Snowplow dash cams could give new perspective on dangerous Iowa roads

Eventually pictures of road conditions will be accessible on DOT website

An Iowa DOT snow plow turns onto Glass Road NE after clearing snow from a ramp on I-380 in Cedar Rapids. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)
An Iowa DOT snow plow turns onto Glass Road NE after clearing snow from a ramp on I-380 in Cedar Rapids. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)

Snowplows could soon become a window to real-time wintry conditions on Iowa's most heavily traveled roads.

The Iowa Department of Transportation has been running a pilot project using cameras mounted in cabs of snowplows to capture images as they clear the roads. After this winter, they have plenty of material.

"Really, it's a case where a picture is worth a thousands words," said John Hart, senior transportation engineer with the DOT Office of Maintenance. "It is one thing to read a road is 'partially covered' or 'fully covered.' It is another thing to see what that looks like."

The cameras — actually iPhone 4s — are set to snap a picture every 5 or 10 minutes. The geotagged pictures feed into the DOT network, and automatically populate an online map. The driver turns on the iPhone application before starting the route, and the camera and system does the rest, he said.

Eventually, the public could access the DOT's website and click on a route and see the pictures of the road. In the Cedar Rapids and Iowa City areas, that would include Interstates 80 and 380, and Highways 13, 1, 6, 30, 151 and 218.

It takes 3 or 4 minutes from the time photo is taken and when it shows up on the map, Hart said. The photos would then disappear after 30 minutes to accurately reflect current conditions, Hart said.

Technical glitches in the system due to the volume of pictures has been a challenge and is the major roadblock to making this a public resource, Hart said.

"When we work out the bugs, we will look at going public," he said.

Hart said the hope is to release it publicly as early as later this winter or as late as next winter, he said.

For now, the project has been for internal use.

"It gives us a very good assessment of our road conditions and our treatment practices," Hart said. "It can show what parts of the system are working well, and if there are areas we need to move resource to and pay attention to."

The pilot program began in July 2013 with testing cameras and system development, including the iPhone application, he said. In November, DOT sent out seven plows with cameras and have since upped the number to 100 plows, all in central Iowa, he said.

The next step is to increase the test to 200 plows, including the 100 in central Iowa and 20 each in the remaining five districts around the state, he said. Eventually many more plows would have cameras, although likely not the entire fleet of 900, Hart said.

The costs thus far have been $70,000, including phone service plans and developing the system, Hart said. Ultimately, the dash cams could save the department money, he said.

For example, the cameras could be used year round to document changes in road conditions over time, such as pavement, road markings, shoulders and traffic signs. This would save the department from having to send assessment teams out to gather that information, Hart said.

Tony Dorsey, a spokesman for American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, said the project is an example of ways transportation officials are using technology to make improvements all around the country.

"This idea is one of the many innovations that states are using today to minimize costs, improve their ability to attack the snow and ice, and keep people safe," Dorsey said.

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