Gazing into a crystal snowball

The snow fighters of the future will be smarter, and so will their tools

Harvey J. Williams / October 04, 2001

Will the world of high tech enter the snow and ice industry

Will the world of high tech enter the snow and ice industry? Whoever thinks it will not has not viewed prototype or concept snow and ice equipment in service or in the computer-aided design stage. At the turn of the 20th century, horses were the predominant mode of transportation. Within 30 years, trucks were hauling and spreading salt or sand and pushing snowplows. The concept of removing snow to enhance transportation (foot or vehicle) has not changed, but the equipment and products have.

The use of on-board computers has become standard operating procedure. For operators who state, "I do not use computers," your 1992 or newer truck has on-board computers that have more power than the computers that went to the moon. The age of technology is enhancing the snow and ice industry.

The snowplow mounted on the front of the truck has been a standard. Improvements have enhanced the efficiency, but by applying technology involving segmented, multi-angled plow sections and fuzzy logic self-adjusting hydraulic safety systems, the plow can be placed under the truck body. This new configuration improves safety and allows operation at much higher speeds. The use of front-mount plows will continue when conditions demand specialized equipment, such as opening closed roads.

As traffic volumes and speeds increase, the effective spreading of ice control materials must be addressed. The standard method for application is the horizontal spinner. Studies of current practices show 30% of the product placed by the horizontal spinner is lost from the pavement. Numerous systems are in different stages of development that will allow effective spreading at speeds up to 60 mph. Being able to plow and spread at the speed of traffic improves safety for the highway user and the equipment operator. The concept of the driver managing the machine and making use of the fuzzy logic functions as an extension of his skills will allow improved service to the customer.

Smart trucks

Operators in the future will manage and interact with computers that determine the type and quantity of chemical products needed, interpret on-board weather data and advise the chemical distribution systems of what the storm management plan will be—all while operating the truck.

Operation of, or communication with, on-board systems will not be limited to moving levers or turning knobs; voice commands by the driver will assist in guiding fuzzy logic smart systems, and will allow the operator to work the controls while leaving both hands free to drive the vehicle.

Various methods of driver identification will be explored. Identification cards with magnetic strips will indicate voice patterns to the truck computer as well as determine if the individual is an authorized operator.

Global positioning systems (GPS) will assist in providing information as to vehicle location. The GPS information, combined with the process of thermal mapping (identifying locations where pavement temperatures vary more quickly than others), will free up the operator’s attention to operate the vehicle, as systems will be activated by location, driving and traffic conditions. Precise records can be collected in the on-board computer or transmitted back to a base station to assist in developing databases for use in future storms along with precision maintenance practices. Automatic vehicle location can assist in determining where units are working and what activities are taking place.

Added technology will allow the truck’s computer system to send a message to the base station advising of needed maintenance or parts on the truck that are about to fail. The base station can even order a replacement part and advise mechanical staff when the part will arrive.

The use of liquid anti-icing (chemicals placed prior to a storm) and deicing (chemicals placed during and after a storm) will demand knowledge about the performance of the chemicals and the quantities needed. Currently, chloride-based chemicals are the products of choice. In the future, contamination of anti-icing and deicing products will be inhibited with agricultural grain-based products. Much research is being conducted on inhibitors.

When developing a deicing plan that involves an inhibitor, one should review the amount of ice melted for each pound of product placed, as well as the residual effects of the inhibitor used. Many inhibitors are biodegradable but do significant damage to fish and plant life. Each inhibitor producer must provide this information as well as material safety data sheets.

Future systems will display site-specific virtual weather forecasts and sense the quantity of deicing product on the pavement. The melting performance of granular products improves dramatically when prewetted with liquids prior to spreading. No single prewet product will accomplish the complete task. The quantity and types of liquids for prewetting will increase from a hundred gallons or less per truck to as much as a thousand. Designers are developing liquid cargo space that can carry up to four different products, and on-board blending will produce the most effective mixture. The synergy of multiple chemicals will offer greater effectiveness and reduce costs.

Trucks are changing. Roll-off bodies will reduce the number of chassis needed, and the bodies, if properly maintained, will have the service life of two or more trucks. Lightweight, combination poly bodies will offer reduced weight and solve rusting problems.

Anti-icing systems

Anti-icing systems, in their first production generation, had very limited capacity (1,250 gal or less) and were primarily used on bridge decks and short distance nuisance areas. The second generation carried from 2,500 to 3,000 gal of product. Many were used in routine anti-icing operations, effectively eliminating problems associated with frost and black ice. Third-generation anti-icers have 5,000 gal capacity; however, they are limited due to their overall size.

Fixed anti-icing spray systems that sense frost, ice and snow are being implemented. The system automatically sprays deicing products on a bridge, intersection or highway, eliminating the hazard. These types of systems are popular in Europe and will soon spread to the U.S. with the development of intelligent transportation systems.

Chemicals blended on-site will need documented, effective quality control methods. Automated systems are being developed that monitor salinity, remove debris associated with brine production and incorporate biodegradable dyes that identify the product by color. Many products are incompatible with one another, and operators need a simple method of identifying the liquid in storage and in the truck. Universal colors need to be established. Thirty-two percent liquid calcium chloride could be medium blue whereas 23% sodium chloride is medium green, and so on.

Peering deeper

Looking far into the future, smart trucks will be common. Snow fighters will have virtual displays of the highway to effectively and safely operate even in total white-outs. These vehicles will have Doppler radar on all four sides of the unit that will display a symbol on the windshield when there is a danger of a collision.

If the collision danger persists, alarms will sound and added symbols will be displayed. Eventually, a combination of systems will steer the vehicle away from a collision if the operator has not initiated evasive action.

The snow and ice units of the future will be good examples of what we might call "simply complex" machines. (Think of everything that takes place when you turn the ignition key to start your car.) Some of the developments will not be routine equipment for several years; however, the technology is in place and designers are building prototypes. Highway maintenance organizations are partnering with industry to develop safe, effective and user-friendly products. The snow fighter of the future will not be considered a truck driver but a storm management operator.

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