InTrans / Mar 11, 2020

REACTOR Lab, Iowa DOT partnership still strong after 5 years

Five years ago, the Traffic Operations Laboratory was founded with the mission to share data between InTrans and the Iowa Department of Transportation (DOT) to enhance real-time traffic operations. Since that time, the possibilities have grown exponentially.

The partnership that led to the laboratory, now called Real Time Analytics of Transportation Data (REACTOR), aimed to bridge the gap between collecting massive amounts of transportation data and delivering real-time traffic updates to drivers.

Now, researchers associated with the lab are studying everything from work zone operations to crash data to asset management to the future of connected and autonomous transportation systems.

Ribbon Cutting
InTrans, and Iowa DOT staff, from left, Sandra Larson, Mike Jackson, Neal Hawkins, Shauna Hallmark, Terry Wipf, and John Corbin, open the new laboratory with a ribbon cutting on Oct. 15, 2014

“Looking back, we did not envision all the possibilities that could stem from the sea of data. It’s not just the impacts to bridge the gap between data and operations; we’re working every day to improve mobility, enhance safety, and advance operations,” said Neal Hawkins, who is co-director of the REACTOR Lab.

The partnership between the Iowa DOT and InTrans to form the lab officially got underway five years ago at a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Oct. 15, 2014.

At the ceremony, the then-director of the Iowa DOT’s Office of Traffic Operations John Corbin called the lab “a fused environment for innovation” that was a fusion of InTrans, Iowa DOT, and Iowa State University’s Department of Civil, Construction, and Environmental Engineering (CCEE) and focused on support, teaching, and research.


Though the lab’s tasks have expanded, its mission to work as a partnership for innovation using data to help drivers arrive at their destinations efficiently, conveniently, and safely has remained the same.

Students have been an integral component since the lab’s founding, but REACTOR Lab Co-Director Anuj Sharma said the advances in technology in the past five years have allowed the lab to welcome civil engineering students to play a larger role in the research.

Then-graduate students Pranamesh Chakraborty, left, and Shuo Wang, right, lead a discussion on their research (Christopher Gannon/Iowa State University)

In fact, to-date the REACTOR Lab has had 71 students working on projects ranging from determining when to call out snowplows to using cameras to understand driver behavior to saving monarch butterflies by tracking milkweed. After graduating, those students have gone on to work at Facebook, Motorola, Amazon, NVIDIA, Microsoft, BASF, and Ford Motor Co., among many others.

The work being done by the lab’s staff and students has gotten not only local media attention but also earned notice from Google recently.

Sharma, who had recently joined CCEE at the time of the lab’s grand opening, stresses that work has accelerated in the last five years thanks in part to the fact that the cost of equipment has gone down while the computer processing speeds have increased, along with the ability to use social media to crowdsource information.

“Transportation is going to look completely different in the next five years,” Sharma said. “So, I think in the next five years, we should make sure that our students are positioned so that they can tackle these questions, even if they don’t have the solutions right now, but they have the skills and tools that they can answer these questions.”