InTrans / Mar 05, 2024

Iowa State engineers help snowplow drivers stay on the road

A research team led by the Institute for Transportation’s (InTrans’) Real-Time Analytics of Transportation Data (REACTOR) Laboratory Co-Director Anuj Sharma is working to develop, test, and prove the concept of a snowplow navigation system to aid operators in the worst winter conditions.

Iowa snowplow drivers have been helping the research team with the project. About a year ago, for example, the researchers showed an early version of the system to about 30 Iowa Department of Transportation (DOT) snowplow drivers and garage supervisors in Ames for a meeting.

The researchers filled a whiteboard with notes from the meeting: 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,” said Neal Hawkins, InTrans associate director and a member of the research team. “As researchers, it doesn’t get better for us.”

Sharma—who is also 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.”

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.

“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.”

Read more about the project from a recent Iowa State University News Service article, as well as its previous news story when the research was just getting underway.