The City of Toronto's Transportation Operations Centre (TOC) teamed with the University of Toronto to explore the potential to use UAVs for traffic management. The project objectives were to:
- Evaluate the capabilities and performance of UAVs for real-time traffic management (unplanned incidents and planned special events);
- Assess the City's Transportation Operations Centre's readiness to make real-time operational changes; and
- Provide guidelines for potential UAV operations for future transportation services.
The project team deployed a single UAV at two planned events in the fall of 2017. The potential benefits to be derived included:
- The ability to manage multiple intersections and links from a single camera's vantage point;
- Being able to more effectively identify new traffic patterns created by temporary road / lane restrictions; and
- The ability to make real-time traffic signal timing changes based on these observations, and be able to monitor the effectiveness of these changes.
The team gained valuable insight to the capabilities and performance of UAVs for traffic management. The test flights demonstrated traffic management opportunities, but also illustrated flight range and application limitations due to existing battery technology and federal flight regulations.
- The current flight regulations prevent flights along a roadway and require line-of-sight. Battery life limitations restrict practical flight times to 15-20 minutes. Flights are essentially restricted to vertical take-off and landing movements. It cannot (for example) travel along a roadway to either reach the site of an unplanned event, or to observe the area surrounding an unplanned event to assess area impacts. It is, therefore, not possible to 'dispatch' UAV to a site from the TOC or another remote location.
- However, if a reasonable site can be identified, a UAV can offer some promise for traffic management of events, and allow for area-wide operational decision making. Within the pilot project flights, the team was able to observe congestion as it built, developed operational response strategies, and implemented them in real-time.
- The limitations concerning set-back from people and open roads still limits the potential benefits to be derived, and – within the pilot project flights – significantly limited the area that could be managed by an UAV.
- With one notable technological exception, the TOC was well positioned to use the UAV images for the purposes of real-time traffic management. Specifically:
- The TOC was able to identify alternative route(s) for detoured traffic;
- The TOC was able to identify/assess the performance of the signals in dealing with the added traffic volumes;
- For some of the traffic control signals along the alternative routes, the TOC was able to modify traffic signal timing updates to suit changing traffic patterns; and
- The ability to change traffic signal timing was limited (at one site) by the firmware version used in the controller. This is a known limitation that Transportation Services is working to resolve.
The City found it is not currently feasible to use UAVs to detect, monitor and manage unplanned traffic incidents, citing the following reasons:
- Given the size and operational authority of the City, 'blanket coverage' would not be feasible.
- The unpredictable nature of unplanned events prevents the City from dispatching UAVs from a central location in a timely manner.
- Today, the range for the UAVs used is relatively small due to battery life and the requirement for line-of-site operation. Therefore, to achieve broader coverage, the City would have to deploy UAVs at many sites across the City. However, Transportation Services would not be able to deploy enough vehicles, with enough pilots, for meaningful coverage.
- Current regulations prohibit the operation of UAVs over an open roadway, and within 30m of an occupied building or members of the public in an outdoor setting. Therefore, the mobility of the UAV is mostly restricted to vertical take-off and landing at this time. It cannot (for example) travel along a roadway to either reach the site of an unplanned event, or to observe the area surrounding an unplanned event to assess area impacts.