Fairbanks Using Smart, Connected Plows to Improve Snow and Ice Removal

Federal Highway Administration grants have funded the use of sensors that turn the agency's fleet of vehicles into mobile weather stations, providing insights into mile-by-mile variations in road conditions.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor

Twenty vehicles used in the Fairbanks AKDoT&PF fleet have been outfitted with WeatherCloud's two sensor modules, the Roadpack and the Skypack. The agency started installing them in 2014. The Roadpack, mounted above the vehicle's license plate, contains an infrared thermometer, a microphone, a microcontroller and a Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) radio. The device measures dew point, ambient temperature, pavement temperature and road conditions, such as wet, icy or snow-packed, and can be programmed to determine crosswinds.

The Skypack, mounted on the inside of the windshield, contains a precipitation sensor, an ambient light sensor, a microcontroller and a BLE radio. By measuring capacitance on the windshield, the precipitation sensor determines if rain or snow is falling, as well as whether the windshield wipers are in motion. The Skypack also includes an inertial measurement unit (IMU), which tracks the vehicle's movement and pitch, and is used to improve the accuracy of tracking data when paired with GPS data in the Android-based application running on the smartphone. The IMU "also describes things that aren't associated with position, like which angle the vehicle is at or if the vehicle is slipping versus having good traction," says John Mickey, WeatherCloud's director of hardware engineering. Both the Roadpack and the Skypack, Schacher notes, are wired into the host vehicle's power system.

A Skypack sensor module
Now, data collected from the regional RWIS stations and the WeatherCloud platform is collected by the MDSS, providing Schacher and his crew with a much more granular understanding of road conditions throughout Fairbanks and the surrounding region. The agency uses MDSS all year-round. When snow and ice are not factors, it utilizes the system to schedule and manage roadwork.

A grant of approximately$400,000 from the Federal Highway Administration has covered the costs of purchasing and evaluating the initial sensor technology and the WeatherCloud system in Fairbanks. Thanks to another similar-sized grant, another 40 vehicles in southern Alaska, on the Kenai Peninsula, are being outfitted with the WeatherCloud sensors as well.

Going forward, the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities will need its state legislature to approve a line-item in the agency's budget to pay for the technology's upkeep and expansion across the state. To make its case, the agency will need to show that the solution will generate a return on investment by making the roads safer.

"Improving highway safety is our primary goal," says Ocie Adams, an AKDoT&PF project manager. "So, in the long term, we also look at the crash data for three years before deployment and three years after deployment to see if we have improved highway safety."

That said, Adams notes, crash data is not fully vetted and available for two years following an accident. As such, the agency will not be able to process crash data for the three-year period following the deployment of the RWIS system until next year, and it will be two more years before it will be able to determine what impact WeatherCloud has had.

In the meantime, the AKDoT&PF will continue using data from both the RWIS system and WeatherCloud sensors to inform its road-treatment decisions. It is not the only Department of Transportation to begin using WeatherCloud, Szoke reports, as counterpart agencies in Colorado, Iowa and Utah are also beginning to use the system.

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