Sam Bell, a retired auto mechanic, and Wyatt Newman, a retired Case Western Reserve University professor of electrical engineering, have been friends and bicycling buddies for years. “We talk about everything on our rides,” Bell says. “We make bad jokes, we laugh, and we complain.”
On one of their rides, for example, Bell recalls telling Newman how frustrated he was that his suburban hometown city council couldn’t approve funds for bike lane markings. Told by city officials that it would take $30,000, Bell wondered why it cost so much for such a seemingly mundane task. There were several answers, but the main reason was the cost of person-power both to paint the markings and to maintain them, since water-based paint fades quickly.
Newman’s response, as it often is when Bell complains about human folly: “Can we get a robot to do it?”
Not long after, the pair launched RoadPrintz, LLC.
The common, labor-intensive practice is that all those turn arrows, handicapped space designations, sharrows (shared lane markings), and other specialty markers are stenciled by hand. It’s not only costly, it puts America’s road workers in danger every time they do their jobs. RoadPrintz changes that by producing a truck-mounted robotic arm that can paint even custom markings that are too complicated for striping trucks.
“My favorite part of the process is when the robotic arm is mounted on the truck,” Newman noted. Their first truck-mounted robotic arm, called Lester, was a prototype. They worked out some kinks in their second truck, Stella, and the current iteration, Electra, “is a template for manufacturing vehicles for our customers,” Newman says.
Bell and Newman had collaborated before. They worked together on a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) competition in 2007 to build a vehicle capable of autonomous operation in an urban environment — Bell working on the automotive aspects while Newman took on the robotics. It was that experience that led them to believe they could make a concept like RoadPrintz actually come together.
Why would a municipality, department of transportation, or other potential customer want to buy an Electra or one of its progeny? “Cleveland, Cincinnati, or Columbus would benefit because the person-hours would be cut in half,” says Newman. He explains that when specialty road markings are painted manually, several trucks and a four-person crew are involved, including flaggers and a couple of painters. With a RoadPrintz robotic arm-mounted truck (that can do the pre-work coning automatically), only two trucks and their drivers are required. The painting is accomplished robotically from inside the truck. “We don’t want the driver to get out. That’s when bad things happen,” notes Newman.
Newman and Bell can rattle off national statistics about how many road workers are injured and killed doing precisely the work these robotic arms can do. Those numbers hit home last August in Stow, Ohio, when a driver careened into a coned-off work zone, critically injuring the two workers who were painting a crosswalk at an intersection. Impaired or careless drivers may always be a threat, but the damage they do will be greatly reduced if they collide with a huge truck versus workers protected only by cones.
RoadPrintz has conducted successful demonstrations of its technology in northeast Ohio, including painting bike lanes on the Payne Avenue Bridge over Cleveland’s Innerbelt with green boxes, white bike symbols, and white arrows. Bell and Newman estimate that a typical long-line road painting truck can sell for about $500,000. “RoadPrintz expects to be about 20 percent cheaper,” notes Newman.
For more information, visit www.roadprintz.com. To see the company’s video of the process, search “Road Printz” on YouTube.