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Iowa snowplows looking at a massive upgrade in the coming years

Thanks to a grant from the Iowa DOT, researchers at Iowa State University are working on technology to help drivers plow through whiteout conditions.

AMES, Iowa — Much of central Iowa saw its first significant snowfall on New Year's Day. The Des Moines metro saw a wide range between two and six inches while higher amounts fell in southern Iowa.

It was the first big test of the Iowa Department of Transportation's snowplows for the 2021-22 winter season. 

Even though the event was not a blizzard, with the low water content in each snowflake thanks to the exceptionally cold temperatures, the snow was blown around by 25-30 MPH gusts very easily, creating white-out conditions at times.

This complicated the job for plow drivers across the area. But in the future, the problem could be mitigated.

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Thanks to a two-year, $502,265 grant from the Iowa Department of Transportation, researchers at Iowa State University are working on a navigation system to keep the plows on the road no matter what the drivers can see or the conditions.

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The project will essentially test out different sensors and pieces of technology this winter to provide proof of concept. These could range from hyperlocal GPS, LiDAR 3D scanning, to an IMU, an inertial measurement unit, which can report an array of data points, from force to angular momentum.

Project research lead Dr. Anuj Sharma says the goal of the project is twofold.

"One is that we want to keep the snowplow on the road, even if the operator can't see it. Whereas the second objective is to warn the driver if they're about to hit an object or run off the road."

While the project is still in its preliminary phases, the goal is to have the system operational by late 2023.

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