Regional transport managers will have an eye in the sky to help them beat traffic jams thanks to a new Transport for West Midlands (TfWM) drone team unveiled today (Wednesday May 10).
The drones will fly over congestion hotspots and traffic queues at accident scenes or road closures and send live footage to transport managers enabling them to better plan diversions and keep the public informed.
TfWM’s state-of-the-art Regional Transport Coordination Centre (RTCC) brings together a wide range of transport authorities, agencies and operators to work together on keeping the region moving during major events and incidents. It played a crucial role in successfully moving millions of people around during the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games.
The RTCC and Safer Travel Command Centre, based in Birmingham, receives images from more than 2,500 fixed CCTV cameras covering the West Midlands major road, rail and tram networks, as well as some town and city centres. But there are gaps in the coverage, meaning they are unable to view traffic building up around some incidents.
Now, thanks to the new drone team, live images can be relayed back to the command centre filling those gaps in coverage, at a fraction of the cost of installing and maintaining static CCTV cameras.
It not only means that traffic can be better managed around incidents, but more accurate and timely advice can be given to the travelling public – including via the @WMroads social media channels.
The team is funded and managed by TfWM, which is part of the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA). TfWM works with police through the Safer Travel Partnership and the drones could be made available to emergency services during incidents to improve public safety.
Andy Street, Mayor of the West Midlands and WMCA Chair, said: “Since it was launched three years ago, our Regional Transport Coordination Centre has been at the forefront of innovation in transport management – playing a major role in the success of last summer’s spectacular Commonwealth Games.
“Now we’re building on the existing provision of hundreds of CCTV cameras covering our road, rail and tram networks by bringing drone technology into our repertoire to further improve coverage.
“Having a wider aerial view of various scenarios that can be beamed back to the RTCC will enable our traffic managers to make better and faster decisions about how best to deal with incidents – enhancing the travel experience for local people right across our region.”
Cllr Ian Ward, WMCA portfolio holder for transport and leader of Birmingham City Council, said: “This drone team is already proving its value in improving the quality of information being received by the RTCC and therefore improving the quality of advice given to travellers across our region.
“Reducing traffic congestion and queues on our streets not only saves people time, but reduces carbon emissions and pollution and helps in tackling the climate emergency.
“And it is cost effective too in being able to provide coverage in an area which would require dozens of fixed CCTV cameras at a fraction of the cost.”
The drone team has already deployed to key locations across the region including Birmingham, Coventry, Walsall and Sandwell to identify issues on the road network.
The team first flew its drones over the Digbeth area of Birmingham city centre on a particularly busy day, which also coincided with a rail strike. The drone images highlighted traffic building up in an area to the RTCC duty manager who was then able to deploy Transport Safety Officers into the road to divert motorists away from congestion.
A drone has also been deployed during Aston Villa matches to spot traffic issues and allow up-to-date information to be sent out via social media channels. Those drone images are shared with Birmingham City Council and West Midlands Police.
The live panoramic overview provided by the drones is already making a difference in how congestion at junctions is managed and minimised.
And the team is also set to trial an automated drone which would be launched from the roof of Walsall Bus Station in collaboration with drone safety specialists Skybound Rescuer. It would be the first urban trial of a remote operated drone system in the UK.
Kerry Blakeman, accountable drone manager for TfWM, said: “We want the public to know what we’re doing and the reason why. So we record all our flights on www.dronesafetymap.com which allows the public to see why we’re in their neighbourhood and helps improve safety as other drone pilots can also use this map.
“We are constantly looking to develop the capacity and improve the quality of information available to our transport coordination centre which is why we have launched this trial at Walsall Bus Station.”
Five members of staff, including transport safety officers and members of TfWM’s network resilience team, have been trained to pilot the new drones.
Three new drones have been added to the fleet and include the latest state of the art DJI Enterprise M30T. This drone, with its thermal image camera and x200 zoom, can fly for up to 35 minutes in rain and strong winds.
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