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Professor creates app that will aid in making roads safer and smoother

COLUMBIA, MO - Smartphones, you take them everywhere you go, but what if they could help give you a smoother drive?

That's the driving force behind an app being developed on the University of Missouri campus.

What if road crews knew exactly where every crack and pothole is starting to form? Well, that's what a new app called ‘Roughness Capture’ measures. It’s helping engineers better determine what materials should go into our roads.

“Let’s go find some cracks and potholes on some Columbia roads," says Professor William Buttlar.

Those aren’t too hard to find around Missouri or Illinois. The American Society of Civil Engineers gave both states a C- on the 2018 Infrastructure Report Card. Professor William Buttlar says this app can measure anything from a 1/2 crack all the way up to a 6-inch-deep pothole using the multiple sensors already built into your smartphone. He says that real-time data can make a real impact.

“We’d like to see what’s going on day by day, week by week. The normal survey crew out goes once a year, if we’re lucky, and we just don’t have the level of detail in the data that we need. So, by using a low-cost sensor such as a smartphone, we can get the day-to-day progress on the potholes—like the one we’re about to hit— that can be registered and maybe it can be given attention so it doesn’t bend an axle or pop a tire," he explains.

His research shows this kind of data could save drivers up to $350 per vehicle if road crews can tackle these issues as they arise.

“This file goes on and on and on. You can see I have a rich data set and that was just from a five-minute drive. Imagine if a fleet of taxis or police cars or citizens would combine by this data,” he says.

That data also shows engineers how certain asphalt mixtures hold up over time in different climates. They’re experimenting with adding plastics and rubber to cut costs while finding a new use for recyclables.

“We do have the cold winters and so we have to minimize the use of the stiffer recycled materials like roofing shingles and we tend to use more of the ground tire rubber which gives us the flexibility in the summer and in the winter,” he explains.

At a time when both Missouri and Illinois lawmakers are looking at hiking up the gas tax to pay for road improvements, Professor Buttlar wonders if those dollars could be better spent.

“From a technology standpoint, we save money with the evaluation by using smartphones. And on a design stage, if we’re evaluating pavement and making it better in the laboratory we can then save money by using recycled materials that are less expensive and make them last longer,” he explains.

These new mixtures are already being implemented in some parts of the world including in St. Louis. Professor Buttlar says the next phase would be to increase the number of projects that use these materials and thereby hopefully improve our road rating in Missouri.

But before you go rushing to your phone to download this app, right now it's only being used by researchers and agencies. Professor Buttlar says his team is currently working on versions for iPhone and Android that will be open to the public.

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