Applying Remote Sensing Technologies to Collect Data for Transportation Systems Planning and Project Development

Focus Area

NEPA Process


Environmental Process







Research Idea Scope

In order to make the best choices regarding the planning and development of
highway capacity, transportation decision-makers need a wide range of data. To conduct
impact assessment, for example, agencies need access to information on the location of
cultural resources, environmental resources, such as wetlands and wildlife habitats, and
community resources, such as schools, places of worship, and parks. Decision-makers
also need data on traffic levels, households, and land use plans to feed travel demand and
land use models to estimate future conditions.

Remote sensing technologies provide the potential to collect efficiently a wide range of
transportation, environmental, and community data and replace some of the manual
collections of data conducted through field studies. For example, remote sensing allows
for the observation and analyses of urban growth and environmental conditions at both a
regional scale and a project site scale, using satellite- and aerial-based imaging systems
data. Remote sensing can also be used to conduct environmental assessments and environmental impact statements (EISs). According to the DOT-NASA Joint Program on
Remote Sensing and Spatial Information Technologies, 13 of the 25 environmental
impact areas the FHWA recommends addressing in an EIS are good candidates for
remote sensing in some capacity. For large-scale projects, remote sensing techniques
offer the potential for significant cost savings compared to conventional on-site
measurements for environmental analysis. Remote sensing technologies can also be used
for surveillance and monitoring of traffic flow, enabling an increased quantity and quality
of data for assessing region-wide and site-specific traffic flow characteristics.
Transportation professionals need more information about available remote-sensing
products and services, and potential applications of remote sensing for transportation
planning and project development. Meanwhile, remote sensing experts need a better
understanding of the roles and responsibilities of transportation agencies in order to
ensure that remote sensing applications focus on critical transportation issues.
This research project focuses on closing the knowledge gap between the remote sensing
and transportation communities to enable greater use of remote sensing technologies and
new applications to meet the needs of transportation planning and project development. It
involves demonstrating the application of remote sensing to transportation systems
planning and highway capacity project development, and development of a guidance
manual, a commercialization approach, and training to improve application of remote
sensing technologies within transportation systems planning and project development.


a) Using NCHRP 8-32(5): Multimodal Transportation Planning Data as the basis,
strategically assess data needs associated with system planning and project
development that could be met using remote sensing technologies.

b) Using the DOT-NASA Joint Program on Remote Sensing and Spatial Information
Technologies: Application to Multimodal Transportation effort as a baseline, 1)
survey available remote sensing technologies used for collecting environmental and
other project context data, 2) document places where this technology has been used
and identify successes and challenges, 3) document the breadth of possible additional
applications and site specific cases that would be most appropriate pilot programs, 4)
determine technology costs and required staff expertise, 5) assess barriers to more
extensive implementation of the technology, and 6) develop strategies for
overcoming these barriers.

c) Further demonstrate the application of remote sensing to transportation systems
planning and highway capacity project development (focusing on the technology’s
data collection capabilities) via a pilot demonstration program that builds on the
DOT/NASA Joint Program.

d) Develop a remote sensing technology manual that guides practitioners on each aspect
of technology application—from system options and vendor information, to interand
intra-agency coordination during application.

e) Develop a public-private partnership to commercialize the use of remote sensing
technology for transportation systems planning and highway capacity project

f) Design, organize, and deliver a training program on the application of remote
sensing technologies for integrated systems planning and project development.

TERI Administrator Note (June 2007): Related Research

Section 5113 of the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21), authorizes the Secretary of Transportation to carry out a Commercial Remote Sensing Products and Spatial Information Technologies Program in cooperation with NASA. The program will validate commercial remote sensing products and spatial information technologies for application to national transportation infrastructure development and construction.

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has implemented the research program in partnership with leading academic institutions, service providers, and industry for remote sensing in transportation. The program is designed to serve long-term research for education and workforce development and near-term technology applications to transportation practice. The program combines NASA research expertise in remote sensing with DOT expertise in technology assessment and application to transportation practice.

NCHRP 25-22 (02) Technologies to Improve Consideration of Environmental Concerns in Transportation Decisions (2006)

As a continuation of NCHRP 25-22, this phase of the project endeavored to advance the use of current and emerging technologies to facilitate inclusion of environmental considerations in the transportation decision-making process. Successful transportation decision making requires an integration of environmental, engineering, social, and economic information. Informed decisions conserve environmental resources, avoid litigation, reduce project delays and costs, and increase public understanding and trust.

Current and emerging advancements in technology provide an opportunity to improve such decision making. However, advanced analysis, communication, and presentation tools are generally not used to enhance the inclusion of environmental considerations in the planning, design, construction, operations, and maintenance activities of state transportation agencies. These tools include multimedia communications, computer modeling, remote sensing, spatial information systems, and Internet applications. Failure to use these tools is caused by inadequate knowledge of the capability, applicability, affordability, compatibility, availability, and functionality of these technologies.

NCHRP Project 25-22, completed in 2001, identified, critiqued, and showcased current and emerging technologies that support the integration of environmental considerations into transportation planning, design, construction, maintenance, and operations. Included in the NCHRP 25-22 report is a fictional case study used to demonstrate 26 technology applications that were identified as promising for improving consideration of environmental concerns in transportation planning and project development processes. The final report for NCHRP 25- 22 was published as a CD-ROM titled: CRP-CD-14 and is available for purchase through the TRB Bookstore at (search for “CRPD14”).

Using findings from the project’s first phase, this continuation undertook to identify, profile, and demonstrate existing technological applications of technology that could usefully be adopted by other agencies. In cooperation with State DOTs and other agencies, a number of potentially useful applications were surveyed and evaluated for their compatibility, universal applicability, ease of implementation, and potential usefulness to other public agencies. An initial screening yielded 20 applications that were then assessed in greater detail to select eight very promising technology applications. These applications are described in NCHRP Research Results Digest 304.

During the course of the second-phase project a national teleconference was held to demonstrate the selected technology applications.

Urgency and Payoff

The products of this research will be:

1) a detailed
remote sensing technology manual that guides practitioners on the various aspects of
technology application;
2) a public-private partnership to bring together remote sensing
experts and transportation practitioners to focus on application of remote sensing
technologies for transportation and to commercialize these applications; and
3) a training
program for transportation practitioners on the application of remote sensing for systems
planning and project development. The benefits of this work will be an improved
understanding within the highway planning and development community of how remote
sensing technologies can be applied to improve the cost-effectiveness and timeliness of
planning and project analyses.

Suggested By

Interim Planning Activities for a Future Strategic Highway Research Program: Study 4 - Capacity, Transportation Research Board (2003)

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