New research searches for ways to “see” through bad weather

Snowplow workingWe can’t say it enough – safety is at the core of everything we do at the Iowa DOT. But the nature of being on the road in all kinds of conditions puts some of our team members in danger, such as snow fighters working in weather that can make it tough to see out of the windshield. We must find ways to make those situations as safe as possible.

To help accomplish one of our five-year priority goals to grow innovation, we are working with Iowa State University’s Institute for Transportation to develop equipment that allows our folks to “see” better in bad weather. This includes equipping snow plows with sensors and driver aids to allow our staff to continue working in low visibility situations that improves the safety of both those traveling on the roads and our staff.

Jason Fisher from our Maintenance Bureau said, “When the visibility is low and it’s not safe for our operators to be out clearing snow, the snow piles up and it takes longer to get the roads open again and get traffic moving. If we can find a way to safely keep our plows on the road, even in low visibility conditions, that would make it possible to get the roads back in good shape quicker, helping travelers get where they need to go.”

But travelers aren’t the only concern when bad weather makes the roads treacherous. “When a bad storm is raging, emergency responders rely on us more than ever to keep the road passable so they can get to people who need assistance,” said Tina Greenfield from our Maintenance Bureau. “If we can keep our trucks on the road, we can better assist the emergency crews out there doing what they need to do.”

DOTer meeting at ISU
A group of Iowa DOT snow fighters gathered in Ames in September to discuss equipment and features that could allow them to more safely keep trucks on the road in low visibility conditions.

For the past year, the researchers at Iowa State have been investigating potential navigation equipment. In late September a group of about 20 DOTers from around the state gathered in Ames to look at options and give the researchers feedback on what they would like to see out of this technology. The group was asked to respond to three questions:

  1. What kinds of navigation feedback or obstacle alerts would be most useful?
  2. Where should the hardware be placed inside the cab of the truck?
  3. What type of user interface would be best (tablet, lights, or a heads-up display)?

Their comments were gathered by the researchers and are being used to move the project forward.

“The equipment we’re looking at won’t automate any of the functions that our operators perform,” said Derrick Greenfield, safety garage operations assistant in District 1. “It’s going to be more like the blind-spot alert system you might have in your personal vehicle. We are testing how well the system can detect stalled vehicles and other obstructions on the road.”

Test equipment in Tama

Rusty Martin, garage operations assistant in the Tama shop has the first iteration of the equipment installed in his snow plow for testing.  “This is an exciting project that we’ve had in the works for a while now,” he said, “We have been working to find technologies that work and are cost-effective. The test equipment we have set up is pretty simple and we’ll be running the truck over a test course before we set it loose.”

Visibility graphic-1

Watch for future blog posts following the progress of this research and pilot project. 

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