Plow cam images provide more than just a glimpse at winter weather

Wills SunDogYou know when you have this idea that you think is pretty good, but you have no concept of how it might explode into something much more than you expected over time? That’s what happened with the snow plow camera images the Iowa Department of Transportation began using eight years ago.


Back in 2014 we first started posting images on our “Track a plow” site from about 10 percent of our snowplows. That pilot project was intended to give Iowa DOT supervisors a way to “see” what was happening on the roads their crews were working on. We decided to make the images available to the public as well to help them get a better picture of the actual conditions on a road.

When the images proved to be both useful and popular, more plows were outfitted with the cameras, the “track a plow” site was retired, and the camera images were added as a layer to to make it a one-stop-shop for winter travel information.

Plow cam layer

John Hart, director of our Maintenance Bureau said, “It’s one thing to see a 511 map with pink or blue roads indicating completely or partially covered roads. But these terms can mean different things to different people. Being able to see the road condition out the windshield of a snowplow gives a better indication of the actual travel conditions on the road right now and helps people make safer travel decisions.”

… and now

1-19 522 plowsOver time, the program has expanded to include all 900+ Iowa DOT snowplows. The images are updated on 511 every five minutes. You can go back and see images from that camera for the last hour.

Craig Bargfrede, Iowa DOT winter operations administrator, said, “The number of entities who use the plow cams for various reasons is really astounding. We started this project to help increase safety and efficiency in our operations, but it has ballooned into a valuable tool for many uses.”

For you, the public

If you’re on or the 511 app, the painted roads in the winter are indications of the travel conditions, as reported by our field forces. However, they may not give you a true sense of what you might experience once you are out on the road. Using these road condition indicators, combined with the plow cam images, can help you decide whether you want to risk driving in a specific area or wait until the weather clears up. If you’re on social media in Iowa in the winter, you’ll no doubt be seeing images that come from the cameras mounted to an Iowa DOT snowplow windshield. Our staff passes along camera images and a variety of other sources to help you make safer travel decisions.

For our winter maintenance staff

US 18 near Mason CityFor our Iowa DOT supervisors, the plow cams are a tool to make reporting those road conditions and treatment plans more accurate which ultimately makes for safer roads for you. Jim Scott, the highway maintenance supervisor in Grimes, said, “As a storm is approaching, we can look at the cameras to the west, and see what is likely coming our way. Once the storm hits, the plow cams give us a way to see the condition of the road and it also helps us determine a strategy to attack the current storm, especially on roads that don’t have stationary roadside cameras.”

Moe Mohamed, the highway maintenance supervisor in our Altoona garage agrees, “The plow cams give us as supervisors, ‘eyes on the road’ that we wouldn’t have otherwise. I can click on a plow cam and see exactly what the driver sees. It helps me make better decisions on treatment options and even staffing needs.”

Scott says storing images for later helps in training and planning strategies for treating the roads. “We use the plow cam photos as training tools to show newer plow drivers what to expect. We also use them to discuss strategies and methods that we might want to change in the future. Each storm is different, but we know our roads very well and we can use the cameras to come up with ways to better treat the trouble spots.”

For winter weather forecasters

Iowa 10 SutherlandWeather forecasters like our partners at the National Weather Service rely on models and sophisticated data to predict what is likely to happen. But Chad Hahn, warning coordination meteorologist in the Des Moines office, said the plow cam images help his agency with real-time situational awareness.

“The plow cam photos are an immediate source of information that helps us make more informed decisions when we’re in a storm,” said Hahn. “We can use them, in conjunction with other information, to determine what level of advisory, watch, or warning is appropriate for a given area.”

He continued, “They say a picture is worth 1,000 words, so we can put these images out on social media and other channels to magnify the message of what is actually happening right now. We can also capture and use past images to track trends over time, which can be very helpful.”

For research that creates a safer future

511 LegendThe Iowa DOT and the Institute for Transportation at Iowa State University have a long history of collaboration. Neal Hawkins, associate director of InTrans, said, “The use of plow camera images in research is another source to tap into to confirm what the road condition was at the location at a particular time. These images can help us interpret raw data and can serve as a visual confirmation of the data.”

Zach Hans, director of the Center for Weather Impacts on Mobility and Safety at InTrans, is promoting the use of plow cam images in international research through a program called Aurora. He said, “Iowa provides valuable data to support data not only in the United States but worldwide. One current project led by the University of Alberta in Canada is testing the use of camera images to monitor road surface conditions using machine learning techniques called ‘deep learning to classify and categorize winter road conditions using truck-mounted camera images.”

Hawkins said, “Our current system of having snowplow drivers or others in winter maintenance categorize the road conditions is a good system, but people may have their own definitions of that condition. We are hoping that eventually, we’ll get to the place where machine learning will use the images to determine the road condition, which makes that reporting more consistent throughout the state and the country. This consistency can help people make safer travel decisions.”

What is the common thread between all these uses of our Iowa DOT snowplow camera images? The images are there for you to help make safer travel decisions and make the roads safer for you now and into the future. Plow cams are just one more way the DOT is working to make your life better through transportation.   

I love the plow cams and use them for real time visibility if I am thinking of traveling. They also show how drifting is affecting the road way. Thank you all the snow plow guys and gals. You Rock Salt!!

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