One of the first applications I’d look at is using it to assist flaggers in highway construction work zones.

Out of the almost 33,000 motor vehicle fatalities in 2010, 576 were in a work zone. While some education of the public and workers and improvements to the layout and set up of the work zone can help reduce this number, there’s not much that can be done to help deaths of flaggers. Between 2003 and 2010 a range of 6 to 19 flaggers were killed in the U.S. each year. Unfortunately by the nature of their job, flaggers are stuck having to stand in close proximity to traffic. And there’s only so much they can do to protect themselves from a driver who loses control of a vehicle for any reason.

There’s been some efforts to enhance visibility of the flagger or replace the human with a mechanical device. But from what I understand the mechanical device is not always a full solution. But while discussing this dilemna with another engineer, we started wondering if the Kinect/robotic solution could be implemented here. The robot could be designed to maximize visibility and it would remove the human from any danger and possibly even allow the human flagger to be placed in a better position. The human would no longer have to stand in the hot sun or freezing weather and could perhaps even be stationed somewhere that gave them a better view of the work zone and traffic. However, it would still be their judgement and training and movements behind the robot’s operation.

Here’s a video with a demonstration of someone using a robot to cut a banana. Sure it’s a far cry from flagging in a work zone, but hopefully it conveys the possibilities. So all you programmers out there looking for an awesome use and product application for Kinect driven robotics, how about creating the robotic flagger and save some lives!? (And you can learn more about work zone safety here: The National Work Zone Safety Information Clearinghouse)

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