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Smart Snowplow Tech Turns Every Vehicle into a Weather Sensor

The federal government is developing a tool using sensors attached to snowplows to more accurately predict road conditions in near real time and spot potential problem areas.

Across the country, states are turning to technology to save lives and save money on equipment to keep roads clear during the winter.

States including Nevada, Michigan, Minnesota, Alaska and Colorado are utilizing new digital “smart-plow” systems to increase the efficiency of snowplows and other vehicles on the roads. The technology uses sensors to provide more accurate information on the conditions of roads ahead of the snowplows, giving drivers detailed information about what to expect.

The context of this technology comes after much of the U.S. was mired in a polar vortex that caused inclement weather conditions and shut down large portions of the country. The Associated Press reported that a 1-year-old boy was killed in Missouri after a car the child was in struck a snowplow – the type of road safety accident the smart plow technology hopes to prevent.

While outfitting snowplows with technology like advanced GPS and radars to prevent collisions isn't new, the system being developed by the federal government outfits plows with custom sensors that continuously feed important information regarding road and weather conditions to transportation officials and the vehicles' drivers.

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The technology was developed by the U.S. Department of Transportation and built by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), a Boulder, Colo.-based research and development center. Called the Pikalert Enhanced Maintenance Decision Support System, or EMDSS, it uses satellite and computer weather models to more accurately predict the conditions on roads in near real time and spot potential problem areas.

On the Road in Colorado

The EMDSS technology was developed in parallel with private-sector companies like Iteris, a development company based in Grand Forks, N.D. The company’s products are being utilized by the Colorado Department of Transportation, according to agency spokeswoman Amy Ford.

“This system lets us better pinpoint weather systems effectively,” she said.

In 2004, Colorado joined a 16-state consortium, known as a “pooled-fund study,” to look into improving snowplow and emergency vehicle systems to help save lives and reduce costs. The technology used by the Colorado Transportation Department and being developed and utilized by NCAR do “comparable things,” Ford said.

“As the system continues to become more robust and defined, I suspect the data collection and weather collection will be more reflective of what’s outside,” she said. “We’re noticing more effective use of our time and resources – in other words, our money.”

She said Colorado's system is working pretty well, but suspects that with more developments, additional improvements will be made.

EMDSS originally lacked the "E" and began as MDSS back in the early 2000s, said Mike Chapman, the NCAR scientific project manager overseeing the program. “The [transportation departments] and federal government figured out there was a disconnect between weather forecasts and what people needed,” he said.

The federal government wanted to find a way to increase the accuracy of snowplows and other equipment using more precise sensors.

“The federal government decided to leave it semi-open source, so a market would be formed,” Chapman said. “Almost immediately there were some private companies that took what NCAR developed and commercialized it.”

After six to eight years, the original MDSS prototype was transferred to the states, through programs like a consortium Colorado participated in. NCAR is now on the seventh version of the original MDSS prototype, thus why it's known as the “enhanced” prototype.

Chapman said the federal government no longer manages or funds the old prototype, which made it possible to transfer it to the states. “The state of Alaska was nice enough to contract with us to see if our system would be useful."

This winter EMDSS is being tested in Michigan, Minnesota and Nevada, and it will be available to other states and vendors for the next snow season if it passes key tests, according to NCAR.

While the current version is far more advanced than the old system, Chapman said more work needs to be done to increase its accuracy. “I think the system development was pretty successful, but in any type of weather application like this, it is only as good as any type of weather forecast pushed into it,” he said.

The use of satellite imagery, sensors and GPS allows the system to work well on smooth surfaces such as roads and bridges. However, using it on complex terrain remains a work in progress.

Chapman said that in the past, weather stations could only predict the weather for every 30 to 40 miles. There are weather systems that change in between those readings that have to be taken into account – and that’s what the EMDSS systems hopes to eventually be able to predict. With the new system, sensors are attached to the vehicles, allowing information like weather data to be collected on every road traveled.

“When we do need higher density situations, the mobile platform will be able to give us high-definition readings of roads," Chapman said.

Although MDSS was created to improve road safety in the winter, Chapman said there might be applications of the technology for other weather situations. For instance, areas in Texas that experience high winds that affect traffic could use it to help mitigate safety issues.

In addition, railroads and even school buses could benefit from this program, he said. “It’s going to be nice for [buses] to know when flooded roadways or tornado warnings are approaching."

Chapman said that with federal funding, more lives could be saved as the technology improves. He said that more than 7,000 people die on roads every year due to inclement weather.

“The federal government is funding something that makes roads safer,” he said. “We’re going to very quickly lower those numbers and make the roads safer for everybody.”

Eventually, Chapman expects that the EMDSS software will be released to states for development purposes, but he didn't have a time frame for when that may happen.