With winter in full swing across a number of northern states and many Americans driving home after spending the holidays with family, the icy and snowy roads are being given no shortage of attention. But a new plan from the National Center for Atmospheric Research and funded by the US Department of Transportation is given authorities new abilities when it comes to combatting dangerous winter roads.

With a new system called Pikalert Enhanced Maintenance Decision Support System, snowplows in Michigan, Minnesota and Nevada will be fitted with sensors in their plows. The sensors will monitor road and weather conditions, and work with satellite, radar sensors and weather models to allow authorities to get more accurate updates on road conditions, thereby better allocating road-clearing efforts.

"This offers the potential to transform winter driving safety," said Sheldon Drobot, an NCAR scientist behind the EMDSS 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."

Using the system should ensure that roads that don't need plowing, salting or sanding are ignored in favor of areas that have been harder hit. "With information like this, we can more accurately pinpoint changing road conditions ... and alert drivers of potential hazardous conditions before they encounter them," said Steven Cook, an operations and maintenance field services engineer with the Michigan DoT. "We want to reduce that white-knuckle experience of suddenly skidding on ice."
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December 17, 2013
BOULDER-In the annual battle to keep roads clear of snow and ice, snowplows are about to get much more intelligent.

Officials in three states this winter are deploying hundreds of plows with custom-designed sensors that continually measure road and weather conditions. The new digital intelligence system, funded by the U.S. Department of Transportation and built by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), is designed to reduce accidents and save states millions of dollars in winter maintenance costs.

The system, known as the Pikalert™ Enhanced Maintenance Decision Support System (EMDSS), is being activated on major highways across Michigan, Minnesota, and Nevada. If it passes key tests, it will be transferred to private vendors and become available to additional states in time for next winter.

"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."

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.

"The U.S. Department of Transportation is committed to addressing the safety and mobility problems associated with adverse weather, especially through the use of intelligent transportation systems," said Kenneth Leonard, director of the Department of Transportation's Intelligent Transportation Systems Joint Program Office. "This effort demonstrates the value of connected vehicle technologies, advanced weather prediction, and targeted decision support to enable state departments of transportation to more effectively maintain a high level of service on their roads."

Motor vehicle accidents involving wintry conditions and other hazardous weather claim the lives of more than 4,000 people in the United States and injure several hundred thousand each year. To keep roads clear, a single state can spend tens of millions of dollars on maintenance operations over the course of one winter.

But transportation officials often lack critical information about road conditions in their own states. They rely on ground-based observing stations that can be spaced more than 60 miles apart. As a result, they have to estimate conditions between weather stations. Snow and ice may build up more quickly along particular stretches of road because of shading, north-facing curves, higher elevation, or small-scale differences in weather conditions.

If officials dispatch snowplows unnecessarily, or treat roads with sand, salt, or chemicals when not needed, they risk wasting money and harming the environment. If they do not treat the roads, however, drivers may face treacherous conditions.

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 antilock 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. 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).

The resulting detail about atmospheric and road conditions is 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.

State transportation officials said the system will contribute significantly to safer roads.

"Collecting atmosphere and road surface condition data from vehicles in near-real time provides another important layer of information never before available," said Steven Cook, operations/maintenance field services engineer of the Michigan Department of Transportation. "With information like this, we can more accurately pinpoint changing road conditions in the winter that need treatment and alert drivers of potential hazardous conditions before they encounter them."

"This additional location-specific information can help our maintenance crews provide a more effective and efficient response to weather events, resulting in improved road conditions and increased safety for all drivers," added Denise Inda, the chief traffic operations engineer of the Nevada Department of Transportation.

Drobot said he is looking forward to evaluating EMDSS.

"We want to reduce that white-knuckle experience of suddenly skidding on ice," Drobot said.

EMDSS is the leading edge of a revolutionary approach to keeping motor vehicles safer in inclement weather. The next step, as early as next summer, will be to begin providing information to drivers about potentially hazardous conditions in their immediate vicinity, alerting them to slow down or take alternate routes.

Several partners, including the universities of Nevada and Michigan and the firms Ameritrack and Synesis, relay information from the sensors to the main database at NCAR.

Pikalert™ is a trademark of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research.

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 1 Year Ago
      Here I thought pikalert was a Pikachu Pokemon warning device. Who knew?
      • 1 Year Ago
      • 1 Year Ago
      Yea it snows a lot in Vegas...lol
      Karrbon Fiber
      • 1 Year Ago
      Yeah lets stick hundred or thousand dollar sensors on the plows. I guess US DOT has never heard of a plow being broken in half. Typically drivers know which streets are the higher priority or are more prone to icing over as they've driven the same snow route for years. All this new system will do is waste the taxpayers money.
      • 1 Year Ago
      Will this ever stop? Someone invents a new technology. Figures out how to sell it to someone. No one wants it. Turns to the government. Sell it to a bureaucrat. Bureaucrat makes up a public safety story about how our lives will be better because of it. Bureaucrat gets a law passed and issues guidance to buy lots of it. We read read about it online, applaud, and praise the government for protecting us. Our taxes go up. We wonder why. Were are so stupid.
        • 1 Year Ago
        You malign the bureaucrat. It's the lobbyist who gets the law passed. Bureaucrats simply generate regulations and rules to accomplish the laws that our solons pass. You get the government you elect. Whether it's a nanny state democrat or a kleptocrat do-nothing screw the people grab the money and run republican, we are a representative republic. Enjoy the representative government we have but give the bureaucrats a break. They only do what the elected representatives tell them to do.
          • 1 Year Ago
          Agree 100%. Wealthy lobbyists have the real power in this country, not the people.
        • 1 Year Ago
        You'll get down ranked shortly. Sadly you are spot on.
        • 1 Year Ago
        Amen brother.
      • 1 Year Ago
      Hasn't this technology been available for a while now? It's called eyes. Experienced plow operators should have a handle on gauging road conditions. Sounds like another waste of money thought up by the same folks that fly into the ditch every time there's an inch of snow on the road--Because it's not their fault for driving poorly, it's the governments fault for not ensuring clear, dry pavement at all times.
        • 1 Year Ago
        @Natural: No, you don't understand, this is computerized... com...pute...ter...ized... I
      Timothy Tibbetts
      • 1 Year Ago
      Smart drivers, not so much :)
      Susan Quinine
      • 1 Year Ago
      How about dropping the blade and scraping the road? I see 4 trucks in the picture, all with the blade up.
      Jesse Gurr
      • 1 Year Ago
      I don't get it. How are the sensors in the snow plow used? Monitor road conditions? Road just got plowed, there.
        • 1 Year Ago
        @Jesse Gurr
        I'm also having trouble understanding this... it seems like the system will only be able to tell the road conditions on roads where the plows are going. And if the plows are going there, they've already been plowed.
      • 1 Year Ago
      Around here, they mostly keep driving around 48hrs later racking overtime and retirement bumps. Jim
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