Clearing the Way with New Technology

Think high-tech is just a concept used to spice up a boring movie plot? Think again. Easier snow-removal technology is out there, and itís coming to a city near you.

Will the snow and ice industry ever unite with advanced technology? The marriage is inevitable. If you donít think so, just take a look around: Designers, engineers and scientists are making use of technology that will impact everything from agriculture to space. This is not so farfetched. Remember, at the turn of the 20th century, horses and sleighs were a sufficient mode of transportation after a snowstorm. Within 30 years though, trucks were hauling and spreading salt or sand and pushing snowplows. The need to remove snow to enhance transportation has not changed, but the equipment and products sure have.

Progress in plows

Snowplows mounted on the front of trucks, and scrapers mounted under them, have been available for many years. If the concept of safely clearing snow at 60 MPH whets your appetite, take a look at what you may have in store in the future. A computer-assisted, fuzzy-logic control system tweaking the sections of a multi-segment moldboard will provide efficiency and safety. Feedback from the plow will be evaluated by on-board computers. These computers will use load-sensing hydraulic systems to automatically make adjustments and advise the operator of maximum achievable efficiency.

By uniting on-board computers with the vehicleís hydraulics system, the spreading of deicing products after a snow event will allow the truck to operate at high speeds while keeping the spread of products on the highway surface. The process works effectively by accelerating the product being spread to the same speed in the opposite direction that the vehicle is traveling.

This is not a new concept. However, combining multiple systems to regulate the spreading of various products in the proper quantity at the appropriate point during the storm is revolutionary. These control systems are being developed to evaluate pavement temperature, determine the amount of deicing agent needed on pavement, calculate what proportion to blend products to maintain safe driving conditions, as well as estimate how materials address infrastructure. Improved computers and new-generation pavement sensors will enhance systems to operate faster, as well as more effectively and safely.

Weather watching

Improvements in weather-prediction and monitoring software, such as Virtual Weather, have resulted in systems that have the ability to observe weather conditions at various locations and project what conditions will be in another. This technology will participate in the spreading system logic. Combining GPS (Global Positioning System) technology into this process will advise you of a stormís current location and will assist in developing databases of where you should place products and the level of service you can expect to achieve from such placement. Crews can then enter precise records regarding product placement and result, enter them into their on-board computers, and transmit them back to a base station. This information not only will be instrumental in helping you develop storm scenarios for use in the future, it will also add precision to your maintenance practices.

Tracking technology

Automatic Vehicle Location (AVL) can help you determine where your units are working and what activities are taking place. Operation of, or communication with, on-board systems will not be limited to levers or knobs because voice commands by the driver will assist in guiding smart systems. Voice-actuated controls will allow the operator to have both hands available to drive the truck.

Methods of driver identification also are being developed. Identification cards similar to credit cards with magnetic strips will provide voice patterns for the truck computer as well as determine if the person identified as driving the truck is actually an authorized driver.

Added technology allows the computer systems in your trucks to send a message to the base station advising of needed maintenance or parts about to fail. The base station system can even automatically order a replacement part and notify your mechanical staff when the part will arrive and on which truck to make the repair.

Enhanced ergonomics

As other improvements are phased in, controls that address ergonomics are a necessity. Currently, engineers are working on the development of operator modules that combine driver seat and joystick controls, relieve stress and improve accessibility. These modules also will feature the electronic capability to assist in decision making. They will display current Road Weather Information Systems (RWIS, a network of weather and pavement conditions stations) with a looping radar that shows the movement of the storm.

Modern melting

In the future, using liquid anti-icer before a storm event and deicer during and after the storm will require you to know more about product performance and how it relates to the quantities you should use. Currently, chloride-based products are popular. In the future, anti-icing and deicing products may be inhibited with agricultural, grain-based products. Chemical inhibitors provide a method of reducing or eliminating concrete and steel deterioration. Inhibitors are receiving a great amount of attention in the research community.

When developing a deicing plan, you will evaluate the pounds of ice melted versus the quantity of product placed. Most inhibitors are biodegradable, but may have significant impacts on fish and plant life. Each manufacturer must provide product composition information as well as material safety data sheets (MSDS) to assist you in making product decisions.

Even today, the melting performance of granular products already greatly improves when you pre-wet them prior to spreading. However, no one pre-wet product provides a complete spectrum of service. Eventually, types and amounts of liquids for pre-wetting will increase to as much as 1,000 gallons per truck. Fabricators and designers are developing liquid storage space that can accommodate four different products and use on-board blending to provide the most efficient strategy. Chemical synergy will offer greater effectiveness and reduce costs.

Truck technology

Trucks of the future, equipped with body roll-off systems, will reduce the number of chassis needed. If you properly maintain the roll-off bodies, their service life may double or triple. Light-weight, combination poly bodies will offer reduced weight and alleviate rusting problems.

First-generation portable anti-icer units were limited in their capacity (1,000 gallons or less). Their primary use was on bridge decks. Later generations carried from 2,500 to 3,000 gallons of multiple products. Now, 5,000-gallon anti-icer trucks are available; however, they are limited to multi-lane operations due to their size.

With the invention of larger-capacity holding tanks for chemicals comes the need for more responsibility on your part. You will need to institute effective quality-control methods as well as good record keeping for all chemical mixing and storing that you do on site. Systems are being developed that automatically adjust salinity, remove debris from the product and add biodegradable dyes that help you to identify product by color. This way, you could designate different colors for different chemicals. For example, you would know that the medium blue pre-mixed solution is always liquid calcium chloride as opposed to the medium green mix, which is always sodium chloride. Many liquid deicing products are not compatible, and operators need a simple method to identify the product.

As high-tech equipment is incorporated into fleets, Smart Trucks will be common. The trucks will offer virtual displays of the highway so that crews can safely and effectively operate in challenging weather conditions. They will have Doppler radar that will monitor all four sides of the truck and display a symbol on the windshield to alert the driver when there is danger of a collision. If an oncoming vehicle remains in the truckís path, it will sound alarms and display larger symbols on the windshield. If the truck operator does not initiate action to avoid the collision, a combination of systems will steer the truck away.

The constant improvements to equipment, in addition to ever-emerging new inventions, results in a promising future for the snow-and-ice-removal industry. Although the technology is complex, the results will help you simplify your business.

Harvey J. Williams is an operations technician for primary and interstate highway systems for the Illinois Department of Transportation (Dixon, Ill.). He has co-authored a manual on the use of liquids for winter maintenance and served as guest lecturer for organizations around the country and in Canada on the subject of current and future maintenance practices. He has also partnered with manufacturers to develop equipment that is in use throughout the snow and ice industry.

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