The future is now, and cities around the world are trying to keep up. Autonomous driving, a proposed ‘thing of the future,’ was one of the biggest trends of 2017, and the current rate of change in the sector indicates that the age of autonomous vehicles may arrive sooner than we think. Last week, Italian firm Carlo Ratti Associati announced that it is working to install smart highways with multi-sensor ‘flying poles’ to enable drones to relay information to human-manned and autonomous vehicles driving on Italy’s highways.

Turin-based international design and innovation office CRA-Carlo Ratti Associati is working with the Italian road agency ANAS to develop a smart highway over a stretch of 2,500 kilometers (1,553 miles) of highways and roads. The project’s concept of smart highways revolves around collecting and sharing data on mobility to improve safety conditions and traffic management on roads. The flying poles that are at the core of the project will serve both as charging stations for drones used to relay data and as WiFi hotspots for drivers. Aside from collecting and relaying mobility and traffic data, the drones will also be used to deliver first-aid equipment in the case of roadside accidents.

The flying poles will be installed at regular intervals so as to adequately regulate data to vehicles and provide WiFi services in order to keep drivers and vehicles connected at all times. In addition to these services, the poles will also be used to gauge pollution levels, wind speeds, humidity, and other weather-related conditions that will help keep drivers and vehicles informed of road conditions ahead of time. The smart highways will also be equipped with low-power panels that will display information useful to vehicles on the road.

smart highways

Courtesy of CRA and ANAS.

Carlo Ratti, one of the founding partners of CRA and professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) spoke in the project’s press release about the pivotal role that the internet is playing in the transformation of road design. “With this project, we aim to superimpose a digital layer over the existing physical infrastructure of our road network, to gather better data about our highways,” he said. He went on to say that the next phases of the project are in preparation for the growing popularity of autonomous vehicles on the roads and will lead to the development of what he calls the “Internet of Roads.”

smart highways

Courtesy of CRA and ANAS.

Project leader at CRA, Saverio Panata, also spoke about the challenges faced in making roads more efficient. “For future developments in mobility, we do not necessarily need more infrastructure, but better infrastructure.”

The inclusion of charging stations on top of the proposed poles goes back to the smart highways’ dynamic integration of drones in what is seen as the future of infrastructural design. Other projects have similarly integrated drones into their schemes in an attempt to optimize efficiency and productivity. In the CRA-ANAS joint project, drones can also be used to monitor wildfires or floods in the area.

In December 2017, the two organizations sent out a call for proposals worth EUR 30 million ($37.3 million) targeting contractors to begin work on new data centers and construction of the planned smart highways.

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