AWP Introduces Automated Flagger Assistance Devices
Imagine your average paving project on a two-lane road. One lane is closed for the paving crew to do its job and the other is accommodating both directions of travel, controlled by flagging operations at each end of the job site.
Then, all of a sudden, a semi speeds around a turn leading up to the work zone and, unable to stop in time, slams into the flagging operation. An alarm blares, notifying the paving crew of the work zone intrusion. Thankfully, the semi comes to a stop before reaching the crew. And, because the job site was equipped with an Automated Flagger Assistance Device (AFAD), the flagger is also safe and sound.
That’s because, in early 2023, AWP Safety, North Canton, Ohio, announced a partnership with Site 20/20 to deploy its Guardian SmartFlagger AFADs on AWP’s work zones in more than 20 states across the country.
AWP Safety’s services range from work zone flagging to design and engineering for transportation management plans, as well as equipment sales, rentals and support in 28 U.S. states and four Canadian provinces.
AFADs allows an operator to monitor and control traffic through the lens of two HD cameras. Using a smart tablet instead of a flag, operators can perform their duties at a distance.
Recognized by the American Traffic Safety Services Association (ATSSA) for advancing roadway safety, Guardian SmartFlagger aims to increase motorist compliance and improve work zone safety. Since its inception, these devices have been used by more than 100 traffic control companies in North America.
The Road to Autonomy
According to Greg Ryan, vice president of AWP Safety’s north business division, the technology behind AFADs has been around for 20 years. “I first learned of the Guardian SmartFlagger five years ago, but I didn’t think the technology was 100% ready or that the market was ready for such a device,” he said. Then, in 2020, Ryan decided it was time to reconsider the concept.
“In 2020, we started facing an even more acute workforce shortage and began looking for alternative solutions to achieve the capacity we needed,” he said. “We began investigating what autonomy could do and learned of all the additional features Site 20/20 has added over the last five years.”
These improvements included integrations with Google/Waze, reducing the weight of the device by half and adding video recording capabilities and the ability to pair up to four devices. In that time, the devices had also been tested according to the Manual for Assessing Safety Hardware (MASH), a standard for testing work zone traffic control devices from the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO).
“They were something we were ready to run with,” Ryan said. “Once we were in that mindset, the next question was ‘How do we get our customers to adopt this?’”
Customers Hop Aboard
AFADs boast a number of benefits, from the safety of construction workers by removing flaggers from the flow of traffic to reducing labor costs and improving operational efficiency.
Ryan said some of AWP’s customers got on board with the idea right away, but others were initially resistant to the change. The first step was developing support for the idea across AWP’s organization. “Today, we have at least one local champion for the device in every office,” Ryan said. “They use these devices every day.”
According to Ryan, the most resistant customers were what he calls the “old school” individuals. “They’d say, ‘I trust people, not machines,’” Ryan recalled. Most would open up to the idea once AWP showed them data that the general public actually responds better to these than they do a human flagger. “When they see the data and see them in action, they start to understand the benefits.”
For example, Guardian SmartFlaggers were deployed on a job site where a car plowed through the AFAD’s gate arm. The gate arm fell off, the alarm sounded to notify the crew, and the car stopped before it reached the crew. A customer resistant to the use of AFADs who was on the job turned to Ryan and cited the event as evidence the AFAD didn’t work as intended.
“I told him it worked exactly as planned,” he said. “The car stopped, the crew is safe, and I’m not calling an ambulance for a struck flagger. The only damage done was a scratch on the intruding vehicle, and we have video showing them to be at fault.”
Ryan shared an event where a motorist drove through the gate arm and attempted to sue the contractor performing the work. “The contractor reached out to us, we found the video of the lady as she hit the gate arm showing both her hands were on her phone,” Ryan said. “We sent that to the contractor and that was that.”
“The flagger is 100% safer if they’re operating the AFAD from a safe distance instead of standing out there for a traditional flagging operation,” Ryan said. The other benefit that brought customers around was the increased capacity these devices afford. “When we implement AFADs on appropriate jobs, it means we have additional manpower to use for jobs where AFADs don’t make sense,” Ryan said, for example, double lane closures or any job that calls for arrow boards or similar devices/setups.
According to Ryan, one person can control up to four AFADs, however, on a typical closure with one lane of split traffic, he said AWP still utilizes one person per AFAD. Often, customers prefer a mile-long work zone in order to optimize paving efficiency. “But you’ll usually have a number of side streets, driveways, etc. along a mile-long work zone,” Ryan said. “Normally, we’d need three or four people out there to account for that level of complexity. With the AFADs, we can do it with two people, one operating the ends and one controlling the ins and outs to ensure folks aren’t turning left when traffic’s going right.”
With the use of AFADs, AWP is also able to locate its flaggers closer to the crew for improved communication and allow for cool down and warm up breaks without having to find someone to relieve the flagger. “When we’re able to do more for less while providing better safety, that’s hard for a customer to say no to,” Ryan said.
AWP has also found a number of creative uses for its AFADs. For example, traffic assessments/car counting and storm responses. “We got a call in the middle of the night to reroute traffic around an icy road,” Ryan said. “We didn’t initially plan to use AFADs for storm work, but we quickly learned that’s one more option for them.”
How SmartFlagger Works
Guardian SmartFlagger is designed to fit in the back of a standard pickup truck and boasts a 60-hour battery life. It’s equipped with extendable legs for level operation on all types of terrain and can run either on the cellular network or on an independent network in areas without cellular service.
Ryan said setup of the device is as simple as placing an AFAD where it’s needed and putting down the gate arm to safely set up the rest of the work zone and remaining AFADs. “Then, all you have to do is turn the tablet on and it senses however many devices you have out there,” he said. “Then, the operator selects the AFADs he or she will control and will be able to see the camera view from the AFAD to begin operating the device.” The HD cameras offer a 360-degree view and include night vision capabilities and up to 80 hours of recording time.
Ryan said one of his favorite features is the system’s integration with Google/Waze, instantly informing those apps of the active work zone. “Studies show that notifying drivers of an active work zone results in a 20 to 25% reduction in traffic,” Ryan said. “Anytime you can go from having 100 cars driving past a work zone to 75, I’ll take that deal.”
In the event that a vehicle drives around or hits the fully detachable gate arm, Guardian SmartFlagger automatically triggers a 115-decibel intrusion alarm to notify workers. The operator can also manually trigger this alarm.
Another feature Ryan appreciates are the built-in redundancies to prevent accidentally opening a gate. “The system asks several times if the operator is sure they want to open the gate,” he said, adding that the operator can also enter the speed limit and size of the work zone into the system to receive estimated gate times. “If you set the speed right and the distance right, the app might suggest that it would take a car 32 seconds to clear from gate one to gate two. If you try to close a gate before that lower limit, the app asks you several times if you are sure.”
The system will also inform the operator if traffic is heavier in one direction and suggest how much longer to keep open the busier direction for optimal traffic flow. “It does a lot of the things our folks naturally do on a daily basis,” Ryan said.
Site 20/20 also makes the Guardian Cone, the 2022 winner of ATSSA’s Innovation Award. Guardian Cone monitors vehicle speeds and detects work zone intrusions to alert workers of danger. AWP Safety utilizes both Guardian Cone and SmartFlagger to improve work zone safety. “Guardian Cone is one more technology we can use to watch our backs and our customers’ backs,” Ryan said.
The Future of Traffic Control
AWP Safety rolled out its first Guardian SmartFlagger devices in 2020 in central Ohio and Indiana. “By the end of the year, we had more than 50 units between the two states,” Ryan said. Now, the company has more than 200 units deployed in 27 of the 28 states in which AWP operates. “The only reason we haven’t introduced them in the last state yet is because we’re working through the final DOT approvals there,” Ryan said. “With the size and scale of our operation and our role as leaders in the market, this technology is definitely something we will be pushing for in the future.”
Ryan doesn’t see a future where AFADs replace qualified safety professionals, but he does see a future where AFADs enhance AWP’s workforce. “We still require the same certified person to operate the AFAD,” he said. “The AFADs simply assist us in what we do to protect our employees, customers and the traveling public.”
According to AWP Safety’s Chief Commercial Officer Josh Shipman, introducing new work zone safety technologies will continue to be a constant priority for the company. “Keeping our roads and highways safe as they continue to bear new levels of traffic will require trained professionals and even better tools for the job, and we believe we are working with the best available,” he said. “As the complexity of transportation projects grows, so too must our safety procedures.”