Work on the InZoneAlert vest began in 2013 by Engineering professor Tom Martin, who has an interest in smart clothing. The vest uses GPS to track a worker’s movement and shortwave radio sensors that can communicate with the car’s connected vehicle technology. As a car approaches a worksite, these radio sensors can send the driver a warning about the work zone with instructions to slow down, change lanes and so on. This same connected technology can also determine if a car is driving recklessly, issuing a warning to the worker that a collision is about to occur. This instantaneous alert may save the worker’s life by allowing them to jump out of the way of the oncoming car. In tests of the vest, the alert system was successful 90 percent of the time.
When it was first created, the InZoneAlert vest was a back-pack sized device that was cumbersome to wear, but over time, technological advances have shrunk the radio communications tech down to the size of a cell phone, and there are even smaller gum pack-sized modules planned for future versions. Besides making the vest more comfortable to wear, the team has also been refining the alert system, so it gets the worker’s attention but is not jarring. It’s a challenge as roadside work is often loud and busy, which means workers can’t hear alerts very well and often miss the notifications because they are very focused on what they are doing. Researchers have proposed and are testing ideas that would embed an audible alert into hearing protection or tactile alerts that would vibrate the vest or compress a cuff of the clothing.
The InZoneAlert vest already is being tested at highway speeds both at the Virginia Smart Road in Blacksburg Virginia and the Interstate 64 corridor near Fairfax, Virginia. With additional funding, the vest could make its way to roadside use within five years. Besides work zone applications, the InZoneAlert vest also could be used by police, firefighters and other first responders who often work alongside busy roads when there is an automobile accident. Similar technology may be adapted for other collision avoidance situations, such as the detection and avoidance of animals in the road.