The Iowa Department of Transportation’s winter operations depend heavily on data to make decisions of when and how to treat roads. The agency’s snowplow trucks are equipped with sophisticated electronic sensors that measure everything from each vehicle’s engine performance to tracking what materials are being applied to the road.
For the past several years, the Iowa DOT has utilized data gathered from geographic positioning systems (GPS) and automatic vehicle location (AVL) information transmitted from each snowplow truck back to the garage via a cellular connection. This year, the Iowa DOT is upgrading the GPS/AVL system and changing the way data is transmitted from more than half of our 900 snowplow trucks. Updates to technology will turn 520 trucks in central, eastern, and southwest Iowa into Wi-Fi hotspots.
Craig Bargfrede, Iowa DOT’s winter operations administrator, said, “Last year we tested the new system with a different cellular provider than we currently use, in five areas where we were having some trouble with the reliability of the cellular connections. The change in cellular provider proved to be significantly more reliable in Red Oak, Denison, Decorah, Sigourney, and Tipton. We’re confident that will translate into better connections statewide.”
In addition to having a more reliable connection to get data between the snowplow and the garage, the new GPS/AVL system will allow the Iowa DOT to eliminate the need for two cellular services in the truck. Previously, our plow cam’s operated on one cellular service and our GPS/AVL system on a different cellular service. With the new system, we can combine both into one cellular service, thereby reducing costs. To spread out the cost of the entire upgrade, half the trucks will transition to the new system this year and the other half will be updated next year.
“Our transition plan allows us to update those trucks that cover the entire I-80 corridor and a large portion of I-35 in central Iowa, as well as Iowa’s major metropolitan areas in central and eastern Iowa first,” said Bargfrede. “Next season we’ll expand to northern and southeastern Iowa.”
In addition to the reliability of the connection, Bargfrede said the amount and types of data being collected is changing. “These data streams are the same ones that fuel both internal analytics tools and our external website: trackaplow.iowadot.gov. The public won’t see any difference on this site, but our internal data collection will be much broader and the analytics much more robust.”
Larry Williams, district 1 mechanic, says the upgraded reliability and increased data will be very useful to mechanics around the state. Because the system is web-based, employees can monitor it from anywhere. Williams, who was off for several weeks on medical leave, was able to monitor from home. He said, “So far I find the new system much more user friendly than the old system. The potential to receive engine information while the truck is on the road is promising. That information could be useful to the mechanic in troubleshooting issues with the truck. All in all, I think the new system will prove to be much more robust and useful than the old system.”
The type of data collected and analyzed includes several equipment checks and materials data to keep the vehicles running at peak performance and provide information on what materials are being applied in what area and at what rate.
Bargfrede said collecting data on each truck is critical because the Iowa DOT doesn’t have spare equipment that can be swapped out if a truck is out of service. “Typically, every truck in a garage has an assigned snow route. If one truck goes down, the supervisor in the garage has to modify other snow runs to make up for the out-of-service truck. That can mean a longer wait to get roads cleared and possible inconvenience to the public.”
The types of information collected from each truck includes engine data to detect early signs of issues to address to keep the truck running as well as idle time to help reduce fuel consumption and save money.
The new GPS/AVL system will also help area supervisors track their trucks in real time giving them the ability to monitor snow runs to ensure we are optimizing each snowplow route. This tracking capability helps supervisors identify service gaps and dedicate resources more efficiently.
Accurately tracking material use can also be a money saver. Bargfrede said, “Fine tuning the system to use just 2 percent less salt can be a big savings when you consider the Iowa DOT purchases $12.8 million of salt in an average year.”
Bargfrede continued, “Our field employees have so much knowledge about what works and what doesn’t. Adding this data to that knowledge will help us respond even better in a winter storm to improve safety on Iowa’s highways.”