Facilities (Learning Spaces)

Technologies Riding the School Bus Today

School Bus Technologies 

PHOTO © MORGAN LANE STUDIOS/ISTOCK

Toward the end of the school year, in a district in the Southwestern U.S., a father called the school transportation manager to say that his daughter’s iPod had been lost or stolen on the bus.

The transportation manager logged into the video from a camera on that bus and discovered what had happened. The daughter left the iPod on her seat when she got off of the bus. Another student across the aisle reached over and took the device, removed the case and put it into her jacket pocket. Then she gave the case to the driver, telling him she had found it on the floor.

After identifying the student thief, the transportation manager called her mother and told her about the incident. She called the mother of the iPod owner and apologized, saying during the conversation that her daughter, the thief, was going to have a bad summer.

Yellow school buses haven’t changed their look for many years. In recent years, however, technology has given school buses and school district transportation departments many new capabilities.

In addition to cameras, other technology tracks buses out on route, checks students onto the bus and then reroutes the bus around stops for students that are absent, cutting fuel costs. Technology monitors mechanical systems, reporting developing problems before breakdowns. And there’s a lot more on the drawing board.

Audio-equipped cameras

Many K-12 school transportation departments have installed audio-equipped cameras on buses. The cameras help find thieves and return stolen property as noted above. If placed properly on the bus, cameras can do a lot more.

“We’ve only recently installed the cameras, but we’ve already found them extremely useful,” says Bob Downin, director of transportation with Bay District Schools in Panama City, Fla. “A number of schools only install one camera on each bus. You really need more than that.

We have four. One in the front faces back and records down the aisle; another in the back faces front and records up the aisle. The third camera is on the driver and the door. The fourth camera watches the road through of the windshield.”

With that configuration, the cameras facilitate investigations. The cameras focused on the aisles monitor the behavior of the students. The camera on the driver and the door can monitor the driver’s behavior as well as interactions with students boarding and leaving the bus. Parents sometimes come to the door to talk to the driver. Those interactions will be recorded as well.

Finally, the camera shooting through the windshield will record details of incidents and accidents.

“Sometimes we’ll get a call that one of our buses ran a stop sign,” Downin says. “Now we can use our GPS system to find out when the bus was at that intersection and check the windshield camera video to see what happened. We’re finding that the video often protects the driver.”

Global positioning systems

Global Positioning Systems or GPS have become important school transportation tools, too. GPS can track buses and monitor their progress and settle disputes. GPS also reports if a bus is standing still or on the move, making it possible to manage excessive idling.

Suppose a parent calls to say that a student was at a stop at 7 a.m. for a 7:05 a.m. pickup but the bus had already come and gone, the GPS system will check the claim and find out if the parent is right or wrong. “It’s a truth teller for both sides,” Banach says. “In addition, because drivers know that GPS is tracking
their speed, they tend to maintain the speed limit.”

“We monitor idle time closely,” says Joe Banach, transportation supervisor with Monroe Public Schools in Monroe, Wash. “In the winter, drivers will sometimes warm the bus by idling for 15 minutes.”

Banach estimated that idle time costs the district about $800 per week. By keeping after drivers to reduce excessive idling, the district cut $100 per week out of that cost — that’s $3,600 per year.

Another way to reduce excessive idle time in winter is to install small interior heaters. A number of districts are using heaters made by Espar Heater Systems in Mississauga, Ont.

Espar makes air heaters and coolant heaters. An air heater operates without the vehicle’s engine or vehicle heating system. It draws in outside air, heats it and delivers it to the interior of the vehicle. The devices install in the cab or under the floor.

Coolant heaters pre-heat the engine and if desired the interior of the vehicle. These heaters are incorporated into the engine’s cooling system. The vehicle’s heat exchanger pushes the heated air into the bus. Both operate on a small amount of fuel.

Zonar technology

Banach’s GPS system is part of a package of technologies supplied by Seattle-based Zonar Systems.

Zonar has software that facilitates pre- and post-trip inspections required for every school bus. A Zonar handheld device using Electronic Vehicle Inspection Report or EVIR software guides drivers through the inspection process. Each inspection point has a tag that the driver must scan to prove that he or she at least accessed the rear engine compartment, air brakes, emergency doors and other inspection points.

Downin in Panama City uses another Zonar technology called ZPass, which monitors student ridership. The system consists of a radio frequency identification (RFID) reader mounted just inside the bus door. Students carry a card enabled with passive RFID technology.

The reader continually sends out a signal. When a card passes within range of the reader, the reader’s signal wakes up the passive RFID card, which sends out a signal tied to the student’s identity. The reader logs the student into that bus with a date and time stamp. When the student exits the truck, the system again records the date and time.

When all students have boarded the bus, the system revises the route by eliminating stops for absent students and planning a new, more efficient route.

When the bus returns to the yard, the data downloads into the district’s network, making it accessible by the transportation department.

“If a parent calls saying my child didn’t get off the bus, we can check the system and find out what bus he or she was on — if any,” Downin says. “Sometimes kids take another bus to visit a friend. Sometimes they stay after school for activities.”

ZPass+ delivers this information to parents. Using the information gathered by ZPass, ZPass+ sends push or text messages to a parent’s phone. The messages relay where and when a student gets on or off of the bus. Such systems can reduce calls to the school when a student doesn’t get home on time.

Monitoring bus performance

Another Zonar system being considered for the Monroe Public School system tracks vehicle diagnostics from the engine computer as well as hard-braking, hard-acceleration and hard-cornering by drivers.

“The Washington State patrol uses this Zonar system when they inspect our buses for safety twice a year,” says Banach. “The inspectors download the data from the engine chip.

“Our mechanics aren’t using the system yet, we’re still evaluating systems, which has a competitive system.”

Banach also uses a technology called Fuel Force to monitor the districts fuel tanks. The system tracks fuel dispensed by drivers and calculates miles per gallon. It also tracks how much fuel is left in the tanks and checks for water in the tanks.

Routing technology helps transportation managers manage fuel use, too, by laying out the most efficient routes. Banach uses Versatrans Routing & Planning from Dallas-based Tyler Technologies. Downin uses a system called Edulog, which is made by Missoula, Mont.-based Education Logistics, Inc.

What’s on the drawing board?

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is road-testing a potentially life-saving technology in Ann Arbor. Being developed in the wake of a fatal school bus crash in 2012, the technology will warn drivers when another vehicle is too close.

Called connected-vehicle technology, it consists of a network of sensors that communicate over wireless networks with systems on other vehicles within 1,000 feet. The communications among vehicle systems occur 10 times per second and include data about location, direction and speed.

An onboard computer analyzes the data and warns drivers of impending possible collisions, often before drivers can see the other vehicle.

School buses are already among the safest vehicles to travel in. This would make them even safer.

Push-To-Talk Radio

Folsom Cordova Unified School District in California recently installed AT&T-enhanced push-to-talk Sonim Bolt radios in all of its buses. The Android-driven digital system operates over AT&T’s cellular network.

“We switched because the system we were using was discontinued,” says Joe Jenkins, chief technology officer for the district. “The radios are a lifeline between the driver and dispatch. We use them to reroute the bus and to call 911 in an emergency.

“Push-to-talk is an important feature. We don’t want the driver to have to dial a phone. With this system, he or she taps the microphone and gets dispatch.”

Equally important continues Jenkins, a digital system can talk to more than one person at a time. The dispatcher can talk to groups of buses — to communicate with all that might be affected by a traffic issue to reroute.

This article originally appeared in the October 2013 issue of School Planning & Management.

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