BOULDER, Colo. (AP) — Ever wonder why snowplows are never where you’re convinced they’re most needed at the time they’re needed most?

Snowplow operators say they can’t be everywhere at once, but they are getting some high-tech help this winter in three states using a new digital intelligence system built in Boulder.

Michigan, Minnesota and Nevada are deploying hundreds of plows with custom-designed sensors that continually measure road and weather conditions. The digital system, funded by the U.S. Department of Transportation, is designed to reduce accidents and save states potentially millions of dollars in maintenance. The system is being built at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder.

Although Colorado is not one of the three states participating in the national pilot program, it is not for lack of interest. The Colorado Department of Transportation joined a 16-state study in 2004, with South Dakota as the lead state.

If it proves successful in the test phase, it will be transferred to private vendors and made available to more states by the 2014-15 winter season.

The system combines sensor measurements with satellite, radar observations and computer weather models, producing near-real time pictures of road conditions. With updates as frequent as every five minutes, transportation officials can promptly see potential problem areas before accidents occur.

“Whereas in the past, drivers would have some new data maybe every 30, 40 or 50 miles, now you could just look up every mile, and hopefully pick up the more subtle small things that happen on the roadway,” said Sheldon Drobot, the scientist who has overseen the system’s design.

“We now have an ability to go hyper-local so we can provide this (data) mile by mile, and have an update every five minutes or less, so that’s a game changer for us,” he said.

Giving snowplows a more immediate picture of changing conditions just down the road could carry a wide range of benefits, Drobot said.

“It is creating a smarter snow plow, and that allows them to have a better sense of where they need to put down the chemical salt or other chemicals, and how much as well,” he said. “We don’t want to coat the road if we don’t need to. This will help them be more precise in what they use, and where. So there’s a huge environmental benefit as well, and is also less costly.”

Wintry conditions or other bad weather are blamed for more than 4,000 lives each year.

Colorado Department of Transportation spokeswoman Amy Ford said the state is working with private companies to find their own solutions.

Ford said her agency is monitoring Drobot’s efforts and the U.S. Department of Transportation. She said if they continue to discover new techniques or new methods as part of the pilot program, Colorado will considering putting it to use.

– By CHARLIE BRENNAN, Daily Camera

(© Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)


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