Means of progress

Sept. 13, 2019

Top 5 trending technologies that can aid a Public Works department

As I consult with transportation professionals and public works providers across the country, some react to ideas like automated vehicles and augmented reality as if they were as fictional as the Jetsons. I understand why – the technological changes currently underway will fundamentally alter the way we move goods and people, and they require a new way of thinking. And yet it’s not as daunting as it sounds. In fact, not all of these emerging technologies will be right for every municipality or department. I encourage officials to consider them within the context of their overall strategic plan – which would create efficiencies and help achieve goals more quickly? Which are nice-to-haves, but not critical to success?

To put it another way, the goal for your municipality may not be to become George and Jane Jetson, but you also don’t want to be Fred and Wilma Flintstone. As officials work to strike that balance, here are five trending technologies for consideration.


Let’s start with smart cities. Under that umbrella falls the use of data analytics to make our communities safer, more sustainable, and better places to work and live. Many small, incremental improvements can be gained by simply combining various sources of data in a way that helps to inform operational decisions. For example, computer modeling can combine climate, water usage, and hydrological data while simulating a variety of operating factors such as variations in demand, regulatory limitations, conservation tactics, and water quality guidelines.

Combining these data in a single application for a water supply operator in a city of about 250,000 people showed that providing reliable water supply in years of drought required supplemental pumping from another source. Activating pumps too early or in non-drought years created a costly waste of energy. Activating pumps too late in the drought presents the risk of exhausting the water supply. Based on the data, the computer application analyzes patterns, so the pumps can be turned on at just the right moment to provide the optimal efficiencies.

Another relatively low-cost smart cities application many cities and utility owners deploy is upgraded lighting technology. Replacing low-pressure or high-pressure gas bulbs with efficient light-emitting diodes – or LED – bulbs is easy, cost-effective, and affords a city multiple opportunities to monetize this asset. For example, the owner can charge pole attachment and other fees for hosting smart city applications like sensor platforms, video surveillance, digital signage, small cell transmitters, and other services.


If looking for incremental ways to integrate technology, mobile asset management is a great place to start and it is also at the core of smart infrastructure. Taking disparate sources of data and integrating them into one platform allows managers and owners to see and analyze trends, while also giving employees access to information in the field. The one-platform approach also provides efficiency in application and programming of scarce dollars.

For example, Gannett Fleming’s geospatial technology division developed an application called Maintenance IQ for the Pennsylvania DOT (PennDOT), enabling the department to use geographic information system mapping to plan and schedule maintenance activities for the more than 40,000 miles of roads and approximately 25,000 bridges under its purview. Maintenance IQ performs analyses on databases at the state, district, and municipal levels. Map layers include traffic or pavement roughness thresholds; posted road, bridge or weight restrictions; and hundreds more. Different data layers can be quickly added or removed from a map to evaluate multiple planning scenarios. PennDOT crews can also quickly display street level images of a selected asset or map point. As a cloud-based or server-based application, it can provide shared access and customized reports to provide better and faster decision making and cost savings.


Cybersecurity includes the measures taken to protect a device or system against unsanctioned access or attack. Public works professionals must protect their infrastructure systems, like supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA), traffic management centers, traffic control devices, and building automation. For example, when I served as chief engineer at the North Carolina DOT (NCDOT), a hacker from Israel compromised a couple of digital message boards. The incident was met with a thorough review of the portal access for board control and the assignment of individual IP addresses, a numeric designation that identifies its location on the internet, to each board. NCDOT enacted new procedures and security protocols to seal off remote access to encrypted passwords only.

In another example, many agencies use vehicle tracking to help maintain their fleets. They can establish security for those vehicles at various levels:

  • At the device level, security can be achieved through an encrypted message packet and low probability of interception/low probability of detection signal transmission.

  • At the communications level, security can be achieved through an encrypted data connection, fixed ports, and disabling auto-connect to wireless access point.

The two most important concepts in cybersecurity are to secure user input and secure connections. Officials can secure user input by restricting as many users as possible to read only/view only access and they can secure connections by using HTTPS or other encryption to protect user names and passwords as well as restricting IP range acceptance and configuration.


Aside from personal automated vehicles, commercial applications of automated vehicles seem to receive more publicity than connected vehicles as they are being rolled out on set, repetitive, or closed courses like airport shuttles. Challenges exist when implementing these vehicles on mixed-use roadways. However, groups like the Automated Vehicle Coalition work to educate the public and legislators about capabilities within the industry. Questions of automated vehicle driver’s licensing, registration, safety, and legislation are legitimate concerns that are inconsistently addressed across the nation.

On the other hand, connected vehicles are becoming more common as they present a more manageable implementation. Through the installation of roadside devices, public works crews enable communication between vehicles, infrastructure, and devices. For example, roadside sensors could register black ice or flooding well before any drivers encounter the hazard on the road, increasing the safety of those who previously would have inspected the road.

The U.S. DOT has issued grant opportunities to enable the infrastructure necessary to support a connected and, one day, automated roadway network. Both the Iowa Department of Transportation and the Tennessee Department of Transportation recently submitted U.S. DOT grant applications for funding of highway automation readiness from a coast-to-coast and a rural perspective. The grants lay out a strategic vision for implementation of communications networks and consistent signage and striping to prepare for a connected and automated environment. The Utah Department of Transportation also announced its partnership with Panasonic to build the “Smart Roadways Data Network,” a $50 million contract “to accelerate development toward a statewide system for collecting, monitoring and sharing connected and autonomous vehicle data.” Though somewhat overdue, these are all major milestones as the “internet of things” merges with transportation, where real-world improvements are saving lives, reducing congestion, improving freight efficiency, and catalyzing economic growth.


Augmented reality places computer-generated graphics and data into the user’s real environment so that they can interact with it. Imagine walking through your plans and identifying potential issues early in the design phase, well before costly change orders would be needed. Beyond the project-specific work, augmented reality also assists with workforce development wherein employees can be trained to address various scenarios without leaving the office. Also, the use of this type of technology is an employee retention tool, as early career professionals are comfortable with technological change and expect it to be part of their lives. Augmented reality can also enhance the public involvement process. Previously, officials used 2D renderings to attempt to explain a project’s impact. Now, members of the community can walk through a project to more clearly visualize proposed changes.


Not engaged in many (or any) of these technologies yet? Do not begin to use the technology just for technology’s sake, but implement technology to enhance mobility, increase safety, lessen environmental impacts, and drive the economy, all while connecting it to key performance indicators. Be aware that public works operators across the country are adopting these advances. In fact, look to regional neighbors for inspiration and potential partnerships, especially because you may share data sets, pain points, and customers.

These technologies are driving us well into the current era of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, where the digital, biological, and physical realms come together to transform our roles as operators and service providers. Adoption of technology is happening at a faster rate than ever before in history, and public works cannot be left behind. So, start today with incremental steps toward implementation of those technologies that would most directly influence your strategic plan, and ensure you’re more a Jetson and less of a Flintstone.

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