Are we there yet?

For any country, its infrastructure is a matter of pride. From roadways and railways, to airports and other smart-city initiatives, in the last few years India has witnessed a phenomenal change in the transportation sector, leading to world-class facilities being developed across various parts of the country. Indian cities are expanding their boundaries and becoming increasingly populous, with a growing need for a good transportation network to ease the process of development and urbanisation. Although our country’s network of roads is one of the largest in the world, second only to that in the USA, the quality of roads in major Indian cities has not kept up with the growing demand for good quality infrastructure. Problems associated with traffic congestion in cities are well known and numerous, making travelling at peak hours a frustrating experience. This seems to arise from the fact that road capacity has not improved on par with the increase in traffic. Streets bustling with vehicles, pedestrians, and the occasional sight of stray animals have become a common sight and reflect a lack of planning when it comes to designing our roads.

The Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) Laboratory and Traffic Monitoring Centre at IIT Madras, sponsored by the Ministry of Urban Development (MoUD) under the Centre of Excellence Programme, was inaugurated in 2011 to understand, and develop solutions to, this problem. It is here that Dr. Lelitha Vanjakshi, a professor in the Transportation Division at the Department of Civil Engineering, is currently working on two projects to demonstrate the applications of ITS in India.

A good transportation system is at the backbone of any country’s economy. We sometimes take this for granted, but virtually almost all goods and services have to be transported from one part of the country to another. We need a good system combining the use of vehicles, railways and infrastructure like roads and bridges to facilitate safe, quick and hassle-free movement of passengers and cargo.

Over the past decade, India has seen unprecedented growth in the number of vehicles making use of this infrastructure, which is now being pushed to the limits of its capacity. Apart from introducing new infrastructure and expanding older ones, we also need to think about bringing down the cost of maintenance of this transportation system so that it becomes a viable investment for the future by lasting longer. In this era of information revolution, we can record, manage and analyse transportation operations in real time and implement new technologies for efficient and intelligent use of our transportation systems. For instance, drivers in Japan today rely on the use of route guidance systems to pilot them through their vast network of roads with timely voice instructions.

ITS includes application of advanced technologies to the transportation sector to gather, organize, analyze and share information with the users of these systems for efficient and safe travel. ITS offers various services aimed at providing provide a hassle-free travelling experience, including car navigation, traffic signal control systems, variable message sign-boards for the public transportation services to the more advanced automatic number plate recognition and speed cameras for security purposes. Such a system hopes to integrate information about traffic, such as the number and type of vehicles using a road at any given point during the day, with various modes of transportation within the city and make it available to users so that they can make an efficient and coordinated use of the transportation network of our cities. This technology, if implemented correctly, has the potential to unclog the transportation network for cars, trucks, buses and even trains. The future could soon see a whole range of electronic devices and systems put in place to make the journey safer and speedier even for the traveller looking to move between parts of the city limits.

The first project involves predicting , the arrival times for our city’s MTC buses, a task that faces many challenges, considering that their operation is subject to a variety of external conditions ranging from weather, unforeseen public events like rallies and uncertainty in traffic. This has led to the deployment of real-time GPS tracking systems, on a few select bus routes, to estimate the average time taken for buses to travel between adjacent stops.

“An informed traveller is a better traveller,” says Akhilesh Koppineni (BT/CE/2011), an alumnus of IITM who is currently involved in the development of the algorithm that does the backend analysis of collected data. He had started working on this in 2009, his sophomore year, after he decided to install GPS trackers on a few campus shuttle buses, and analyse whether a pattern could be arrived at for the travel time in these buses. Moving ahead to make this the inspiration for his B. Tech project on MTC bus time arrivals, he went on to work on similar lines in different companies after graduation, and even published his own work in this area. After the establishment of the CoEUT in 2011, he has come back to his alma mater after nearly three years of work experience and is continuing research on what he had started.

With this idea, the project team comprising both final year students apart from M. Tech and Research Scholars and dedicated staff, deployed Information Dissemination Units, or kiosks, in the MTC bus stops along select routes that display the predicted time of arrival for these buses and their current position, based on a travel time prediction model that they developed in the ITS Lab by fitting MTC buses with a GPS tracking system. This system of tracking has been implemented on an initial pool of 100 buses covering about 25 routes along the Rajiv Gandhi Salai.

“Geotagg”, a startup by alumni including Akhilesh is based out of the IIT-M Research Park and a similar setup in the Bus-Tracking App for the shuttle buses inside the institute. As their effort to place kiosks with information screens at each bus stop within the institute could not be accomplished due to financial constraints, except for one at the main gate, they decided to make it a Web and Android application to track buses at IIT Madras, Akhilesh informs. Geotagg further aims at doing a similar setup of Android and web based Application for the MTC buses in Chennai, and hopes to release it by the end of November.

Monitor array displaying live feeds. Courtesy: Ananth Sundararaman
Monitor array displaying live feeds. Courtesy: Ananth Sundararaman

The algorithm that has been developed to do the analysis for the MTC buses takes into account factors such as distribution of times taken for previous trips taken for the route, speed of the buses from the GPS tracking systems, and also traffic conditions depending on the time of the day.

Just two previous bus arrival times are enough for this model to predict the time of arrival for the next bus. So far, it has been successful in achieving a 3-5 minute offset between the actual time of arrival and the predicted time. It now has a patent pending for its unique implementation in conditions native to Chennai, something that would definitely give a boost to research in this area.

While the first project is limited to Chennai, the second one is a part of the Advanced Traveller Information System (ATIS) for Indian cities sponsored by the Department of Electronic And Information Technology (DeitY), Government of India. It is concerned with the demonstration of the scope of ATIS by implementing this system along the chosen test bed along the IT corridor of Chennai, on a 16-km-long network of roads including parts of OMR, Taramani Road, Velachery Main Road, Velachery Bypass Road, Sardar Patel Road, and Taluk Office Road.

Initiated in 2011 by faculty members R. Sivanandan, Karthik K. Srinivasan, Lelitha Vanajakshi and Gitakrishnan Ramadurai, the project has neared completion, and is now looking to improve services and progress towards large scale integration in traffic systems of Indian cities. Information about traffic and delay time to reach their destinations is displayed to the users through Variable Message Sign (VMS) boards which have been installed at important junctions and sections of the arterial roads on the selected 16-km stretch of road and also through the RTIS website (http://rtis.iitm.ac.in). Users can also access the website to view options of selecting their origin, destination and mode of travel, and the system will suggest routes for travel with the distance and estimated duration. The website also features colour-coded maps depicting speed and congestion levels on the various roads within the network, as well as traffic delays (in minutes) at various junctions and roads, live traffic images from the 32 video cameras monitoring the traffic, and an interactive map interface showing location alerts for traffic disruptions such as accidents, incidents, processions, and road work.

Variable Message Sign board. Courtesy: Ananth Sundararaman
Variable Message Sign board. Courtesy: Ananth Sundararaman

One of the salient activities of the team at CoEUT involves evaluating and developing sensors for real time traffic monitoring and traffic data collection. Traffic parameters are extracted from the video using automated video processing solutions such as GRIP, Trazer and Trafficam Collect-R. GRIP is an image processing software that is being developed in-house to extract classified vehicle count from live and recorded videos. The vehicles moving across the virtual detection zone are counted and categorized into four different classes – two-wheeler, auto-rickshaw, light and heavy motor vehicles based on their width. Trazer is a commercially available video analytics specifically developed for Indian conditions, and generates data on classified count for four different classes and their respective speeds and projected occupancies for every one minute. Trafficam Collect-R is a virtual loop based video sensor with embedded hardware. It processes the images on the field and communicates the traffic parameters to the lab. These include classified count, speed, occupancy, speed and headway separately for different classes. These sensors along with a few others, are being tested in the IT hub of the city along these selected roads. The team also collaborates with some of these sensor manufacturers to calibrate and improve their performance to work better under Indian conditions.

ITS is still in its infancy in India, with decisionmakers, key planners and agencies yet to understand its potential. The investments in this sector by the Ministry of Urban Development and DeitY done are of significant importance and should be stepped up in the forthcoming years, as this is a problem that will affect the near future at current rates of growth and development of our cities. IIT-M stands at the forefront of research and development of indigenous technology in this area that caters specifically to Indian conditions, and in demonstrating the scope of this technology and its benefits. It is hence vital that we start paying attention to the way we travel and begin exploring options of using ITS in India, so as to improve deteriorating conditions of traffic congestion in India.

Ananth Sundararaman

Ananth is a final year undergraduate student in the Dept. of Civil Engineering. He loves to travel, quiz and play football. He loves to watch Liverpool play and his biggest fear like Asterix, is the sky falling on his head.