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Brave New Traffic

Hartford is among the early adopters of GridSmart, a new way to change the lights

Daniel D'Ambrosio

October 23, 2008

The digital camera sees all. Perched high atop the intersection of Hartford's Columbus Boulevard and Grove Street, its 360-degree fisheye lens peers down all four approaches to the intersection, keeping track of every car, every pedestrian, and even every dog coming its way.

Safely ensconced in a stainless steel cabinet on the intersection corner, a powerful CPU (central processing unit) running proprietary software uses the "flattened" images transmitted from the fisheye lens to switch the traffic signals from red to yellow to green in the most efficient manner possible to keep cars and people flowing safely and smoothly.

Programmed by a traffic engineer, the CPU can keep the light green when it sees an emergency vehicle approaching, or keep the light red when it detects an elderly pedestrian taking longer than usual to cross the street. It can run a quick light when only a few cars are queued up, or extend the light when the line is long.

At least that's the promise. Welcome to the brave new world of traffic control from Tennessee-based Aldis Inc. It's called GridSmart, and Hartford is among the first cities in the nation to give it a try, with a system newly installed last week at Columbus and Grove joining another camera and CPU installed two weeks ago just down the street at Columbus and Convention Center Drive.

"We're certainly eager to see what it can do," said City Traffic Engineer Kevin Burnham.

Burnham is so far ahead on adopting GridSmart that it won't even become officially available for sale until December. But given the alternative the traditional wire loops cut into the pavement at the intersection to detect the presence of cars he's betting on a bang-up performance from the fancy camera and CPU.

Pointing to newly paved Columbus Boulevard, Burnham says, "This is almost brand-new pavement and the loops are nice and cut-in." But over here, he says, pointing to Grove Street, "We're getting cracks in the pavement. Over time, you're going to get failures. The pavement can get in a condition so poor you can't even cut loops into it."

Traffic loops can also be cut or compromised by utility work. And that's when you end up sitting at a red light, watching and waiting while nothing, absolutely nothing, comes from either direction on the street in front of you. Ever had that happen? With GridSmart, the camera sits safely above the fray, watching and waiting to change the signals to fit the situation it sees.

Bill Malkes, chief operating and financial officer for Aldis, said his company had the idea for the system a decade ago, but it would have been prohibitively expensive at a cost of about $150,000 per intersection. The development of the digital fisheye camera and proprietary software to run it changed all that.

"Today we can sell a system for about $10,000," said Malkes.

Given Hartford's budget woes, Burnham won't make any predictions as to when the entire downtown, or even the entire city, will be under the surveillance of the mighty fisheye, but he said the effect of GridSmart should be noticeable even on a limited scale.

"As more go in you'll see more routinely that everything will be working better," said Burnham.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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