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Solar-Powered RFID Reader Measures Road Traffic

The portable device holds promise for deployment in areas and under conditions for which a permanent RFID installation would be too expensive or impractical.
By Claire Swedberg
Nov 17, 2006Transportation researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the New York State Department of Transportation (DOT) are testing a solar-powered mobile RFID interrogator that will monitor traffic flow by reading EZPass tags attached to passing cars. Motorists use the tags to pay for bridge and highway tolls wirelessly. Last week, Rensselaer began testing a single RFID reader on Jordan Road in Troy, N.Y. In the spring, they plan to hold a pilot involving six solar-powered readers.

New York State currently monitors traffic flows on certain roads via 15 permanently stationed readers, which collect data from the EZPass tags. The new solar-powered portable solution provides a method of monitoring traffic flow for situations where it's too costly or unnecessary to install a permanent RFID reader—such as on roads where construction is underway, or on those traveled heavily only for special events.

Paul Manuel
"There are lots of traffic-monitoring points out there, but they rely on AC power," says Paul Manuel, vice president of sales and marketing at the Mark IV IVHS, which manufactures the solar-powered solution. Providing a permanent power source, he explains, is not always practical under such conditions.

The portable RFID unit, dubbed mGate, connects to a laptop computer via a USB cable, with batteries charged by a solar panel. Operators load the unit onto a trailer hitched to a truck for transport. When deployed alongside a road, the unit’s laptop sends the encrypted tag ID, timestamp and reader location via a wireless Internet connection to the Rensellaer server.

The system will ultimately be used to calculate how long it takes traffic to move from one installed RFID reader to another. However, the current pilot is only testing read rates. Eventually, traffic data from the mGate system could be used to reroute traffic when congestion looms, or to alert motorists via signage or the Internet about slow-moving road conditions, reducing the need for employees to identify problems as they arise.

Researchers received a $3.9 million grant from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) to fund the program, says Jeffrey Wojtowicz, a research engineer in civil and environmental engineering at Rensselaer. Also participating in the pilot are the New York State Thruway Authority, and North Carolina State University.

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