Researchers and transportation officials believe unmanned aerial vehicles, also known as drones, represent the next step in traffic monitoring and control.

Aerial monitoring has the potential to yield far more – and more detailed – information to help traffic planners, emergency workers, truck companies and commuters, Benjamin Coifman, an Ohio State University professor of civil and electrical engineering and one of the researchers on the project, told the Cincinnati Enquirer.

“We’re hoping within the next half year to do a test flight,” Coifman said.

Currently, detectors embedded in pavement, stationary cameras or pneumatic tubes laid across roads produce data on traffic flow.

A team at Ohio State University leads research on drone-enabled traffic control as part of the National Consortium for Remote Sensing in Transportation.

Drones could quickly view several roads at once and inform police cars or ambulances of the best route to an accident site. They also could measure the way vehicles line up at traffic lights, how fast vehicles travel between lights, count trucks at rest stops or cars at park-and-ride lots, reports the Enquirer.

Some drones carry “sniffers,” a technology that could let officials know if ammonia or gasoline has been spilled at an accident scene before emergency workers arrive.

Smaller models would be able to fly through tunnels, and most have infrared cameras for use at night.

“The [unmanned aerial vehicle] can give you the big picture,” Stephen Morris, president of MLB told the paper. MLB, an unmanned aerial vehicle company produces a 15-pound drone that is launched by a bungee-powered catapult.

GeoData Systems markets a larger, 55-pound drone with a wingspan of 12 feet. It is equipped with a video camera and is controlled by a human operator on the ground.

Video cameras on drones can move and inspect several roads at once, unlike stationary TV cameras currently used to monitor road congestion. Within a few years it would be cheaper and more informative to use unmanned planes than current fixed cameras and sensors, researchers told the Cincinnati paper.

The National Consortium for Remote Sensing in Transportation, funded by the U.S. Department of Transportation, consists of several universities across the nation working in co-operation with NASA on a research program seeking to apply remote sensing and spatial information technologies to transportation.

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