Smarter snowplows on the way?

Wed, 2014-01-22 06:00 -- Liz Enbysk

With blizzard conditions hitting the Northeastern U.S. yet again, fleets of snowplows will be out on the roads trying to make them safer.

If pilots being conducted in three states this winter prove successful, in future winters those snowplows could be equipped custom-designed sensors that continually measure road and weather conditions. They are part of a new digital intelligence system designed to reduce accidents and save government agencies potentially millions in maintenance costs.

A story in the Daily Camera explains that the system was built at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado and funded by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The Pikalert Enhanced Maintenance Decision Support System, as it's called, combines sensor measurements with satellite and radar observations and computer weather models to produce what the Daily Camera describes as unprecedented near-real time pictures of road conditions. With that information, which is updated as frequently as every five minutes, transportation officials can zoom in on potential problem areas before accidents happen.

Sheldon Drobot, the NCAR scientist who oversaw development of the system, told the Daily Camera that giving snowplow operators timely updates on what's happening down the road has numerous benefits.

"It is creating a smarter snowplow, and that allows them to have a better sense of where they need to put down the chemical salt or other chemicals -- and how much as well," Drobot said. "We don't want to coat the road if we don't need to. This will help them be more precise in what they use, and where. So there's a huge environmental benefit as well, and is also less costly."

If all goes well in the pilots underway in Michigan, Minnesota and Nevada it's expected the system will be transferred to private vendors and made more widely available next winter.

Read the full Daily Camera report for more details on the technology that Drobot believes has the potential to transform winter driving safety.

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