Drivers passing through construction zones in the future will be increasingly likely to see a machine rather than a person guiding traffic.
But there will be a human flagger nearby.
One way to reduce the danger to flaggers from careless drivers is the use of “roboflaggers” or AFADs — Automated Flagger Assistant Devices.
Flaggers or other construction workers operate the devices remotely, usually through a computer tablet, but they do so while they’re at a safe distance from the road, said Alex Olsen-Smith, 38, who operated two of the devices recently along old Highway 30 as it leads south out of Baker City toward Interstate 84 during a utility line installation project.
The roboflaggers include a signal light, sign and traffic arm that drops when a lane is closed.
“So, instead of having a body flagger out here standing here with a stop/slow paddle, potentially getting hit, now we have a mechanical device that stands there and does the same thing,” said Smith, who tested the AFADs with his wife, Miranda Stoneman Olsen-Smith, 24.
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration website, 20,000 workers are injured in road construction zones yearly.
A flagger was hit and injured Sept. 11 on Highway 26 near Mount Vernon.
Alex Olsen-Smith owns BSD Enterprises LLC Traffic Control Flagging. He started his business 10 years ago in Tillamook and is now based at Dallas, west of Salem.
Olsen-Smith said two AFADs make a unit and each has two cameras, rear and front facing, allowing operators to see oncoming and outgoing traffic.
“We’re still here, we’re still watching you,” he said. “We can set these up on a timer but it’s only recommended to set these up on a timer in shorter distances.”
AFADs stand about 8 feet tall and have a red and yellow light. The arm is flexible and if someone drives through it, the arm will pop off not causing damage to the car.
When that happens, an alarm goes off and the other arm stays down to prevent incoming traffic until it is reattached.
“Once the arm comes off it shuts everything (down), it’s an emergency,” Olsen-Smith said. “And so all the other sites won’t open, they won’t do anything, even on an auto timer it will just sit there.”
He said the light will turn red and the cameras will count how many cars run the red light.
Flashing yellow means go, solid yellow means prepare to stop, and red means stop.
Olsen-Smith said he’s been testing AFADs since Aug. 8 to figure out the “kinks, quirks, and bugs” in their operation.
AFADs are waterproof and can be out in rain, sleet, snow, and other weather conditions.
Alex said they weigh 200 pounds, including batteries.
The Oregon Department of Transportation has several AFADs for use in Eastern Oregon, and the agency is looking to buy more, said Tom Strandberg, a spokesman for the agency in La Grande.
ODOT is using the devices on its maintenance projects, and also talking to contractors about employing them, Strandberg said.
A pair costs about $25,000, an ODOT employee in Klamath Falls told a TV reporter in 2018.