Tag Archives: winter

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.

Salt-tolerant sod and seed mixes bring greener roadsides to Minnesota

For Minnesota’s roadside grasses, life isn’t easy. To survive, grass must be able to withstand extreme stresses including drought, heat, disease, soil compaction, poor quality soils, and high levels of road salt. Ideally, it could survive all that while still looking lush and green.

“Many roadsides, especially in metropolitan areas, need to look good,” says Eric Watkins, associate professor in the Department of Horticultural Science. “In addition to aesthetics, quality roadside vegetation is needed to prevent erosion and maintain water quality from roadside runoff.”

In 2010, MnDOT noticed a number of its new sod and seed plantings were failing and asked U of M experts to take a look at its specification. “We saw the problem immediately,” Watkins says. “The specification was for a mix with a lot of Kentucky bluegrass, which needs a great deal of care and watering. There was clearly an opportunity for improvement.”

During the next several years, Watkins’ team, led by former graduate student Josh Friell, worked to identify the best seed and sod for use along Minnesota’s roadsides in research sponsored by the Minnesota Local Road Research Board and MnDOT. Findings are now available in a final report.

The study was completed in several stages. First, many different types of cool-season grasses were planted in the fall and assessed the following spring to determine their ability to establish and survive on roadsides in Minnesota. Next, researchers looked at the salt tolerance of those grasses.

Eric Watkins (third from left) leads a greenhouse tour of grass mixtures.
Eric Watkins (third from left) leads a greenhouse tour of grass mixtures.

“In cold-weather climates like Minnesota’s, salt tolerance is required because of the application of deicing salts in the winter,” Watkins explains. “To determine if a grass species could stand up to this stress, we applied different levels of salt solution to the different grass species in a greenhouse. We identified several types of fescue grass as the most salt tolerant.”

Based on the results of the first two stages, researchers developed and tested 50 different grass mixtures along Minnesota’s roadsides and evaluated the survival and performance of those plantings for two years. In addition, each mixture was planted under a movable rain-out shelter to determine drought tolerance. This phase of the study resulted in the identification of a mix of three types of fescue for planting on roadsides in Minnesota.

Finally, researchers needed to find out if the new grass mixture would work as sod (sod growers need to be able to harvest it properly from their sod fields). “Most sod currently grown in Minnesota is Kentucky bluegrass, which isn’t the best for winter survival when salt stress is a problem,” says Watkins. “We grew 51 different grass mixtures as sod for 22 months and found that contrary to popular belief, fine fescue mixtures produced sod of acceptable strength for harvest.”

MnDOT has applied the research to standard specifications for construction activities for salt-tolerant sod products, salt/shade/drought-tolerant turf seed mixtures, and a third-party certification program for ensuring performance standards are met based on past and current research results, says Dwayne Stenlund, MnDOT erosion control engineering specialist. Researchers are also working with the state’s sod growers to produce sod grown from the new seed blends.

Moving forward, the researchers plan to continue their work to improve Minnesota’s roadside grass plantings. “The reality is that the success of sod or seed plantings depends on a number of factors, including time of year, amount of water, soil preparation, temperature, and sod harvest depth,” Watkins says. “In our next project, beginning this spring, we will identify the most important factors for the success of roadside plantings and sod cultivation, and then help MnDOT update the specifications for managing new installations.”

Road Surface Monitors Could Help Reduce Salt Usage

MnDOT is testing a mobile road condition monitor that uses infrared technology to detect hazardous ice, snow or wet conditions without even touching the pavement.

Maintenance crews hope the device, called the High Sierra Surface Sentinel, could help them better determine when it’s time to apply salt when they’re plowing. The mobile sensor reports air temperature, surface temperature and road friction data.

“The biggest reason we’re looking at this is for the friction reading,” said MnDOT Salt Solutions Coordinator Joe Huneke. “Typically, when operators are patrolling their route and the road looks like it’s getting icy, they’ll err on the side of caution and apply salt — and it may not need it.”

The device being tested by snow and ice crews in northern Minnesota would also provide real-time surface weather conditions. Currently, plow operators and supervisors must enter road conditions into a computer or relay them by phone, a time-consuming process that operators are not always able to perform in a timely manner.

The biggest potential benefit, however, is lower salt consumption.

“Sometimes you get a light cold snow event where it might look like there’s a little ice on the road, but, in fact, you have good friction numbers and you don’t need salt. Once you put chemical down, you’re committed to it,” Huneke said.

District 1 snow and ice crews are evaluating the unit pictured below for its accuracy and effectiveness in determining slippery conditions. It will be compared with another device tested in District 3 that also uses infrared technology to determine how slippery the road is, and technology being tested in District 6 that uses gravitational force to determine the road surface friction.

MnDOT it testing a mobile surface condition sensor that provides real-time surface weather condition of roadways.
MnDOT it testing this mobile road condition sensor, which provides real-time surface weather condition of roadways.

Related Research

MnDOT’s Office of Maintenance has its own research program designed to let maintenance personnel test innovative ideas to keep our roads smooth, snow-free and safe. They even put out a monthly bulletin featuring new ideas and technologies. (You can find the back issues here.)

Other winter maintenance research projects are featured in MnDOT’s 2011-2013 Maintenance Operations Research Report  (PDF, 9 MB, 98 pages)

Snow Control Tools Webinar Jan. 28

Tune in to this free webinar at noon CST on January 28 to learn about the Blowing Snow Control Cost-Benefit Web Tool. This online tool allows transportation agencies to calculate the amount they can pay private landowners (farmers) to establish a living snow fence (shrubs) or to leave standing corn rows or other structures like hay bales or silage bags to reduce blowing snow on sensitive highways.

The tool also analyzes grading and structural snow fence benefits. Reducing blowing snow on highways decreases highway maintenance costs and improves traffic safety in winter driving conditions.

To watch, register online by January 23. For more information, please visit the event web page.

Patching pavement with microwaves and magnetite

On Wednesday, I had a chance to watch a demonstration of a uniquely Minnesotan pavement patching technology that combines an industrial-strength microwave with a special asphalt mix. What makes it “uniquely Minnesotan?” In addition to having been developed by University of Minnesota researchers and a Monticello-based company (and with some funding from MnDOT), this innovative method involves a special asphalt mix using magnetite, a mineral that abounds on Minnesota’s Iron Range.

It also addresses a very Minnesotan transportation problem: winter pavement repair. In the video above, Kirk Kjellberg of Microwave Utilities, Inc., highlights some of the benefits of using the 50,000-watt microwave to heat the pavement during patching. In addition to creating a longer-lasting patch, the microwave is considerably faster than many alternative techniques. The technology is still relatively new, but its supporters claim it allows for pavement repairs in the middle of winter that are as strong and durable as the ones road crews do in the summer.

The demonstration, which was organized for members of the Local Road Research Board, took place at MnDOT’s District 3 training facility in St. Cloud.

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