University of Minnesota Driven to Discover
U of MNUniversity of Minnesota
Center for Transportation Studies

Programs & Labs

ITS Sensor Header

Summer 2012

System detects dangerous conditions on winter roads

To improve safety on potentially hazardous winter roadways, researchers from the University of Minnesota Duluth have developed a system to detect snow and ice on road and bridge surfaces.

At a spring ITS Institute Advanced Transportation Technologies seminar, chemistry and biochemistry professor John Evans outlined the development of the system, which was designed to be inexpensive, versatile, and easily deployable in almost any location. Ultimately, Evans said, the real-time information collected by the system could be used to warn motorists about unsafe conditions or trigger deicing operations by maintenance crews.

Evans’s system consists of an array of passive, puck-shaped sensors installed directly in the road or bridge surface. All sensors in a given area, such as on a single bridge deck, are connected to a common local data acquisition system that wirelessly transmits data back to a central processing system. The sensors and acquisition system can be powered by solar panels, making the system ideal for deployment in remote locations.

The detection system uses time domain reflectometry to acquire dielectric relaxation spectroscopy data, a technology that has traditionally been used to determine moisture content in soil, optimize water delivery to agricultural fields, and identify faults in high-speed electronic circuits. Each individual sensor sends out an electric pulse and collects data on how the material surrounding the sensor reflects that pulse. Evans explained that a material’s response to the electric field changes depending on its temperature and state—so ice, water, and air all react differently. The processing system can determine whether the roadway surface contains ice, water, deicing chemicals, or nothing at all by comparing the collected data to baseline measurements for a variety of materials.

“We ultimately use this very complex information to determine a simple response: Is the roadway safe or unsafe?” Evans said. When the system detects ice or other dangerous conditions, it could trigger electronic signs that alert drivers. It could also send information to maintenance crews or plow operators pinpointing where deicing is needed.

Evans’s research was sponsored by the ITS Institute.

Watch the seminar