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Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 72 · No. 4 > Bringing Innovations to Market

Jan/Feb 2009
Vol. 72 · No. 4

Publication Number: FHWA-HRT-09-002

Bringing Innovations to Market

by Julie Zirlin

FHWA's Technology Partnerships Program smoothes deployment in the transportation industry.

Researchers are validating the intelligent asphalt compaction analyzer, an innovative technology, during construction of a full-depth asphalt pavement at Tecumseh Road in Norman, OK.
Researchers are validating the intelligent asphalt compaction analyzer, an innovative technology, during construction of a full-depth asphalt pavement at Tecumseh Road in Norman, OK.

Transportation-related technologies can hit any number of roadblocks on their way from the drawing board to the vehicle or roadway. Innovations might be developed into late-stage prototypes with well-established proofs of concept, for instance, but still be kept from commercialization because of a lack of funding for final development and evaluation in a real-world setting.

By offering a technology transfer funding boost, a Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) program is helping highway industry innovations make the leap from promising prototypes to market-ready products. The Technology Partnerships Program provides grants to fund the critical final steps in developing technologies with potential to improve highway quality and safety or reduce construction-related congestion. The program, established in 2007, also promotes partnerships to test and demonstrate those technologies in real-world settings.

"One of our agency priorities is to advance deployment of innovations that address the challenges facing our Nation's transportation system," says FHWA Executive Director Jeffrey F. Paniati. "Private industry is an essential partner in developing solutions to these challenges. The Technology Partnerships Program is a way to get new technologies to the marketplace faster so they can be put to use."

Although FHWA has long supported technology research and development, this is the first time the agency has provided grants to general industry (under a broad solicitation, unlike the Small Business Innovation Research program, which is very targeted to specific technologies) for late-phase technology development. The grants enable companies to adapt nonhighway-related innovations to highway use or refine existing equipment, materials, or processes that are not common practice in the transportation industry.

"The Technology Partnerships Program is very important to the highway industry because if we can put any of these emerging technologies into mainstream usage by stakeholders, we may have an opportunity to reduce the escalating costs of maintaining our surface infrastructure," says David McKee, director of membership and technical assistance for the American Traffic Safety Services Association.

He adds that advancing technology is particularly important to the private sector because "we are competing with the emerging roadway markets in China, Brazil, and India," where expanding economies and skyrocketing numbers of construction projects are driving up the prices of materials worldwide. "We need new technologies, backed by Federal support, to provide a safer, cleaner, and more efficient system," McKee says.

Accelerating Innovation Deployment

The Technology Partnerships Program is part of Highways for LIFE (HfL), an FHWA initiative to accelerate innovation in the highway industry. HfL's focus is improving safety and quality while reducing construction-related congestion. In addition to Technology Partnerships grants, the HfL initiative features demonstration construction projects, technology transfer efforts, technical assistance, stakeholder involvement, and information dissemination.

About the Grant Program

The purpose of the Technology Partnerships Program is to partner organizations and companies with the highway construction industry to accelerate adoption of promising innovations that reduce congestion from construction and improve safety and quality.

The program is intended to fund proven innovations that have been developed to late-stage prototypes, with their proofs of concept well established, and that require further development, testing, and evaluation in a real-world setting before they would be ready for commercialization. The innovation must make a significant contribution to achieving at least one of the following HfL goals: improving project and/or work zone safety (including worker or user safety), reducing construction congestion, accelerating construction, or improving quality. Applicable innovation areas include technologies, materials, tools, equipment, procedures, specifications, methodologies, processes, or practices used in the financing, design, or construction of highways or bridges.

Competition is open to all nonprofit and for-profit organizations except State and local governments and institutions of higher education. State and local agencies, local municipalities, and academic institutions are excluded from competition as prime awardees but are encouraged to participate as partners at the sublevel.

In 2007, FHWA received 55 applications and made 5 awards. The number of applications received in 2008 will be made public when the awards are announced.

For more information on the grant program, visit www.fhwa.dot.gov/hfl/tech.cfm.

So far, FHWA has awarded Technology Partnerships grants of $200,000 to $500,000 to five companies to refine and evaluate prototype technologies. The projects include an all-weather pavement marking system for work zones, an intelligent asphalt compaction analyzer, an aggregate imaging system, an automated pavement marker placement system, and an asphalt binder cracking device.

"This program accelerates the process of getting technology research from just an idea to where it can be a beneficial tool for the whole industry," says Jay Lemon, president of Haskell Lemon Construction Co., which received a grant to develop the compaction analyzer.

One benefit of the program, he says, is that it provides researchers extensive opportunities to test prototypes on actual jobs, enabling potential users to thoroughly evaluate the effectiveness of the innovations and offer feedback.

"We're out paving every day, so when researchers have a new version of a prototype, they can try it on our equipment and interview the crew members using it," says Lemon. "In the past, researchers might get the opportunity 3 or 4 days a year to put their ideas to work in real paving situations."

Another benefit is that the program makes it possible for highway agencies to try innovations at minimal cost, says State Materials Engineer Thomas Baker of the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT).

"A lot of times, State highway agencies don't have the money to take a risk on these new technologies. This program really helps reduce that risk," Baker says. "Agencies can try technologies at a modest investment, mainly just the time to do the evaluation. Meanwhile, we provide a useful evaluation for the manufacturer."

Although some prototypes might become commercially viable without funding from programs such as Technology Partnerships, "others might take 5 to 10 years or longer to make it to the market," Baker says.

An FHWA Technology Partnerships grant is helping improve the retroreflectivity of all-weather pavement markings, such as these, under wet, nighttime conditions, ultimately enhancing safety in highway work zones.
An FHWA Technology Partnerships grant is helping improve the retroreflectivity of all-weather pavement markings, such as these, under wet, nighttime conditions, ultimately enhancing safety in highway work zones.

Enhancing Work Zone Safety

Navigating a work zone's unfamiliar traffic pattern can be a challenge for drivers, especially when dark, rainy conditions obscure lane markings. Water reduces the retroreflectivity, or ability to reflect light back toward its source, of conventional pavement markings, which consist of glass beads dropped into paint.

During testing of all-weather pavement markings for work zones, workers used a hand cart to apply paint samples with varying thickness, bead mixture, and other variables to a New Orleans, LA, roadway.
During testing of all-weather pavement markings for work zones, workers used a hand cart to apply paint samples with varying thickness, bead mixture, and other variables to a New Orleans, LA, roadway.

The 3M company developed an all-weather paint system that is highly reflective in both dry and rainy conditions, making it easier for drivers to see in any weather. The system consists of high-build waterborne paint and glass beads, which provide good visibility in dry conditions. The system also includes optical elements made of a ceramic core surrounded by tiny, high-refractive-index beads. The second set of beads provides retroreflectivity in wet conditions, particularly rain.

A Technology Partnerships grant is helping 3M customize the pavement marking system for use in work zones, according to Fuat Aktan of the company's Traffic Safety Systems Division. The firm developed more than 20 samples by changing variables such as bead mixture, drop rate, paint type, and paint thickness. The research team applied the samples to a New Orleans, LA, roadway and evaluated them under normal traffic in dry, wet, and simulated rain conditions. The researchers measured the retroreflectivity of the samples at the beginning of the test and after they were exposed to wear. From this study, the company determined the three samples that retained the most retroreflectivity.

The researchers then used those three successful samples in human factors experiments at the Texas Transportation Institute's rain range (a testing facility that simulates rain) in College Station, TX. The samples, along with two commercially available marking systems, were applied to a test track, where test participants evaluated them for visibility under dry, wet, and rainy nighttime conditions. The three samples performed equally well under all conditions and significantly outperformed the conventional markings under wet (just after rain) and ongoing rain conditions.

In the next phase of the project, 3M researchers will work with several State highway agencies to test the pavement marking system in work zones, monitoring driver behavior at various times of the day and night in dry and wet conditions.

The goal is a pavement marking system that maintains optimal visibility and enhances driver safety, but also meets work zone requirements such as faster application and drying times. The product also needs to be flexible enough to meet varying durability requirements for different types of work zones.

Assuring Good Asphalt Compaction

Proper compaction of newly applied asphalt helps assure a crack-free paved surface and longer lasting roadway. But if compaction occurs incorrectly, it can result in early degradation of the pavement. In the past, researchers verified compaction quality by testing core samples extracted from the hardened asphalt. If tests showed compaction was inadequate, workers had to repave that section.

The Haskell Lemon company is using its FHWA grant to refine and test a prototype intelligent asphalt compaction analyzer. The system, when installed on a vibratory compactor, measures the density of asphalt pavement in real time, so workers can fix compaction problems while the asphalt is still pliable. The company expects the system to result in better quality pavements, shorter construction times, and lower costs.

Shown here are the components of the intelligent asphalt compaction analyzer.
The intelligent asphalt compaction analyzer components (above) consist of a GPS receiver (not shown, but mounted on roof of compactor, right) and an embedded computer (circled, below), which mount on a vibratory compactor. The device measures the density of asphalt pavement in real time so workers can detect and fix compaction problems during the paving process, saving time and money.


Two workers, one with a laptop computer on his lap, are riding on a vibratory compactor. The intelligent asphalt compaction analyzer is affixed to the vibratory compactor, so the workers can detect and fix compaction problems during the paving process, saving time and money.

The analyzer consists of sensors and computational devices that continuously measure the density of asphalt pavement, says Sesh Commuri, associate professor of engineering at The University of Oklahoma, who developed the concept. The system takes into account process parameters such as mix type, lift thickness (the thickness of the layer of pavement placed by the asphalt paver), and mix temperature.

Using neural network technology, a sophisticated data modeling approach that mimics biological nervous systems, the tool analyzes patterns in the vibration of the rollers on the compaction equipment to determine the compaction level being achieved. By viewing information displayed on a monitor, the equipment operator can make needed adjustments to the compaction level before the road is completed.

Commuri developed a prototype of the compaction analyzer working with Haskell Lemon and Volvo Construction Equipment. Initial test results showed that the asphalt density estimated by the system compares well with density measured in roadway cores.

The next step involves developing a commercial prototype and validating its effectiveness. Haskell Lemon crews will install five units on vibratory compactors and test them on construction projects for the Oklahoma Department of Transportation. The goal is an easy-to-use commercial product that will help produce higher quality asphalt pavements, Commuri says.

Automating Aggregate Analysis

Highway industry research shows that the characteristics of aggregates used in hot-mix asphalt, hydraulic cement concrete, and aggregate pavement layers affect the structural integrity and durability of pavement systems and the skid resistance of pavement surfaces. Those characteristics include shape, such as round or flat; angularity, the sharpness of the corners of the aggregate particles; and texture, the smoothness or roughness of the particle surface.

Manual methods now used to measure aggregate characteristics can produce inconsistencies in measurement, quality assurance, and mix design, says David A. Savage, marketing manager for the Pine Instrument Company, another grant winner.

AIMS, shown here, is an integrated hardware/software system that automates the process of measuring the characteristics of pavement aggregates.
AIMS, shown here, is an integrated hardware/software system that automates the process of measuring the characteristics of pavement aggregates.

Pine Instrument is using its grant to refine a prototype aggregate imaging system (AIMS), which combines hardware that captures digital images of aggregate samples and software that analyzes aggregate characteristics that affect pavement quality. The first phase of the project involves reconfiguring the components of the prototype's hardware system and enhancing the analysis software to make results easier to interpret.

In the project's interlaboratory study, 28 university, commercial, and highway agency laboratories will evaluate the reproducibility of the refined AIMS equipment and procedures. The company will provide participating laboratories with the equipment and materials needed, and Texas A&M University, a project partner, will analyze the data from those tests.

The goal is to develop a user-friendly, industry-ready tool that accurately and rapidly measures aggregate shape characteristics. Such a tool, according to Savage, would offer an automated method of qualifying aggregate shape properties and surface texture to meet construction specifications, ensure good pavement performance, and ultimately enhance roadway safety.

Figure. The figure shows a closeup illustration of a rough-edged aggregate particle. An oval surrounding the particle is labeled 'Shape.' A smaller oval encircles one of the exterior angles of the particle and is labeled 'Angularity.' The particle itself is labeled 'Texture.'
AIMS characterizes aggregate properties such as shape and angularity that influence pavement performance. The figure shows a closeup illustration of a roughedged aggregate particle.

Reducing Worker Risk

Few highway workers look forward to this job: riding on a seat attached to the underside of a truck, inches from traffic, installing reflective pavement markers by hand. Although the markers enhance roadway safety by helping drivers see lanes at night, the process of installing them manually puts workers at risk.

With the help of a Technology Partnerships grant, Stay Alert Safety Services is working with the Illinois Institute of Technology and Detail Technologies, Inc., to develop an automated system for safer installation of pavement markers.

The prototype system, which fits on the back of a flatbed truck, applies adhesive and drops markers into place with a robotic arm. A computer in the truck cab operates the system, effectively removing workers from direct exposure to traffic, says Tony Collins, Stay Alert's project manager.

Turning the prototype into a market-ready product involves redesigning, refining, and testing the system. Refinements aim to improve the efficiency and reliability of the system components that hold and dispense the markers, apply the adhesive, mount the hardware components on the truck, and operate the system from the truck cab.

Stay Alert and independent observers conducted tests on Highway 158 in North Carolina, a two-lane, two-way road with variable elevations, and they reported very favorable results. Additional refinements will be made related to the applicator's speed and efficiency before using the equipment on pavement marker installation projects in the spring of 2009.

State highway agencies and other companies that install pavement markers have expressed interest in the technology because of its potential to improve work zone safety, says Collins. "They recognize that manual installation of pavement markers is a serious safety risk to workers," he says. "Not many people want to get under that truck."

This automated pavement marking placement system fits on a flatbed truck and is operated from the cab, reducing safety risks for highway workers.
This automated pavement marking placement system fits on a flatbed truck and is operated from the cab, reducing safety risks for highway workers.

Prolonging Pavement Life

Cold climates can cause asphalt pavements to contract and crack if the right type of asphalt binder is not matched to the local climate. Cracked pavements ultimately lead to premature deterioration of the roadway. The asphalt binder that bonds with aggregates to make hot-mix asphalt is the primary mechanism for providing resistance to low-temperature cracking. A reliable test to determine the susceptibility of various binders to thermal cracking could extend pavement life, reducing construction-related congestion and saving taxpayer dollars.

EZ Asphalt Technology LLC is using a Technology Partnerships grant to develop an asphalt binder cracking device (ABCD) that indicates the lowest temperature at which an asphalt binder sample will remain intact, providing a simple, accurate test for grading binders.

"[The test] will ensure that a road is built with the correct grade of asphalt for temperature conditions at the site," says Sang-Soo Kim, owner of the company and associate professor of civil engineering at Ohio University. The device is an improvement over conventional test methods, which have been known to produce a margin of error, especially for newer types of asphalt, and also have several more procedural steps.

The ABCD creates thermal cracking conditions similar to those in the field. The unit consists of a metal ring equipped with a strain gauge and temperature sensor that fits in a silicone mold. Workers pour heated asphalt binder around the ring, and the device is cooled in an environmental chamber, which is a device that can control a variety of environmental factors, such as temperature and humidity.

As the temperature drops, the asphalt binder contracts to a greater degree than the metal restricting the binder, causing the binder to fracture. A computerized data acquisition system captures the temperature and stress level at which the fracture occurs.

The ABCD system includes a computer (left) to collect data and control the environmental chamber (right), which cools the asphalt binder samples at a controlled rate.
The ABCD system includes a computer (left) to collect data and control the environmental chamber (right), which cools the asphalt binder samples at a controlled rate.

Planned modifications to the ABCD prototype include redesigning the ring and mold for easy specimen preparation, testing, and cleanup. Researchers also will refine the test procedure to produce faster, more accurate results.

Thirty-two laboratories volunteered to participate in the interlaboratory study and use the ABCD to test four types of asphalt binders, with eight replications each. The evaluation will determine how consistent the test is when used by different laboratories and collect feedback on its ease of use.

Improving America's Driving Experience

FHWA's Technology Partnerships Program provides a financial incentive to companies to further develop innovations with potential to improve project or work zone safety, accelerate construction, reduce construction-related congestion, or improve quality. The idea behind the program is to help companies overcome the hurdles separating workable prototypes from market-ready technologies.

"I think this program is going to have a big impact on moving these technologies rapidly from prototype to everyday usage," says WSDOT's Baker. "It gives us the opportunity at a very reasonable investment to get the technologies out into the highway construction industry, the owner States, and the testing community so they can be tested and used."

FHWA sought applications for a second round of Technology Partnerships grants in summer 2008 and plans to announce the recipients in spring 2009. As both rounds of funded projects go through the stages of refinement, testing, and evaluation, they will travel a faster path to the marketplace, where the highway industry and, eventually, road users can reap the benefits.

"When we can harness technology to improve the quality and safety of our roadways and reduce the delays and congestion associated with building and rehabilitating highways, we can increase customer satisfaction with the highway system," says HfL Team Leader Byron Lord. "And that's our ultimate goal: improving the American driving experience."

In the ABCD testing process, asphalt binder is poured around metal rings inside silicone molds, shown here, and then cooled at a controlled rate inside the environmental chamber until the binder samples crack. The cracking temperature in the cooling unit is closely related to field pavement cracking temperature.
In the ABCD testing process, asphalt binder is poured around metal rings inside silicone molds, shown here, and then cooled at a controlled rate inside the environmental chamber until the binder samples crack. The cracking temperature in the cooling unit is closely related to field pavement cracking temperature.

Julie Zirlin is the Technology Partnerships Program coordinator in FHWA's HfL office. She has held a variety of positions in the U.S. Department of Transportation since 1994.

For more information on the Technology Partnerships Program, visit www.fhwa.dot.gov/hfl/tech.cfm or contact Julie Zirlin at 202-366-9105 or julie.zirlin@dot.gov. To learn more about the HfL initiative, see www.fhwa.dot.gov/hfl.

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