FARGO A high-tech autonomous vehicle system originally developed for the military has been enlisted for an effort to make North Dakota’s roads safer for its highway workers.

A prototype that will be tested on the state’s roads and highways next year was unveiled at the Grand Farm test site south of Fargo on Thursday, Oct. 8.

With sunny skies and drones buzzing overhead, a crowd of about 100 people watched as North Dakota Department of Transportation drivers went through their checklists and then fired up the converted heavy duty DOT trucks, slowly pulling out of the Grand Farm site and onto 124th Avenue South.

The lead vehicle held a driver with a passenger monitoring the wireless connections to the autonomous impact protection vehicle. It calmly slipped past the crowd, while the trailing vehicle — with Sen. John Hoeven riding in the passenger seat and no one behind the wheel — trailed behind like a calf following its mother.

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“These are to protect our workers,” NDDOT Director Bill Panos said. The system (also called an autonomous truck-mounted attenuator) will enhance safety “and potentially protect lives.”

Truck-mounted attenuators, crash protection systems attached to the rear of trucks, have been in use in North Dakota for a while, but require someone behind the wheel. When another vehicle crashes into them, that driver can be injured.

Altogether, there were 261 work zone related crashes on North Dakota highways in 2019. Those crashes resulted in 64 injuries and two deaths, Panos said.

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“The NDDOT remains committed to its Vision Zero initiative and our goal is to eliminate fatalities and serious injuries caused by motor vehicle crashes,” Panos said.

The pilot crash-protection project was made possible by a $241,687 grant from the Federal Highway Administration.

The NDDOT autonomous impact protection vehicle, left, follows the lead truck on a demonstration drive at the Grand Farm site south of Fargo on Thursday, Oct. 8. David Samson / The Forum
The NDDOT autonomous impact protection vehicle, left, follows the lead truck on a demonstration drive at the Grand Farm site south of Fargo on Thursday, Oct. 8. David Samson / The Forum

The technology was developed by San Diego-based Kratos Defense & Security Systems, in partnership with Royal Truck & Equipment.

The crash-protection prototype will be operated on the Interstate 29 corridor in 2021. If the test proves successful, the NDDOT will aim to acquire more of the systems.

Hoeven, R-N.D., is no stranger to boosting the use of high technology and autonomous systems, having encouraged their development in the state since he was governor.

“For me, this is kind of like deja vu,” Hoeven said, likening highway safety autonomous vehicles and the ag-related autonomous vehicle work being done at Grand Farm, to the groundwork laid 15 years ago in Grand Forks for the Unmanned Aerial Systems industry in the state.

Hoeven predicted that in the next five to 15 years, “We’re going to be on the map in a big, big, big way” with automated vehicles. “This is going to be a big deal.”

State workers have been training on the system for about a week and a half, an operator said. The system has the trailing vehicle follow the lead vehicle’s movements precisely.

The NDDOT autonomous impact protection vehicle travels on a demonstration drive near the Grand Farm site south of Fargo on Thursday, Oct. 8. David Samson / The Forum
The NDDOT autonomous impact protection vehicle travels on a demonstration drive near the Grand Farm site south of Fargo on Thursday, Oct. 8. David Samson / The Forum

The demonstration was held during Grand Farm's Innovation Day. Grand Farm is designed to be a place for companies, government and academia to showcase research and innovation.

“Partnering with North Dakota's DOT is a prime example of how we can collaborate to showcase technology that will positively influence North Dakotans." Emerging Prairie Executive Director Greg Tehven said.

Maynard Factor, a Kratos technology expert, said his firm’s primary focus is on enhancing safety for fighting wars. But this is an area where the now mature technologies used to convert military convoy vehicles into unmanned systems can be repurposed, helping to protect slow-moving road sweeping and line striping vehicles and their occupants.

Highway work zones “are a dangerous environment to work in,” Factor said, calling the pilot safety project “the first step in a long-term strategic partnership” with North Dakota.

Kratos specializes in unmanned systems, satellite communications, cybersecurity/warfare, microwave electronics, missile defense, hypersonic systems, training, and combat systems, the firm’s website says.