New weapon to combat weather

Jennifer Dostal

While the warm spring weather quickly melts the memories of this winter’s ice and snow, the Iowa Department of Transportation is gearing up for next winter with a hi-tech snowplow.

The prototype plow uses the Global Positioning System (GPS), a friction meter and thermometers to collect data about current road conditions and transmit the information to the plow operator. This information lets the operator fine tune the vehicle’s application of sand and chemicals to the immediate road conditions.

This more effective and efficient method of application should make Iowa’s highways safer for winter driving, said Lee Smithson, deputy director of the Iowa Department of Transportation.

This is “not only a snowplow, but a data gathering platform,” Smithson said.

“We envision that in the future, the advanced technological information provided by this vehicle may be used to help inform motorists of roadway conditions, and provide crucial information about hazardous driving conditions,” he said.

The transportation departments of Iowa, Michigan and Minnesota, the Center for Transportation Research and Education (CTRE) and several private companies have two long-term goals for the prototype plows, said Duane Smith, associate director of CTRE.

The first is to have the plow automatically adjust its application of sand and chemicals according to the data the plow collects from the environment.

The second is to make the information available to drivers so they can decide whether to postpone a trip because of adverse driving conditions, he said.

“We want to be more in touch with the vehicle’s environment, and know how much snow melting material needs to be spread on the roads,” Smith said.

Jim Vansickle, garage operation assistant at the Iowa DOT’s Ames station, said the snowplow’s additional technology takes the guess work out of plowing and increases the safety for the driving public and the snowplow operator.

Operators currently “hit the brakes” to test the road conditions and decide whether to apply more sand.

On the new plow a friction meter will measure the “slipperiness” of the road, and the driver can decide how much sand to apply. The GPS system will then map the road conditions, temperatures and landmarks, such as crossroads and stranded vehicles.

When the technology is in place, the plow will be able to transmit the information back to DOT headquarters and allow for rescue vehicles to find stranded motorists quickly, said Craig Cole, business development director of transit at Rockwell International Corporation.

The prototype plow is not only hi-tech, but it’s turbo-charged too. The 25-ton plow is equipped with an alternative fuel booster so it can achieve highway speeds faster. The engine senses that more power is required and mixes ethanol with diesel to boost the plow to higher speeds, said Tim Nordham, equipment specifications specialist at the Ames DOT station.

“It’s not just a high-powered toy though. The snowplow should cut some of the DOT’s snow removal costs because of its state-of-the-art technology and some modifications made to the plow’s traditional equipment,” he said.

The tank on the truck has been significantly increased, from 100 or fewer gallons on the old snowplows to 900 gallons on the new ones, which would give officials time to spread brine on the roads before a storm hits to prevent the snow or ice from sticking.

With all the plow’s benefits to the public, it does have a cost. Nordham estimated the plow costs about $215,000. The exact price tag for the prototype isn’t known because much of the technology was donated by private companies. The only cost to the state’s DOT was the cost of the plow itself.