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Snow plowing goes high tech

Snow, ice and other hazardous wintry conditions account for more than 4,000 lives and thousands of injuries each year in the United States. And while keeping roads clear is a major challenge for every state, doing so strategically and cost effectively is largely dependent upon experience: knowing the trouble spots, anticipating the locations that will freeze over first or be most dangerous because of shading, elevation or north-facing curves.


Snow But new sensor technology is being tested in four states on hundreds of plows. The new technology is integrated into the plows and measures road and weather conditions. Known as the Pikalert™ Enhanced Maintenance Decision Support System (EMDSS) the system is being deployed in Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, and Long Island, New York. If it passes key tests, it will be transferred to private vendors and become available to additional states in time for next winter.

The new system combines the sensor measurements with satellite and radar observations and computer weather models, giving officials an unprecedented near-real time picture of road conditions. With updates every five to fifteen minutes, EMDSS will enable transportation officials to swiftly home in on dangerous stretches even before deteriorating conditions cause accidents.

This offers the potential to transform winter driving safety, said NCAR scientist Sheldon Drobot, who oversees the design of the system. It gives road crews an incredibly detailed, mile-by-mile view of road conditions. They can quickly identify the stretches where dangerous ice and snow are building up.

By equipping hundreds of snowplows and transportation supervisor trucks with sensors, officials can now get information along every mile of the roads traveled by the vehicles. The sensors collect weather data, such as temperature and humidity, as well as indirect indications of road conditions, such as the activation of anti-lock brakes or windshield wipers.

Using GPS technology, the measurements are coded with location and time. They are transmitted via the Internet or dedicated radio frequencies or cellular networks to an NCAR database, where they are integrated with other local weather data, traffic observations, and details about the road’s surface material.

Snow 2

Ragi Puthur digs his car out from snow outside his home in Towson, Md., Monday, Jan. 25, 2016. East Coast residents continued to dig themselves out after a massive weekend snowstorm. (Photo by Steve Ruark)

The resulting data are subjected to quality control measures to weed out false positives (such as a vehicle slowing down because of construction rather than slippery conditions) and relayed to state transportation officials to give them a near—real-time view of ice and snow buildup, as well as what to expect in the next few hours from incoming weather systems.

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