Blizzard response may be aided by salt-infused asphalt, robotic snow plows

snow-plow-335Every winter in America, there’s always the possibility that a city or perhaps entire region could be hit with a winter storm event known as a blizzard, a type of severe snowstorm that brings wind racing at speeds greater than 35 miles per hour and heavy snowfall which reduces normal visibility to less than one-quarter mile for a period of at least three hours. These conditions become especially life-threatening automobile drivers, who are much more likely to get into an accident on slick roads with low visibility. At least a couple of drivers tend be stranded for hours on end during a blizzard as they wait for conditions to clear up and road crews to remove the snow.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), there were 21 American fatalities caused by winter storms in 10 states during 2014, the same number of winter storm deaths experienced during 2013. Although that’s a lower death toll than might be experienced by other weather events, blizzards also cause a great deal of damage to buildings that can buckle under the weight of many feet of densely packed snow. Add in the costs for heat and snow removal and it’s easy to see why the costs of dealing with winter weather events across America exceeded $15 billion during 2014.

Blizzards have been shaping American infrastructure ever since the late 1800s, when major cities like Boston and New York began construction on their respective subway systems partially in response to the traffic gridlock caused by blizzards, especially the Great White Hurricane of 1888 which left snow drifts piled 50 feet high along the Eastern seaboard. Recent years and even weeks have seen heavy blizzard activity. In late December 2014, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officially declared a major disaster in Western New York in response to the Snowvember storm that dumped more than seven feet of snow on south Buffalo and its suburbs over the course of two days in late November. That storm stranded dozens of vehicles, collapsed roofs and buildings all over the region and caused 14 deaths. Blizzards were also seen during the recent Winter Storm Goliath which swept through the country as far south as Texas, leaving more than a foot of snow in Roswell, NM, and 11.2 inches in Lubbock, TX, with some areas receiving much more snow. Dozens of people died from weather events related to Goliath, although many of those deaths were attributable to flooding and tornadoes which were also spurred on by the weather pattern, the deadliest of 2015.


As far as snow is concerned, its quick removal from roadways is paramount for getting a city back to business as usual. A number of major American cities, including New York, Chicago and Pittsburgh, have developed online snow tracker programs to let residents see where snow plows are currently traveling and find out when they can expect one to pass by their home or apartment. Pittsburgh, for example, has equipped 120 public works vehicles with GPS sensors and uploads data on current position and travel history of snow and ice removal vehicles. At the time of this writing, Chicago Shovels was tracking 200 snow plows deployed across the city to respond to a winter weather event.

Artificial intelligence and route planning algorithms are helping to deploy snow and ice removal vehicles in the most efficient way possible. In Centennial, CO, a piece of logistics software created by routing optimization firm C2Logix Inc. of Fairfax, VA, has been able to make snowplow activities much more efficient even when inexperienced plow drivers were used. Leveraging the additional use of GPS receivers, the system slashed plow times down to 5.5 hours to remove 15 inches of snow; a previous 12-inch snowfall in Centennial removed using old priority-based plans required eight hours for removal without the software.

Some tech firms are trying to go all-in on AI solutions for snow removal by developing autonomous, self-driving snow plows that could be deployed without human operators. At the end of this January, autonomous plow developers will come together in St. Paul, MN, for the sixth-annual Institute of Navigation Autonomous Snowplow Competition. This year, there will be 11 student teams from the U.S. and Canada attending the event competing to see which of their autonomous snow plows performs best at navigating the competition’s course solely through computer control. Robotic, self-driving snow plows could be implemented for municipal snow removal in the future, although the current state of the tech hasn’t gotten far beyond prototypes that cost $4,000 to $12,000 per unit.

Still, many regions which are susceptible to snow find themselves without an effective answer to removing the many tons of snow that can be left behind after a blizzard or a winter storm. Last February, the city of Boston announced that it was soliciting ideas for innovative snow removal solutions through its Office of New Urban Mechanics, inviting businesses, academia and even regular citizens to submit any potential new snow removal technologies. That plea was in response to weeks of snowstorms buffeting the Northeast, but it underscores the fact that, even in states where winter weather is expected, it’s tough to adequately prepare for blizzards.

New road pavement formulations designed to promote deicing and snow melt may be part of the answer for some municipalities. Scientists working at Koç University in Istanbul, Turkey, have developed an asphalt with road salt incorporated into the pavement material by mixing a salt potassium formate with a hard rubber for adding to the bitumen component of asphalt. The formulation would release road salt over the course of several years. In lab settings, the asphalt was capable of delaying the freezing time of water droplets by up to 20 minutes. Not only would this reduce the amount of salt that needs to be distributed to melt snow, which can add up to a large total expense over the course of a winter, but this would also counteract the formation of dangerous black ice in wintry conditions.

Pavement materials which incorporate solar energy collection technologies may provide snow melting capabilities on the roads while also generating electricity which can be distributed to a local energy grid. In May 2015, Ohio State University announced that it would be implementing solar pavement on certain areas of its campus which could provide both enhanced snow melt and electricity generation, although it remained to be seen how well the pavement would stand up against vehicle traffic as well as the elements. In December, the Federal Highway Administration had developed a pavement that could generate power from solar energy while providing features that heat snow and ice buildup.

Of course, once the roads are plowed, that still leaves many homeowners with the problem of getting snow out of their driveway before a car can make it onto the road. For many smartphone owners, there are apps which can instantly connect them to local snow removal companies that can clean their driveway. Plowz & Mowz, which also offers the ability to request lawn mowing services in the warmer months, offers users the ability to contact plowing services in 29 different cities from Denver, CO, to Sterling Heights, MI. Users have to input some information about their address and receive a free quote for the cost of a driveway plow. Early last December, lawn care app LawnGuru unveiled a similar on-demand snow removal service available in 100 zip codes across the country, although that could expand in coming months.


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