Chips Handling Flakes

March 29, 2007

Winter has just ended and the challenges of the last season are still fresh in your mind. You may have asked yourself; “How can we make it better for the next season?” “Is there something out there that I can use to improve my winter maintenance operations?” “What type of new technology is out there that might help?” “Is it easy to use, is it expensive, and is it available off the shelf?” Over the last few years I’ve been fortunate to visit winter maintenance operations in Minnesota and other snow belt states.

Winter has just ended and the challenges of the last season are still fresh in your mind. You may have asked yourself; “How can we make it better for the next season?” “Is there something out there that I can use to improve my winter maintenance operations?” “What type of new technology is out there that might help?” “Is it easy to use, is it expensive, and is it available off the shelf?” Over the last few years I’ve been fortunate to visit winter maintenance operations in Minnesota and other snow belt states. Several agencies are implementing innovative ideas that have the potential of improving winter maintenance operations. These new technologies are the product of academic, public and private partnerships, and often originate from actual snow and ice removal supervisors and operators. New technologies are increasing in use each winter season.

Location, location, location

GPS receivers are becoming a common everyday device. They provide location information when recording all types of events associated with mobile platforms. They are installed in passenger cars, hand-held devices, boats and winter maintenance vehicles.

This information is instantaneous. Does your department get questions from the public like; “Where is the plow for my street and when my street will will be cleared?” or “How much material was placed in an environmentally sensitive location to remove snow and ice?” Well this type of technology is now coming into the snow and ice maintenance fields all over the world. The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) has a project called Safety Automated Intelligent Locator (SAIL-2) that is using location information to tag all types of snowplow events. The SAIL-2 project objective is to further assess the application of Automatic Vehicle Location (AVL) systems for gaining value in overall snow fighting techniques, decision support systems and area-wide highway maintenance issues for winter and summer operations. MnDOT is deploying 60 fully functional AVL systems on snow removal/highway maintenance vehicles within the agency.

How do these systems work? All AVL systems consist of three main components. First is the collector of information. This is your truck configured with sensors that collect road and air temperatures, heading, speed, date, time, plow status, wing status and sander and liquid control settings. Next is the transmitter of information for sending and receiving information. This can be done actively or passively. Actively means real-time, transmission of sensor data when it occurs on the truck. Passively means the data is stored during the route and downloaded later, such as at the end of the shift. Active systems use cellular, satellite and/or radio. Passive systems use a PC card, wireless LAN, short-range radio or a hand-held collection device. The final piece is a place that will store, record and display the information, known as the host-end subsystem.

The collected data also needs to be presented to department personnel so that it becomes useful. This may take the form of displaying routes and locations on a digital map or preparing a report on vehicle activity or creating progress reports for analysis during snow-fighting activities. The host end system usually involves a computer system that takes the form of a local area network or a website. Increasingly, agencies are using a website because most organizations are familiar with using a web browser to get their information.

As snow and ice professionals, we know that plow operators have a difficult job, thus, the best way to collect this data is to limit any operator interaction, collecting the information without bothering the operation. Another return on investment is when this data can “feed” other systems. I think the most powerful multiplier of using AVL data is to augment existing maintenance, work order and financial systems.

Other positive results are eliminating the stubby pencil problem that happens after the driver returns from a long shift of doing road maintenance. The system does the recording automatically. Thus, usage reports are prepared at the end of the shift without waiting for data entry making supply reorders, route progress and operations reports and resource allocations are just a mouse click away. These types of systems and results are being used in Minnesota and other agencies around the world.

Receiving friction

The technology used to measure friction is starting to evolve in the road business. Friction measuring has been in use in Scandinavia for a few years. Here in the U.S. it is being used at airports and on racetracks to measure the friction between the tires and the pavement.

In the past, the cost of the friction meter was very expensive and not very reliable for the road business. Friction meters are still in the testing phase. The tests are being done in Minnesota and Ohio. In Ohio, they are doing reliability testing with a meter made by Halliday Technologies. Halliday has built friction meters for testing racing tracks, and they are now working with the Ohio Department of Transportation to customize one for the road industry. At this time they are doing a reliability test involving 17 units in the field. They will be mounting 13 more for a total of 30 units. They are using them to determine road surfaces susceptible to low friction in order to post warnings or provide additional snow and ice treatments. The next units will be mounted on trucks and used for winter maintenance operations. All of the friction data is location tagged and sent to a website for analysis in real-time using a wireless data system. This will allow them to make operation decisions on what type of treatment is needed on any given route based on real-time friction measurements.

In Minnesota, MnDOT is partnering with the University of Minnesota on a fixed-wheel system connected to sander controls to see if operators can apply the chemical to the road based on the road friction measurement. MnDOT hoping to do testing of this system during the 2005-2006 winter season. The unit is mounted in back of the front plow. The reason for mounting the meter in this location is to allow time for the controls to react to apply deicing chemicals.

For more info . . .

Maintenance Decision Support System (MDSS) combines advanced weather prediction, advanced road condition prediction, rules of practice for anti-icing and deicing and generates treatment recommendations on a route-by-route basis.

Elements of this system that are different from others are integrating weather prediction, road condition prediction and rules of practice components in a fully automated system. This allows users to do “what if?” scenarios.

In the test areas, the road component focuses on trends in air and pavement temperature, pavement chemical concentration, pavement friction coefficiency, pavement contamination and snow drifting. This system was tested during the 2004-2005 winter season. It is predicted that it will be ready for everyone to use in the near future.

Keep them up to date

The area of training is changing like the rest of our business. Simulation Technology Solutions makes full simulators for training operators. Another new training technology is Computer Base Training (CBT) using your own PC training software that allows you to train an operator right at your computer in the shop. This CBT software is interactive with the user.

These types of training programs are very good for every level of operator to learn new ways of doing different operations. Some of technology we have discussed also is great to use for training. The GPS/AVL systems employ a play back feature. It is great to use when looking at how we attacked the storm, applied the material or plowed the roads. By reviewing how you did the operations with the operators you can compare the amount of material used to how many different people passed over the same spot. Hands-free data collection of all of the functions on the truck can be played back like using a VCR. This is not only a tool used to collect data but to also do training.

There are a lot of new things happening in the snow and ice industries and we only touched on a few of them. Equipment is changing, from the fuel we use to how information gets to the records system. These technologies are important to the operator and to the public who wants to know if their road has been plowed or treated. However, the ultimate goal is to safely provide the traveling public with safe roads in an environmentally friendly and cost-effective manner using new technologies.

About The Author: Scharffbillig is fleet manager for MnDOT, St. Paul, Minn.

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