Why You Should Become a Transportation Researcher

Collage image featuring the UAVs used by Edward McCormack and his team.

Transportation researcher Edward McCormack is working on what could be one of the coolest projects ever.

A Washington resident, McCormack is helping the State Department of Transportation (DOT) find a practical solution to a major transportation issue: avalanche control.

Screenshot image taken from our interview with Edward McCormack.

Click a button to watch our interview with Edward McCormack:

“In this state, we have a lot of roads going through mountain passes,” McCormack said. “The snow builds up, and it gets too deep or too slick, and the snow comes sliding down and blocks the road. It can be life-threatening, and it can close roads.”

Traditionally, the Washington DOT has tackled this problem by trying to detect where an avalanche is likely to occur, then closing the road accordingly.

“What they do now is send people up in helicopters above roads, and they look down and they say, 'It’s ready to avalanche. We’d better close the road.'”

Sometimes, maintenance professionals even use explosives to “trigger” an avalanche before it can occur without warning.

“They throw explosives out of helicopters. They go up in snowmobiles and trigger the avalanches. … Our state department of transportation here has three Vietnam War surplus tanks. Every winter they trundle up to the pass and they use them to shoot at avalanche trigger zones. They also have some military surplus cannons they use to shoot at avalanches.”

But McCormack, who has been conducting research on various transportation applications of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)—otherwise known as drones—proposed an interesting idea: since UAVs can be loaded with cameras and other equipment, why not let them take the place of manned aircraft for use in avalanche control?

“We were wondering if maybe we could do the same thing with unmanned aircraft instead of putting a guy in a helicopter with an explosive, which is kind of dangerous,” McCormack said.

So he and state DOT began conducting a series of tests flying small, portable unmanned aircraft above road and mountain passes. They also dropped some dummy explosives just to see if they could make multiple drops in the same place every time. They didn’t did use real explosives during these tests because they first wanted to make sure it would work.

The results were promising: UAVs could, indeed, potentially replace humans in avalanche control operations. But there was one major hurdle: Mother Nature.

“The problem is you’re doing this in really rotten weather. A lot of the drones can’t handle really high winds and icing, things like that. So we’re testing if we can actually fly these drones in the winter when it’s snowing, because that’s when avalanches happen,” McCormack said.

Researchers still needed to determine whether or not UAVs could stand up to the nasty weather they would encounter during a Washington winter. For this reason, next winter in Norway, McCormack and other researchers will take part in what might be the coolest endurance contest of all time.

“We’ll have what we call a rodeo, where we’re going to invite a bunch of different drone vendors to come in and fly their aircraft in the winter, in Norway, in really bad conditions and see how they do,” McCormack said. “There’s an easy test where you fly around a bridge and look at the bridge. There’s a harder test where you’re going to fly up a hillside. And there’s a really hard test where you’re going to go way up and over the top of a cliff to see what’s going on, and it’s going to be a long ways away.”

The rodeo will push the UAVs to their limits and will give McCormack and his team a better idea of the likelihood of putting the aircraft into routine use for avalanche control. But, McCormack says, this is just one of the many potential transportation applications of UAVs.

“We’re also looking at what else you can do with a drone when you’re not looking at snow. There are all sorts of applications. You look at rock fall hazards above roads; maybe you could do search and rescue if somebody is lost. … You can use drones to photograph construction sites; maybe you could use them to look at traffic. So there’s a number of applications.”

He said that this project, which entails finding new uses for an emerging technology, represents what he loves most about being a transportation researcher.

“I really enjoy looking at the transportation system and figuring out how to make it better. How to move people and how to move goods better. And there's a lot of challenges out there. On the other side, there’s better and better technology so you have solutions for your problems. So really, there’s a lot of reward for solving transportation problems. And it’s fun. It’s a good application of technology that you can see every day.”

Check out McCormack’s video, and keep following Fast Forward for news on amazing projects happening in transportation!

Aaron Mack
Fast Forward: Volume 2 Issue 7 - Aviation