September 2


Counting Cars from the Sky: The Future of Traffic Monitoring

By Mike Spack

September 2, 2015

COUNTcam, data from sky, persistent surveillance systems, radio lab, traffic, traffic monitoring

Aerial View of city from Persistent Surveillance Systems I’m a fan of Radio Lab’s podcast. Back in June they had a very interesting podcast called Eye in the Sky that talked about how Persistent Surveillance Systems uses planes to collect video over a city and then uses the video recordings to track criminals as they drive away from the scene of a reported crime.  Using this technology, they were able to locate the home base of a drug cartel in Mexico and help the local government disband the group.

They’ve had several very successful case studies, but haven’t been widely utilized by police departments – yet.  So, in the meantime, they’re trying to get into the business of providing traffic data. (and DataFromSky is trying to do a similar thing with unmanned vehicles – aka drones).

They aren’t ubiquitous in our marketplace yet either.  I don’t think they’re going to displace tube counters or on the ground video traffic data collection systems like COUNTcam anytime soon.

As a side note, I wrote about similar drone based technology in January 2013 titled The Future of Traffic Monitoring.  The security/defense branches of our government are definitely using this type of technology.  We need to be aware of all of the possible applications of this technology to our industry.  Like autonomous vehicles, I think it’s a matter of when not if.

What are your thoughts on aerial traffic data collection? Post your comments below.


  • Right now most drones have limited flight times due to battery constraints; 20 minutes or so max. This reduces their value for traffic counting. However, they are a cheap means to view traffic flow which can come in very handy when trying to troubleshoot traffic flow problems or when doing signal re-timing. However, as it currently stands with the FAA, to use a drone for commercial purposes you have to have a private pilots license (which I have) and you have to get specific authorization for your particular use (which I have applied for). The approval process can take quite awhile. These restrictions could be relaxed as a “rational national” system for accommodating drones is developed but, right now, its a little cumbersome to use them legally. That’s probably why lots of people are using them illegally.

  • It’s always been a matter of cost. We have had for quite a while small 15-foot unmanned blimps that could do aerial video but they were costly and were somewhat difficult to relocate. The beauty of a free-flying drone is that it is cheap (you can get a good quality drone with camera for $1300 here in the US) and it is flexible as to location. The flight longevity problem will undoubtedly be solved as battery technology progresses.

  • I got the software, it is not free. But if you want to do a case study. I can process your data for free

  • In the U.S. a lot of DOT employees are intrigued about hiring drone operators, but management is controlling tightly. You can’t fly over live traffic or built-up areas, etc; and you need permission from property owner if launching from a lot. Commercial permit (FAA 333) or cert. of authorization (COA) needed if public agency. Get explicit management permission, get insurance. Bridge inspections can make sense, and disaster assessments; and “as-built” 3D photo models. But not useful for traffic flow in any kind of practical application for now. Turnover of street parking and parking lot occupancy rates will be most viable survey types once we are allowed to fly over people, towns, traffic. Roundabout, intersection and complex interchange trajectories will also a nice application when allowed (tag-team 2 drones, have extra batteries, get 1 or 2 hours of flow) At Skycomp we use helicopters to do it legally today; we can go 1 mile high, too, to cover way bigger areas.

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    Mike Spack

    My mission is to help traffic engineers, transportation planners, and other transportation professionals improve our world.

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