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Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 66· No. 3 > From Small Beginnings Come Great Things

Nov/Dec 2002
Vol. 66· No. 3

From Small Beginnings Come Great Things

by John F. Munro

Often referred to as the "backbone of our Nation," small businesses are heralded as one of the main reasons for the economic success of the United States. The U.S. Small Business Administration contends that small businesses "create two of every three new jobs, produce 39 % [sic] of the gross national product, and invent more than half the Nation's technological innovation. Our 20 million small companies provide dynamic opportunities for all Americans."

Intersection in Washington, DC
The SBIR program is evaluating technologies to enable motorists to detect the presence of pedestrians like these in Washington, DC.

In 1982, the Small Business Innovation Development Act established the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program to enable small technology firms to perform Federal research and development. An early SBIR transportation project involved the development of a retroreflectometer that uses a scanning laser beam to measure the retroreflectivity of lane markings. Other SBIR research projects have ranged from the development of technologies for recycling pavements to creating an all-weather early-warning, pedestrian-alert system; developing a gallium nitride-based UV-super luminescent diode for automotive headlights; using native grasses for ground-cover projects; and integrating three-dimensional (3-D) imagery into the transportation planning process.

Research programs at the Federal Highway Administration's (FHWA) Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center (TFHRC) benefit from the creativity, initiative, and tenacity found in small businesses. Sure, contracting with small businesses is the law, but FHWA embraces the concept as part of its organizational strategy. "We look at the SBIR program as an integral part of our R&T [research and technology] program," says Marci Kenney, program director for FHWA's Research and Development (R&D) Office of Policy. "At TFHRC, we choose to see how small businesses can supply the transportation industry with new technologies or innovations and help FHWA provide the Nation with better-built, safer, and smarter transportation systems."

FHWA's research and technology goals include increasing mobility, safety, productivity, and environmental quality. SBIR plays an important role in helping FHWA attain these goals. "We incorporate SBIR participation into our organizational plan since small businesses are uniquely qualified for some types of research," Kenney says. "Our research teams regularly use small businesses to conduct research that addresses high-priority research and development goals."

A Closer Look at SBIR

SBIR companies produce and commercialize technologies quickly. The project durations are normally short-term with relatively inexpensive start-up costs. Generally, the research focuses on small advancements rather than fundamental breakthroughs, reflects a national perspective, and taps the creative energies and profit motives of small businesses. The technologies and information generated through the program enhance existing technologies or enable other highway technologies to operate more effectively and efficiently. Operational improvements then translate into safety enhancements, reduced congestion, improved mobility, and fewer negative environmental effects.

With the SBIR program, FHWA is able to perform innovative research that is more suitable for small businesses. Money for the SBIR program comes from a consolidated pool, and small businesses must have fewer than 500 employees to be included.

Projects qualify for SBIR funding depending on the degree of innovation, technical merit, and potential marketability. In Phase I, small businesses explore the technical merit or feasibility of an idea or technology. Phase II includes research and development, and an evaluation of potential commercial success. The final stage, Phase III, requires private-sector funding or non-SBIR Federal funding for commercializing the Phase II results.

During each phase, program managers work closely with their respective contractors to increase the chances that a small business will stay on schedule and supply a product that is consistent with FHWA mission priorities. Each individual project is monitored carefully, with government funds directed only to those that are potentially successful. This structure enables FHWA to step back and evaluate a specific approach or project as it goes through the phases. Since the process contains built-in checkpoints, the SBIR program represents an effective way to invest taxpayer money.

Origins and Workings

The Small Business Innovation Development Act of 1982 (P.L.102-567) and 1992 (P.L. 102-564) provide the statutory basis for the SBIR program. SBIR presents a unique opportunity for the small business innovator who is capable of conducting high-quality research but lacks the resources and institutional knowledge to pursue large-scale government contracts. The program also benefits the Federal government by providing a flexible mechanism for initiating important research. Each year, 10 Federal departments and agencies are required by the Act to reserve a portion of their research and development funds for awards to small business concerns.

Participating U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) operating administrations in the SBIR program include: the Federal Aviation Administration, Federal Railroad Administration, Federal Transit Administration, Maritime Administration, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Research and Special Programs Administration, United States Coast Guard, and FHWA.

To fund research activities, each operating administration is assessed 2.5 percent of its extramural R&D budget annually. The level of funding for FHWA's SBIR program is modest compared to other Federal research initiatives. However, the SBIR program contributes to the overall FHWA R&T program at a greater level than its average annual budget would suggest.

The Small Business Administration coordinates the SBIR program across the Federal government, collects information from all participating agencies, and publishes that information in a quarterly Presolicitation Announcement (PSA) that publicizes information necessary for companies seeking an SBIR award.

The Volpe National Research Center in Cambridge, MA, directs overall USDOT administrative activities required under the SBIR law and executes policy established by the Small Business Administration. Volpe's SBIR management activities are augmented by technical support from FHWA's program offices and, in particular, from the TFHRC in McLean, VA. For additional information on the USDOT/FHWA SBIR program, visit www.volpe.dot.gov/sbir.

Joe Henebury
Joe Henebury, SBIR program director for USDOT, Logs more than 40,000 miles of travel per year encouraging small businesses to participate in the development of innovative transportation technologies.

Sensing Technologies for Pedestrian Safety

Motor vehicle collisions with pedestrians result in almost 5,000 pedestrian fatalities and tens of thousands of injuries each year, adding up to billions of dollars in societal costs. Researchers worked from the premise that the cause of these collisions often is the failure of a motorist to detect the presence of a pedestrian, regardless of the circumstances (i.e., human factors, impaired judgment, bad weather, etc.).

Sam Tignor, a former technical director for FHWA's Office of Safety R&D, recognized a fundamental need to develop technologies that would help motorists identify pedestrians in harm's way early enough to enable a driver to take appropriate action to avoid hitting the pedestrian, yet simple enough to avoid confusing a driver about what action to take to prevent the collision. Tignor turned to the SBIR program and the TFHRC Advanced Research team to evaluate a proposed technology for "sensing" pedestrians in the path of a motorist and determining the appropriate method for communicating that information back to the motorist.

Pete Mills, an FHWA electrical engineer with a background in the development of sensing technologies, reviewed the Phase I proposals. "We used SBIR for this project because it might become a viable product that pedestrians and drivers can use to solve this growing problem," says Mills. "In fact, to even out the risk, we chose to fund two different projects for solving this problem—giving us two potential solutions and providing a multipronged research and development strategy. This increased the chances that one of the two would be successful for enabling motorists to detect the presence of pedestrians and avoid potential collisions."

Helpful SBIR Project Characteristics

As Federal program and project managers determine the appropriate avenue and contract type for a specific project, there are several characteristics that may be helpful for determining if the SBIR program is appropriate for a research project:

  • Can the project develop into something that can be sold commercially (as opposed to a concept or way of doing business)? Is it innovative and different?
  • Is the project one that the private sector cannot or will not fund on its own because it is too high-risk and/or too long-term in nature?
  • Can the project be developed by a small staff such as is typically available in a small business (such as an engineer, a scientist, and a technician)?
  • Does the project borrow or use an existing technology from a different industry or field and adapt it to transportation use?
  • Are the company and the project financially viable?
    • The company should have marketing skills or should consider partnership with a company with marketing skills to help sell the product after it has been developed. (In Phase II of a project, an SBIR manager has the option of allocating $4,000 for training the company in marketing basics.)
    • Does the company have an established revenue stream or venture capital to fund the company and the SBIR product through development phases, manufacturing, and distribution until it becomes a commercially viable product?
    • Does the company have an established manufacturing base?
    • Does the company have a willingness to use its own money to finish the project?

Dave Gibson

One project used a radio frequency (RF) communications link with a geographical positioning system (GPS) receiver, and the other applied an optical imaging system capable of differentiating objects by their positions in three-dimensional space. The resulting evaluation indicated that the integrated RF/GPS system provided several advantages, including all-weather operability (fog, rain, cloud cover, and other adverse weather conditions); operation without line-of-sight functionality (i.e., the driver can detect the presence of a pedestrian without having to see the person); and the ability to determine the pedestrian's speed and direction relative to the approaching vehicle.

Although many technical and commercialization challenges remain, the RF/GPS system promises to establish an important foundation for an effective pedestrian avoidance system. The use of this system most likely will be limited until the GPS receiver devices carried by pedestrians are small enough to fit within a cell phone, be worn as jewelry, or be incorporated into other products such as bicycles or schoolbooks. "At some point in time, we expect that this technology will likely be combined with an advanced optical technology," Mills says.

3-D Overlays Enhance Traffic Flow

Managing access to highway systems from driveways remains a national challenge because of the "interconnectedness" of the entire highway and environmental system. Some managers may not realize at first glance how crucial access management is to traffic flow and the environment. "The operative word in this case is 'system'," says Lannie Graham of FHWA's Office of Real Estate. "Uncoordinated access management affects traffic flow and congestion, which intensifies several environmental problems, such as air quality and uncontrolled water drainage."

Many States implement access management plans and procedures. However, the procedures are not always successful because the driveway permitting process still is conducted on an ad hoc basis, with developers requesting commercial or residential points of access from a single government official or office. "Many times allied decisionmakers, particularly those with operational relationships, environmental concerns, or rights-of-way issues, are not involved in the driveway permitting process," Graham says. Often, the result is problems with water drainage and increases in highway congestion, leading to higher levels of air pollution.

FHWA sought to address this issue by developing a system to manage the complex process electronically. The vision was to create a 3-D system that would enable permit applications to become common knowledge among relevant decisionmakers and stakeholders, including environmentalists, community representatives, government officials, and developers. Additionally, the system also would need to expedite the permitting decision process.

In 1999, the SBIR program awarded Phase I funding to examine the practicality of using 3-D photo imagery within an "industry standard" geographic information system (GIS) platform. The small business contractor that was awarded the project first reviewed typical data resources for State highway departments and consolidated existing inventory systems with fine-accuracy photo images.

The Phase I process allowed 360-degree desktop visualization of road scenes and 5-centimeter (2-inch) measurement accuracy of as-built roads and culverts, and included a seamless overlay of standard design, cultural, environmental, and built structure data resources.

Phase II will implement a Web-based permitting system using stereo imagery, which will enable an applicant to apply for a permit electronically over the Internet. The system will notify all appropriate offices and agencies of a permit application receipt, track dates and deadlines automatically, and generate deadline alert messages.

Truck and trailer with lasers mounted beneath it
The rolling wheel defectometer (RWD), which consists of a trailer with lasers mounted beneath it, measures the deflection response of pavement surfaces.

trailer with 4 lasers mounted beneath it
The RWD's measurement system features four lazers mounted to a rigid beam beneath the trailer.

The Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) District 3 will test the prototype system, and additional Florida districts will be able to use the system as a resource. Other State highway transportation professionals also will have the opportunity to view the functionality and benefits of the new driveway permitting process.

The SBIR program has been instrumental in moving the project from concept toward successful completion. FHWA's Office of Real Estate believes the new system will provide decisionmaking, administrative, safety, operational, and environmental benefits nationwide. Upon completion, the technology will improve highway operation capabilities dynamically and incorporate the values of environmental stewardship. And the technology matches FHWA's general movement toward integrating models and databases that can positively affect highway operations and safety.

Better Testing for Enhanced Mobility

A well-maintained infrastructure reduces delays caused by repairs on critical roads and bridges. Unfortunately, normal wear and tear and environmental conditions degrade roadways, bridges, and other highway infrastructure, slowing traffic and threatening mobility. Even when engineers are proactive in designing and implementing the repair process, limitations in the technologies that measure structural capacity make repairs difficult. Since the existing methods are stationary, taking measurements requires lane closures, which can be costly in user delays and dangerous for workers and drivers.

In 1996, FHWA used the SBIR program to design and build a device that measures pavement structural capacity while traveling in a traffic stream at highway speeds up to 89 kilometers (55 miles) per hour. Phase I of the SBIR contract surveyed the state of the art of deflection testing and identified requirements for the design and construction of a rolling wheel deflectometer (RWD). Among other specifications, the RWD would need to measure pavement deflection under moving wheel loads—wheel load and geometry, tire pressure, and vehicle speed—and gauge the temperature of the pavement surface.

The RWD developed under Phase I measures pavement temperature using infrared sensors and makes corrections to the deflection data as needed. Phase II incorporated a trailer, scanning laser system, and an onboard computer with customized data collection and processing software.

After several tests, the scanning laser system was found to be not accurate enough, and the funds and time ran out on the SBIR project. Although the team was frustrated and disappointed, Frank Botelho, project manager for FHWA's Office of Asset Management, would not accept defeat. Botelho found additional SBIR funding to extend the contract, and the small business that had received the contract contributed funding to support the project as well.

Computer workstation onboard the RWD trailer
An onboard computer workstation operates the lasers and stores data on the RWD.

Laser C mounting
Researchers calibrate laser C through use of a water level. Raising and lowering the level simulates the differences in elevation the laser reads as the trailer bounces during full-speed operation.

Laser D positioned between dual tires
Laser D, positioned between the dual tires, measures the deflected pavement surface.

Side view of laser C
The side view of laser C, one of four LMI Selcom 16-kHz spot lasers mounted on the aluminum beam, shows that a nylon block separates the laser from the aluminum beam to prevent localized heat transfer that could distort the beam's shape.

The research team, led by Jim Hall from Applied Research Associates, Inc., went back to the drawing board and redesigned the system using four individual "spot" lasers. In July 2002, the team received satisfactory results during the field trial.

The RWD provides rapid, nondestructive structural assessments that supply data to optimize the maintenance and repair of highway systems, enables researchers to evaluate load capacities and life expectancy of highway networks, and offers a means to identify and analyze highway zones with deficient load capacities. The greatest advantage of the RWD is that it can collect data while traveling within a stream of highway traffic at normal highway speeds. For the first time in history, highway agencies can measure pavement structural life cost-effectively on a network-wide basis without disrupting traffic flow. Plus, RWD will eliminate lane closures and help reduce work zone-related deaths.

Collecting Pavement Durability Data

Highway researchers have long recognized the need to collect additional data to determine the impact of weather on the stability of concrete slabs. One barrier to collecting this data is the lack of sensor technologies available for collecting pavement data cost-effectively. Add to this the amount of time that is necessary for processing pavement-profiling data. FHWA Highway Researcher Pete Mills sums up the problem: "While triangulation laser sensors have advanced the state of highway pavement profiling, sensors continue to be the weakest link in developing better and faster pavement characterization systems. FHWA needs to develop a new and improved laser sensor that can be used with other systems for pavement surface analysis."

In 2001, Mills turned to the SBIR program to propose two projects to expand the state of laser sensor technology. One project would push the technological envelope and perhaps enhance sampling rates and sensor resolution capabilities dramatically by applying advanced fiber optics. The other project would pursue modest but important improvements in existing laser sensor technologies. Mills believes that one or both projects might very well produce laser sensors that provide distinct advantages over current technologies.

The payoff will be the ability to diagnose the causes of pavement fatigue, enabling States to develop innovative treatment methods that significantly increase pavement life cycles. Ultimately, reducing the rate and extent of pavement failure will help preserve and enhance the national highway system.

Vehicle-Detection Technologies

Although sensors may not work for all infrastructure needs, they can be tweaked to improve highway operations. Recently, an SBIR contractor developed a sensor for detecting vehicles, which can be mounted over a traffic lane or to the side. The sensor can perform detection and classification functions for multiple uses, such as toll collections, traffic flow analyses, bridge/tunnel clearance verification, routing studies, and traffic monitoring. The sensor also could serve as a highly accurate trigger for enforcement cameras. According to FHWA Researcher David Gibson, "Over-the-roadway sensing technologies such as this one can decrease congestion and help make roads safer."

The sensing unit scans a roadway by taking multiple intensity measurements across the width of a single lane at two locations beneath the sensor. To do this, a line-scan laser obtains the vehicle characteristics and measures the vehicle profile, then uses vehicle motion in the direction of travel to form a range and intensity image, measuring both the dimensions of the automobile and its speed by calculating the time difference between two beams when they are broken. The system analyzes consecutive range samples to provide a vehicle profile, which is processed by the sensor to classify the vehicle into 1 of 13 categories. The technology has a 99.99-percent detection accuracy and a 95-percent classification accuracy. It can detect speed accuracies between 2 and 97 kilometers (1 to 60 miles) per hour.

Enhancing overall information collection will enable traffic managers and planners to design and deploy countermeasures and other intelligent transportation systems that reduce congestion, especially during peak travel periods. Recent sales of this product by this small business contractor show that the detection technology is an improvement over conventional traffic sensors.

White FHWA van
Researchers at FHWA use this white van, PRORUT (short for PROfile and RUT depth measuring system), to conduct noncontact road profiling. PRORUT can be used to measure the warp and curl of portland cement concrete pavements resulting from the interaction of weather and heavy traffic.

Small Businesses Make a Big Difference

Striving to meet the Nation's complex, transportation R&D needs, FHWA uses the best available means to keep America moving. The SBIR program is yielding impressive returns through the discovery and deployment of advanced technologies. Indeed, the SBIR program occupies a small, but important niche within FHWA's R&T program and plays a crucial role in helping FHWA meet R&T safety, mobility, productivity, and environmental quality objectives. As these small businesses prove, company size doesn't matter when it comes to delivering value to the U.S. transportation system.


The author would like to thank Frank Botelho, Dave Gibson, Lannie Graham, Jim Hall, Joe Henebury, Marci Kenney, Tom Krylowski, Milton "Pete" Mills, Norm Paulhus, and Dennis Sixbey for their significant contributions to this article.


John F. Munro is a relative newcomer to FHWA's Office of Program Development and Evaluation R&D. He holds a B.A. degree from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and master's and Ph.D. degrees from the University of California, Los Angeles. He has authored several papers on environmental planning, energy policy, and the deployment of traffic models. He also teaches courses at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
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