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How PB Traffic is preventing traffic light theft

New Zealand’s PB Traffic has deployed an IoT-based tracking system to gain oversight of its portable traffic light systems and prevent theft

Stealing batteries can be a lucrative activity, so organisations with battery-powered equipment in quiet public places will need to find a way to protect them.

That was the issue that New Zealand’s PB Traffic was trying to solve. Since 2009, the company has been providing traffic management equipment including portable traffic lights. Its customers include contractors involved in infrastructure projects such as the Puhoi to Warkworth NX2 motorway and the Kaikoura SH1 rebuild.

The company’s full name is Peter Berghaus New Zealand, and although it exclusively uses products from Germany’s Peter Berghaus – “a force to be known,” according to PB Traffic general manager Akshay Gupte – it is a completely separate and locally owned business that sells, services and hires traffic lights and related equipment.

PB Traffic has 110 sets of portable traffic lights that are mainly used in situations where road works mean traffic can only flow in one direction at a time and human traffic controllers are not appropriate. The pairs of traffic lights are connected by radio and are activated by the presence of vehicles.

The problem is that work sites are rarely attended around the clock, and even metropolitan locations can be very quiet during the small hours of the morning. This makes the equipment a target for thieves that are after the batteries.

PB Traffic started by hardening the enclosures so that it was a lot harder to remove the batteries, but the result was that the criminals started stealing complete units so they could get at the batteries at leisure. The change had made things worse rather than better, because the traffic signal head units – the expensive parts – were being stolen along with the batteries.

The company was losing around NZ$60,000 a year in equipment and associated costs, so something had to be done, especially because of the safety hazards resulting from inoperative or stolen traffic lights.

It considered installing GPS trackers powered by the traffic light batteries, but instead adopted the self-powered asset tracking units supplied by local technology service provider Pollin8, in part because they provided an opportunity to implement functions beyond theft detection.

“As well as being a lost asset, roads missing functioning traffic lights create huge safety risks. It increases the chances of head-on accidents when the light on one side is stolen or vandalised, and this quickly triggers significant congestion which causes stress for drivers and pedestrians,” said Gupte.

“We therefore needed a tracking system to give us full oversight of our traffic light systems no matter where they are, and the ability to understand whether they are working as expected. With Pollin8’s IoT [internet of things] devices and software plus Thinxtra’s 0G network, we have a cost-effective and efficient solution that works beyond the standard capabilities of GPS tracking.

“Pollin8 had the answer to PB Traffic’s problem, took the time to work out the best solution, and they’ve been absolutely fantastic,” he added, noting that the 0G network provides good coverage even in the most remote areas.

PB Traffic now works with police to track stolen traffic lights to the address where they have been taken, and this capability has resulted in the property being recovered, Gupte said. Consequently, the devices paid for themselves in around six months.

And it’s not just the traffic lights’ final destination that is of interest: the system reveals other places where they have come to rest – information that can be useful to police.

Gupte said “the word gets around” about the tracking capability, and none of the traffic lights fitted with trackers have been stolen in the past three years.

In addition to theft detection, the location of the traffic lights has been linked to live traffic flow information, allowing PB Traffic to determine whether the timing of the cycles has been set appropriately. If traffic banks up on one side of the site but not the other, the former is clearly not getting an appropriate share.

“Staring at a red light can be frustrating – you don’t know whether it is working,” Gupte observed.

Learning about traffic patterns in this way means pre-emptive action is possible, such as more accurately adjusting the priority to suit abnormal flows such as heavy traffic at the end of a long weekend, or even temporarily re-opening the road, where that is possible.

At this stage, light timings can only be adjusted on-site – usually by the customer, but PB Traffic will travel to the location on request.

“As a supplier of traffic management solutions, PB Traffic has incredible responsibility for the safety of all persons impacted by its systems,” said Pollin8 CEO Nick Pickering.

“Taking the guesswork out of asset management with our IoT devices and Thinxtra’s national connectivity means the organisation can focus on proactively managing theft and optimising traffic flow, making roadworks safer with less impact on commuters,” he added

Other new features are under consideration, including providing road authorities with vehicle counts, or measuring vehicle speeds, but they are for the future, Gupte emphasised. And PB Traffic will probably offer remote management of temporary lights down the track, though that won’t be possible today with the current device which only provides one-way communication.

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