SURE-FOOTED Inventor’s robots to be tested. (Photo courtesy of University of Nebraska-Lincoln)

The buzz started late last month when a mechanical engineering professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln decided to publicize his new invention. He has since fielded hundreds of calls from the press and professionals wanting to learn how his three-wheeled orange creatures work and how they can be used.

Just about the only question not yet asked is “Where do I send my check,” says Shane Farritor, who holds two advanced engineering degrees from MIT. He says the idea stemmed from a “general irritation” with highway work zones and the dangerous job of setting up and taking away cones and barrels by hand. “Anything that is easy and dangerous for people to do says robots to me,” the inventor adds.

In 2001, Farritor started building battery-powered bases into standard traffic barrels used by the Nebraska Dept. of Roads. He has made nine prototypes so far and plans to deploy seven more units this summer in a live field test.

Each robot currently costs about $700. A custom software program transmits radio signals from a “shepherd” robot to control the other “sheep,” creating a continuously moving work zone. Low-tech drones are closer to traffic and thus cheaper to replace if they are damaged, Farritor says.

Steven Bartos, NDOR assistant construction engineer, says the current cost of the robots is high, but he thinks that Farritor’s concept of “smart” work zones could reduce the length of lane closures needed around roadbuilding sites.

raffic barrels driven by small, quick-moving robots are grabbing the attention of highway engineers and contractors nationwide.