On a cold, dark February night, the work for Helio Cabral has only just started—the latest in a series of long days that this plow driver has worked this year as Mother Nature continues to pummel most of the country with snow.
"I don't call it snow removal; I call it snow management," Cabral said as he maneuvered his pickup truck around a snowbank.
As a plow driver, Cabral relies on those big winter storms to make a living. But getting roads cleared of snow and ice can be a pretty dangerous job.
Cabral is often driving during the heart of any given snowstorm, which dramatically decreases visibility.
"It is [easy] to get into an accident," he added.
That’s where Anuj Sharma comes in. He’s a transportation researcher at Iowa State University and is trying to better equip plow drivers to navigate roads during white-out conditions.
The goal is to clear the roads as soon as possible and make sure there are no unexpected delays and improve the safety of the roadways.
Sharma’s team is in the process of collecting mountains of GPS data from plow drivers. The hope is to eventually build plows that are a bit more autonomous. Trucks can tell where road lanes are even if a driver can’t see the road, so snow removal can happen even in the worst conditions.
"Can we operate the snowplow when visibility is very low and can we keep cleaning the roads?" Sharma noted.
This could also help states be more efficient during snowstorms. Snow removal is an incredibly expensive process for states nationwide. Michigan spends about $40 million a year on snow removal. In Ohio, it costs about $50 million to plow roads, and Colorado spends about $70 million each year to keep roads clear.
"When winter hits, the first thing you hope is that the roads are clear. As soon as the snow stops, you want to go out of the house and have the roads cleared somehow," Sharma said about the study.
Even if you don’t live in a state that typically gets snow, the research Sharma and his team are doing could help plow drivers at places like airports, which could decrease the number of flight delays and cancellations that are often so frequent during the winter.
"For the snowplow drivers, if they don’t do their jobs, it's the rest of us who are left waiting."