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The Idris File.
An Interview with Idris iventors, Bob and Andy Lees
21/3/2005
Horses and ITS R&D are not commonly found under the same roof. However, on the farm where Diamond Consulting Services has its headquarters, visitors compete for the available car parking space with a large horse-box emblazoned with the name of the company's highly successful Idris detection and classification technology. It was here that I was to interview the inventors of the Idris system, Bob and Andy Lees.

Step inside the offices - a converted dairy - and all thoughts of rural life and the country idyll are left far behind. Computers, printers, flip charts, filing cabinets, manuals and trade magazines cover every available surface. Here, printers chatter, telephones ring and VDU screens flicker with a series of detailed graphs showing the movement of traffic.

At one end of the long room, wedged into a small corner and again surrounded by metal cabinets and piles of literature, is the 'conference room'. One suspects it is where most of the real work is done, where ideas are pooled, talked through and thrashed out, where the engineers meet with the marketing side of the company and where the strategic policy of the company is settled.

"We are a very tight knit and highly focussed company," said Bob Lees, an Electrical and Electronics Engineer of many years standing. "We each have a specialism that we bring to the table and the two-way flow of ideas helps ensure that the process of development is ongoing."

Andy agrees. He is the younger and more serious of the two brothers and where Bob is expansive, Andy is apt to take his time before answering questions. When they come, they are quick, neat and to the point, often illustrated by a diagram or two, scrawled onto a flip chart.

"Dialogue is everything," said this highly trained computer scientist. "I'm based in Australia where I live with my family but I'm frequently on the telephone dealing with some new issue or idea with Bob and the rest of the team."

It is this habit of communication that has enabled the brothers to develop their advanced vehicle detection and classification system, from notion to reality, in something under a year. Faced with the serious shortcomings of the available technology of the mid-1990's to accurately detect traffic incidents, Bob set to work looking for a solution. But as an electrical and electronics engineer, trained at Loughborough University and with considerable experience in the transport industry, there was only so much he could achieve without the assistance of an expert in computer science.

At precisely this moment, in 1995, Andy was visiting his brother in England and was asked to help. His career path had been entirely different. Having settled in Sydney, Australia in 1979 he was awarded his MSC in computer sciences by the MacQuarie University in Sydney and was, for a time engaged in the research and development of test systems for cardiac pacemakers. This was eventually followed by a position with the Computer Sciences Corporation where he became Chief Scientist on the Australian New Submarine project. In this role and with a team of 140 scientists, Andy was largely responsible for the software development of the combat systems for the Australian Navy's submarine fleet.

"While I was in England," said Andy, "Bob asked me to look at the problem of low accuracy in detectors. I came up with an algorithmic solution. This was then incorporated into the overall system that Bob had designed, to produce very accurate results." The new Idris system was far more than a refinement of what had gone before. Error rates in vehicle detection and vehicle counting systems which had typically bumbled along at 1:100 were now achieving rates of 1:10,000. For the first time, inductive loop technology had become a precision instrument capable of out performing not only other 'in-pavement' systems such as treadles and piezos but the 'above-pavement' systems as well, including light curtains. In recognition of the quantum leap that the brothers' idea represented, patents were granted throughout the world and still remain in force.

What was really different and exciting about the new product was the marriage between old and new technologies to produce a system that far exceeded the sum of its parts. Bob, with his vast experience, knew that there was nothing fundamentally wrong with the common loop. Passing an electrical current through the wires under the road surface generated an inductive field which 'detected' the presence of a vehicle. He also recognised that, unlike treadles and piezos, loops were not subject to movement and would not therefore wear out over time. What was required was a computer programme that would eliminate the false readings and deliver a range of required data to the customer, including the presence of a vehicle, its speed and its classification.

The series of algorithms written and developed by Andy are a master class in computer science. Originally designed as an accurate vehicle detection system for use both on high speed roads and at plazas, the final product produced much, much more. Capable of dealing with vehicles travelling over the loops at well above motorway speeds, the algorithms permit the system to produce, in real-time, all the information needed by a tolling authority to make the appropriate fee demand in both the ORT (Open Road Tolling) and plaza environments.

"There are three misconceptions in connection with tolling," said Andy. "The first holds that it is difficult to do open road tolling (ORT) and retain the existing class tables, the second says no system is capable of covering more than two lanes, while the third states that you can't count axles at both low and high speed. The fact of the matter is that Idris can perform all three functions and do so with an axle counting accuracy rate better than 99.7%."

The ORT functionality was to prove a major commercial success, particularly in the USA where the move has increasingly been towards highway speed tolling. Currently, over 90% of ORT lanes in the United States use the Idris technology and the number is growing all the time. The first ORT installation using Idris was opened in 1999 and since then the technology has seen many converts. Not least of these has been the New Jersey Turnpike where Idris was used for the highway speed ORT lanes through the centre of the new state-of-the-art plaza at Exit 1 which opened in June 2004. In May this year, a three lane and five lane ORT plaza will become operational on the Garden State Parkway and this, too, will use the Idris technology.

"Using the ORT functionality of Idris meant that the 30 mile tailbacks experienced during holiday periods at Exit 1 are now a thing of the past," said Bob.

Yet despite these successes, the brothers are constantly pressing ahead with a programme of further development. The evolutionary process which saw the company's entry into tolling in 1997, was followed a short time later by axle classification and, in 2001, by the development of the Automatic Vehicle Identification (AVI) correlation. That evolutionary process is still ongoing.

"While I'm reluctant to say that 100% accuracy is impossible," said Andy, "it is certainly very difficult to achieve. We are trying to chip away at the last few fractions of a percentage point in an effort to improve on our current high levels of performance."

Diamond Consulting Services now has a number of technology partners around the world, allowing the partners to provide customers with an extremely high quality end-to-end electronic toll collection product.

But how does Idris fit into the total ETC package? This time it was Bob who leapt to his feet and moved towards the white board, pen in hand. "Idris is unique in providing a number of different but indispensable functions in the ETC process without reference to other technologies," he said, quickly illustrating his point with a series of interconnecting boxes. "In any other system, you will typically need three separate technologies to give you what Idris does on its own."

Yes but what does it actually do?

"The change in inductive field as each vehicle passes over the in-pavement loops," said Bob, turning back to the white board and pointing to his diagram, "is processed by the Idris algorithms and the resulting data passed to the lane controller. In systems where Idris is correlating the AVI tag or OBU to the vehicle, the Idris system checks for the presence of a valid tag read at the appropriate time and passes the combined AVC and AVI data to the lane controller."

Oddly enough, for such a complicated piece of engineering science, the brothers claim that the deployment of the Idris system into the ORT (Open Road Tolling) environment was quite straight forward.

"You have to remember," said Bob, "that Idris was originally developed for a multi-lane environment with work carried out on the M25 London orbital motorway."

What rapidly becomes clear is that the use of in-pavement loops linked to this high-grade software has advantages over and above its use in conventional tolling plazas. For the first time, it is now possible to think seriously in terms of genuine ORT and in effect, there is no limit to the number of lanes that can be covered by such a system. "With Idris monitoring the movement of each vehicle, no matter how often it changes lanes, the system is capable of dealing with very fast moving traffic in all weather conditions," said Andy, "Real ORT is perfectly feasible and has already been successfully deployed with minimal fuss in many sites. The AVI correlation feature makes deployment of robust, accurate systems a straight forward engineering task."

Looking at the brothers, it is hard to imagine either of them being happy to remain behind their computer screens. There is too much energy, too much raw enthusiasm for that. So, do they ever get out? "Both of us," said Bob, "enjoy working at the coal face. It's what we trained to do and it's what we enjoy most. Whenever one of our partners or customers has a problem, they know they have only to pick up the 'phone and we'll assist them. We both derive great satisfaction from solving problems."

Since its foundation, the company has enjoyed a reputation for pragmatic problem solving and it is this approach which has focused R&D effort on providing practical solutions.

"It is only through this constant search for improvements in our product that we can stay at the forefront of the market," said Andy. "By working with our technology partners, the DCS team intend to keep Idris at the leading edge of the tolling industry. Idris, today, is employed on over 500 lanes in the United States and the number grows, almost daily."

Further information, contact:
Teri England, Diamond Consulting Services, Buckinghamshire, England. Tel: #44 (0) 1296 747667, E-mail: teri@diamond.demon.co.uk
 
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