Tag Archives: snowplow

10 Ways Transportation Research Keeps Minnesotans Moving in the Winter

As the first big snow and ice storms sweep through parts of Minnesota today, we’d like to remind you of some of our great winter weather research studies. Here’s a list of some of this winter-related research from MnDOT and the Local Road Research Board:

Living snow fences

Living snow fences are trees, shrubs, native grasses, wildflowers, or rows of corn crops located along roads or around communities and farmsteads. These living barriers trap snow as it blows across fields, piling it up before it reaches a road, waterway, farmstead or community. Through multiple research efforts, MnDOT continues to advance its practices for living snow fences. Willow plants, which are which are inexpensive and fast-growing, are a new form of snow fence. MnDOT has also developed a tool that allows the agency to better offer a competitive payment to farmers.

Related studies:

Permeable pavement

According to recent studies, researchers believe Minnesota could eliminate salt usage on low-volume local roads by switching to permeable pavements. Permeable pavements — pavements that allow water to seep through them — have been studied in some Minnesota cities, and a research project is currently underway to further investigate how much salt reduction can be expected.

Related studies:

Traffic recovery during winter storms

MnDOT’s Metro District developed a way to automatically determine when to stop plowing a highway after a snow storm. The method involves measuring traffic flow to determine when road conditions have recovered. Current practice calls for maintenance workers to visually inspect traffic lanes. The automated technique could potentially be more accurate and save time and costs.

Related study:

Salt and other deicing chemicals

Minnesota winters are no joke, and Minnesotans still need to get wherever they’re going despite harsh snow and ice conditions. That’s why MnDOT is constantly researching new and improved versions of salt and other deicing chemicals to keep roads safe at the least amount of damage to lakes, rivers and groundwater.

Related studies:

Snowplow blades

A couple years ago, MnDOT snowplow operators in southwestern Minnesota invented an experimental plow that uses the wind to cast snow from the road without impeding traffic or the operator’s view. This winter, MnDOT intends to test multiple types of snowplow blades as part of a larger research project comparing types of deicers.

Related study:

Snowplow technology

While a lot of research has been done on the plow itself, MnDOT hasn’t forgotten to invest in research to improve in-cabin snowplow technology as well. Some of the great technology recently developed to assist snowplow drivers, includes a driver assist application that a MnDOT plow driver used last winter to navigate a storm and rescue stranded motorists. The agency is also studying equipment factors that can cause fatigue in snowplow operators.

Related studies:

Salt-resistant grasses

When the snow melts every spring, the damage salt does to roadside grass is obvious. That’s why researchers have spent years looking into developing and implementing salt-tolerant grasses on roadside settings. The result of this effort has been the introduction and use of salt-tolerant sod and seed mixtures that are made up primarily of fine fescue species. MnDOT is also studying how chlorides are transported within watersheds in order to better focus efforts to reduce deicer usage in  areas where it will have the biggest environmental impact.

Related studies:

Cold-weather cracking prediction test

MnDOT has developed a test that can tell whether a contractor’s proposed asphalt mix will cause the road to crack in the winter. Building roads using better asphalt mixes leads to less cracking and fewer potholes. The test is expected to save the state about $2 million per year.

Related studies:

Pedestrian snow removal

It’s not all about cars and trucks. Minnesotans still ride bikes and walk in the winter. That why MnDOT assembled a comprehensive review of existing practices and policies from other states, as well as a summary of valuable publications that could be referenced while developing a new policy.

Related study:

Maintenance Decision Making

MnDOT research led to the development of a Maintenance Decision Support System and related components provide real-time, route-specific information to snow plow drivers, as well as recommended salt application levels. These recommendations have reduced chemical usage while still achieving performance targets for snow and ice clearance.

Related studies:

Driver-assist system helps keep plows on the road

Darryl Oeltjenbruns, snowplow driver in District 7, operates the only driver assist system, or DAS, equipped snowplow in the state. The system helps snowplow operators see road alignments and features such as turn lanes, guardrails and road markings. (Photo by Chase Fester)
Darryl Oeltjenbruns, snowplow driver in District 7, operates the only driver assist system, or DAS, equipped snowplow in the state. The system helps snowplow operators see road alignments and features such as turn lanes, guardrails and road markings. (Photo by Chase Fester)

By Sue Roe, MnDOT Communications

Southwest Minnesota has the highest average wind speeds in the state—bad news for MnDOT snowplow operators who often drive in low visibility to clear roads.

“We have more days when the wind blows than when it doesn’t,” said Chase Fester, MnDOT District 7 transportation operations supervisor. “We struggle with the wind.”

That’s why District 7 is piloting a snowplow driver-assist system (DAS) developed by University of Minnesota researchers to combat the blowing snow and fog that often cause zero visibility. The DAS helps snowplow operators see the road alignment and features, such as turn lanes, guardrails, and road markings. Even in less extreme winter weather, snowplow operators gain assurance of their lane location using the system.

The driver assist system displays a white box on the screen when an obstacle, or in this case a mailbox, is located. If the object appears in the lane, such as a car stuck in a snow drift, the box turns red and gets bigger as the snowplow gets closer to the object. (Photo courtesy of MnDOT District 7)
The driver assist system displays a white box on the screen when an obstacle, or in this case a mailbox, is located. If the object appears in the lane, such as a car stuck in a snow drift, the box turns red and gets bigger as the snowplow gets closer to the object. (Photo courtesy of MnDOT District 7)

The DAS was developed and refined over the past 20 years under multiple research projects funded by MnDOT and the USDOT’s University Transportation Center program. Professor Max Donath, director of the University of Minnesota’s Roadway Safety Institute, led the work. In addition to plows, the DAS technology has also been applied in other specialty vehicles such as patrol cars and ambulances. Numerous vehicles using the system have been deployed in both Minnesota and Alaska.

The DAS uses GPS technology and a front-mounted radar to provide an image of the road and any obstacles in front of the operator. The image is displayed on a monitor inside the cab of the plow. The system also vibrates the operator’s seat as a warning if the plow veers too close to the roadway’s centerline or fog line.

“If the driver gets within one foot of the fog line on the right side, the right side of the seat vibrates. If the driver gets too close to the centerline on the left side, the left side vibrates,” said Fester.

The vibrations continue until the driver moves back into the center of the lane. The driver can also turn off the warning feature to clear snow from the shoulder.

The DAS is currently installed in one truck in District 7. The $75,000 cost makes it difficult to install in every truck in the district or the state, although having at least one system in every district may be possible, Fester said.

Fester said the system proved its worth one day in February when blizzard conditions caused zero visibility and forced many road closures in southwest Minnesota. He was called out at 2 a.m. Feb. 8 to assist a stranded state trooper and several motorists on a 12-mile stretch of Hwy 60 between Windom and Heron Lake. Fester drove a pickup behind the DAS-equipped snowplow, driven by Darryl Oeltjenbruns, to reach them.

As the DAS identified stranded vehicles on the way to Heron Lake, Fester and Oeltjenbruns checked to make sure they weren’t occupied with people. Once they made it to Heron Lake, they stopped at the community center, where the state trooper and the stranded motorists he brought in were located.

On the way back to Windom, Fester and the state patrolman continued to check on stranded vehicles as the DAS-equipped snowplow led the way. If the vehicles weren’t in the ditch, motorists drove behind the two MnDOT vehicles. If their vehicles were in the ditch, motorists rode in a Suburban that was also being escorted to Windom. After returning to Windom, the motorists were dropped off at motels or truck stops.

“When we first went out, there were about six stranded vehicles. Coming back from Heron Lake, there were about 15,” Fester said. “At one time, we had 12 vehicles in line as we drove back to Windom, driving about 10 to 15 miles per hour.”

Later that morning the DAS system was used again to locate other motorists.

“We continued to use it until about 10 a.m. or 11 a.m. that day,” Fester said. “The system worked great and kept everyone safe. It was an interesting morning.”

(Reprinted and adapted with permission from an article by Sue Roe in MnDOT’s Feb. 17, 2016 Newsline.)

Taking the guesswork out of measuring winter operations

Being able to accurately and reliably estimate traffic conditions during snow events is critical to transportation agencies. Typically, state DOTs use measurements such as “time to bare pavement”—based on the visual inspection of plow drivers—to gauge the progress of snow operations. These estimates are limited, however, by the subjectivity and inconsistency of human-based measurements.

Now, new research sponsored by the MnDOT and led by University of Minnesota Duluth civil engineering professor Eil Kwon aims to take the guesswork out of assessing traffic conditions during winter weather events.

“Dr. Kwon’s research on a new approach to snow and ice performance reporting is exciting,” says Steve Lund, state maintenance engineer and director of the Office of Maintenance at MnDOT. “For quite a few years, MnDOT snowfighters have been reporting their performance through a visual review of the roadway conditions. Our snowfighters have a tough job—automating the performance reporting will remove that task from their duties. Also, looking at traffic returning to a ‘normal’ condition is truly the ultimate goal or outcome measure, and where we want to go.”

In the first phase of this project, researchers developed a prototype process that uses data on traffic speed, flow, and density collected by loop detectors in the Twin Cities metro area to estimate the point at which traffic patterns return to normal—an indicator that the roadway surface has “recovered.” In the newly published second phase, researchers further analyzed the traffic flow patterns during snow events under normal and snow conditions and refined the earlier prototype into a traffic-data-based measurement process for snow operations.

“We found that by comparing the variation patterns in traffic flow during a snow event with those during normal weather conditions, we could successfully identify the recovery status of the traffic flow at a given location,” Kwon says.

Based on their findings, the researchers developed a new process to identify the Normal Condition Regain Time (NCRT)—as an alternative to the traditional “time to bare pavement” measurement used to gauge the progress of maintenance operations during a winter weather event.

One advantage of the new process is that it can reflect how road surface conditions affect traffic flow differently during day and night periods. “Nighttime traffic flow patterns are substantially different from those during daytime periods,” Kwon says. “We identified normal traffic patterns separately for daytime and nighttime conditions to account for these differences in estimating the recovery status.”

Future research plans include the development of an operational version of the NCRT estimation system that can be used on a daily basis to analyze and improve snow operations, and the creation of an online version that can be used for coordinating snow operations in real time.

“There is a lot of potential to use these findings to make snow operations even more effective and efficient,” Kwon says. “For example, the analysis of the relationship between the NCRT measures and operational strategies such as plowing start time and methods could help further refine MnDOT’s winter maintenance strategies.”

For more information, download the technical summary (PDF) or the project’s final report.