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Follow the Little Blue Plow: Iowa State Engineers Help Snowplow Drivers Stay on the Road

Mike Krapfl, Iowa State University News Service

Posted Mar 14, 2024

Anuj Sharma steered a Chevy Suburban a little to the right, just hitting the rumble strips of westbound U.S. Highway 30 through Ames.

As he drove toward the South Dakota Avenue exit, a GPS unit mounted on the roof fed real-time data to a tablet mounted on top of the dashboard. The tablet showed a drone’s-eye, top-down view of a blue snowplow drifting over the yellow line marking the road’s edge. A red warning stripe lit up the side of the screen. The message: Correct your driving line now.

The display was a little like a video game. Steer right or left to keep the snowplow safely between the center stripes and the road’s edge.

Do that in blizzard or whiteout conditions with the navigation system installed in a tandem-axel, nearly 30-foot-long snowplow with an 11-foot blade on the front, an 11-foot wing blade to the right and a 9-foot ice blade underneath, and the snowplow would remain safely on the road.

And the driver might be a little less stressed.

Rustal Martin knows something about snowplow stress. He’s the garage operations assistant for the Iowa Department of Transportation’s Grinnell, Malcom and Tama maintenance garages. The three garages run 15 snowplows and clear 650 lane miles of road during every winter storm.

Martin regularly plows on U.S. Highway 30 and then helps clear some of the state’s windiest sections of roadway: U.S. Highway 63, State Highway 8 and State Highway 21.

It’s flat and those roads are surrounded by fields for seed corn, so there are no wind breaks or snow fences to stop blowing and drifting snow.

“It can get rough,” he said. “If it’s snowing an inch an hour, you just can’t see.”

Why Can’t We Have What Farmers Have?

The snowplow safety project started some 10 years ago as GPS technology grew more common in agriculture, helping farmers guide tractors back and forth across fields, Martin said.

“In a research meeting, people asked why we couldn’t get something like that,” Martin said. “We weren’t looking for something that would drive for us, but something that gives us an idea where we’re at in the lane when there’s zero visibility.”

Martin was asked to write up a research proposal – a first for him. He asked for advice and searched around the internet and put together a proposal that won $25,000 in federal support.

About two years ago, the Iowa DOT included that money in a two-year, $502,265 grant supporting Iowa State engineers as they work to develop, test and prove the concept of a snowplow navigation system.

Martin and snowplow drivers have been helping with the project. About a year ago, for example, the researchers showed an early version to about 30 Iowa DOT snowplow drivers and garage supervisors in Ames for a meeting.

“We started with something, and they tore it apart,” said Neal Hawkins, the associate director of Iowa State’s Institute for Transportation and a member of the research team. “They had all kinds of great ideas.”

The researchers filled a whiteboard with notes:

The display can’t be too bright in a dark cab. Buzzing and beeping alarms can be distracting. The ride can be rough in a plow, so there can’t be anything that breaks loose and flies around the cab. A realistic image of a plow and blade on the display would be better than, say, an arrow or a rectangle.

“They took ownership of the project,” Hawkins said. “As researchers, it doesn’t get better for us.”

Anuj Sharma – the project’s leader, the Pitt-Des Moines Inc. Professor in Civil Engineering and the co-founder of a company called Coltie that helps match graduate students with faculty researchers – said the drivers “are really involved. This technology can change how they drive.”

Keeping the Snowplows Going

The navigation system won’t change who is driving a snowplow. It’s designed to help drivers maintain their position in a lane. Sharma said a second phase of the project is designed to help drivers avoid collisions with snow-covered cars or debris in the roadway.

The Iowa State researchers are also developing tools that can, with a few passes up and down a road, create the detailed digital maps needed for the navigation systems. Otherwise, agencies would have to pay providers for expensive, high-resolution maps.

All phases of the project need more work. There have been power-supply issues, lab testing has gone better than real-world testing, computer algorithms need to be fine-tuned and signal strength during major winter storms needs to be checked.

“So, I’m hoping we can get more snow and collect more data,” Sharma said.

From what he’s seen of the systems in DOT garages and on the road, Martin said, “I think it’s going to work.”

That’s good news for snowplow drivers – and everybody else who has to drive in the winter.

“Driving a snowplow is a very tough job,” Hawkins said. “Agencies want to do anything they can to lower the stress levels for their operators. If they can’t keep plowing, we’re all in trouble.”