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New technology assesses rockfall hazards on roadways

April 11, 2017

High hazard rockfall areas are indicated in red on this LIDAR image of a rock slope on Alaska’s Glenn Highway. Photo credit: Matthew O'Banion/Oregon State University.


 Associate Professor Joe Wartman   Alumna Lisa Dunham, MSCE ‘15

The ability to more accurately and quickly identify rockfall hazards on roadways is now possible, thanks to technology developed by a team of researchers that includes CEE associate professor Joe Wartman and CEE alumna Lisa Dunham, MSCE ‘15. The technology ultimately has the potential to save the lives of people driving through mountainous terrain.

The team, which includes researchers from University of Washington, Oregon State University and the University of Alaska Fairbanks, recently published a paper in Engineering Geology.

The new technology, called the Rockfall Activity Index, utilizes LIDAR technology to map surfaces using light. With LIDAR, large areas can be mapped in a short amount of time and the data can be analyzed by computer. The Rockfall Activity Index not only identifies high-risk cliffs and roads, but prioritizes projects to most effectively ensure public safety.

The current evaluation system, used globally, was developed more than 25 years ago. Current practices entail workers analyzing cliffs, which may involve rappelling down mountainsides to search for cracks and other hazards.

Rockfall hazards are especially concerning to transportation planners, as they pose a serious road safety and maintenance issue. Every year, millions of dollars are spent on rockfall hazard mitigation and maintenance. The topic is of particular relevance in the Pacific Northwest, which has numerous roads that wind through mountain ranges that face decades of erosion.

The research was supported by the UW CEE-based PacTrans, the National Science Foundation and the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.

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