$1M Grant Awarded for Road-Painting Robot

THURSDAY, JANUARY 27, 2022


A robotic pavement-marking system developed in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, has been awarded nearly $1 million from the National Science Foundation to advance ongoing research.

Case Western Reserve University professor Wyatt Newman co-founded RoadPrintz Inc. alongside mechanic and chair of the Cleveland Heights Transportation Advisory Committee Sam Bell in 2019 when they saw a need for increased worker safety and efficiency.

The new truck-mounted, operator-driven robot, which has been named Stella, is expected to have its first production model launch in April. The company plans to beta test the system with contractors this spring.

The new NSF Small Business Innovation Research Phase II funding totaling $999,900 will go towards developing new features for the robot, including:

  • Precision vision-based symbol painting;
  • Precision mapping and coordinate-based painting;
  • Automated creation and use of a database of precision road markings; and
  • Enhancement and validation of road-painting capabilities.

About Stella 

“Standing in the road watching the paint dry is the very definition of boredom,” said Newman, RoadPrintz Co-Founder and Chief Technology Officer and a roboticist and professor of electrical engineering at the Case School of Engineering. “This is exactly the sort of application that robots are good for.”

According to RoadPrintz, the traditional method of road painting using “hand work” stenciling is 40,000 years old, with an estimated $15,000 per mile for crews to paint the road markings.

In an interview, Bell estimated that their robotic system can do the work for $5,000 per mile, or less, utilizing a robotic arm that can safely use hot paint that dries in less than a minute. The truck is also equipped with a computer that provides GPS measurements to outline the markings.

“Anything that is done parallel to the curb is already being done at a pretty reasonable cost,” he said. “Where we can bring it down is the transverse markings, the diagonals, the bike symbols, the school zone markings, the turn arrows, that kind of thing.”

The team started with a customized 2018 Ford F-550 truck, with plans to build a fleet of six trucks to lease, forming a partnership with QT Equipment Co. in Akron. A custom suspension system was installed on the vehicle to bolster the large controller, including the 1,000-pound robotic arm, mounted behind the cab.

The pilot project was completed in October 2019 by RoadPrintz in collaboration with the Cleveland Metroparks and the Innovation Lab at Cuyahoga County. More recently, Case Western’s Technology Transfer Office and RoadPrintz signed a licensing agreement to help further the project.

The technology has previously been awarded $100,000 grant from the Ohio Third Frontier Technology Validation and Start-up Fund, two Great Lakes Innovation & Development Enterprise grants totaling $100,000 and a smaller research grant from NSF’s Phase I of about $225,000.

On top of efficiency, safety became a priority when Newman and Bell realized how dangerous the work could be. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, the number of fatal work-related injuries at roadwork sites averages about 124 per year.

Workers can sit safely inside the vehicle controlling the computer, while the robotic arm paints the road.

“We expect our system will reduce injuries and save workers’ lives while increasing labor productivity substantially,” Bell said.

Other Road-Painting Robotics

In 2015, researchers at the University of Minnesota Duluth teamed up with its state’s Department of Transportation to build a robot that helps keep workers safe. Designed by mechanical and industrial engineering professor Ryan Rosandich and sponsored by the Minnesota Department of Transportation, the MnDOT Robot can paint markings and words on roads while keeping crew members out of traffic.

“The current way of doing things is to use templates and have multiple people out there painting out in the traffic zone,” Rosandich said in a video demonstration of the prototype. “So, the idea was to try to make it a lot safer so that it could be done from inside the cab of a pickup by an individual person.”

During a test run of the prototype in October that year, the MnDOT said the robot painted a right-turn arrow and the word “ahead” on the pavement at the agency’s Pike Lake station in Duluth.

Joe Gilk, a transportation generalist for MnDOT, said the robot actually eliminates the need for one of the two workers the painting jobs require now.

“It took two of us to carry the stencils and put them down in front of the truck, spray, put the beads on, and wait for it to dry,” said Gilk in the video. “An operation like this, you eliminate one person, you’re not outside the vehicle in the traffic getting.”

Rosandich said at the time that he and the agency are testing the prototype to prove that it’s functional and practical. Once it is fully tested, he said he hopes other industries will be interested in using it for jobs beyond painting roads.

   

Tagged categories: Coating Application; Coatings; Funding; Health & Safety; NA; National Science Foundation; North America; Paint application; Paint application equipment; Program/Project Management; Research; Research and development; Roads/Highways; Robotics; Safety; Technology

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