Iowa City plow trucks receive new cameras

BY MICHELLE NGO | MARCH 05, 2014 5:00 AM

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There’s an app for that.

That saying helped inspire the Iowa Department of Transportation’s unique iPhone “Plow Cam” app, which uses an iPhone 4s to take still images of the road from the perspective of a truck’s dashboard.

Central Iowa received 100 of the smartphone plow camera systems, and the department’s facilities will distribute 100 additional camera systems to the remaining five districts. Four of the 100 camera systems will be given to plow trucks in Iowa City, said Jeff Tjaden, maintenance manager of District 6. 

“We initially tried to see if we could use the same rearview camera system the trucks already have and get the data online,” said Tina Greenfield, the department’s director of Road Weather Information Systems. “The answer was no. So then we thought, ‘Hey we’ve got these phones, why can’t we just find an app?’ ”

The department knew it would not have any problems syncing pictures from the phones onto the internet, so officials began browsing through the iTunes App Store in late November. After finding there was not an app with all the components they needed, the department met members of the Information Technology Computer team to create their own smartphone plow camera system, the first of its kind, Greenfield said.

The project was fairly inexpensive because Verizon Wireless provided the pilot project with the 200 iPhone devices, Greenfield said. The Iowa DOT paid the upfront $8,000 costs for the camera mounts, and it then covers the $40 monthly data plan for each phone.

This internal application allows for the iPhones to automatically capture a picture of road conditions every 10 to 15 minutes. After the picture is taken, it is then uploaded onto the department’s server and then displayed on an interactive map featured on the Iowa DOT website. In order to keep the photos as updated as possible, the website will automatically removes older photos after approximately 30 minutes.

Individuals can gain access to the photos on the online maps. Additionally, they can find a date-time stamp and the specific location of where the picture was taken.

Eric Abrams, geospatial infrastructure and coordination manager for the Iowa DOT, said during this past weekend’s snowstorms, the online maps had an approximate user count of 20,338 users on 122,032 views.

“Pictures are really nice because when you’re trying to explain a condition to somebody, there’s always the opportunity that how I describe it to you is maybe a little different than what you would imagine in your mind,” Greenfield said. “As storms roll in or roll through, people can use the website to make decisions if a show they want to see that night is worth the trip.”

Iowans are not the only ones taking advantage of this new system. Craig Bargfrede, the winter operations administrator from the Iowa DOT, said the department’s supervisors and truck drivers also use the system in order to gain greater situational awareness.

With the winter season presumably nearing the end, officials plan to evaluate the program through user feedback, camera and website performance reviews, and cost-efficiency reports before they discuss future expansion.

“This is a really effective tool to give us the ability to check the road conditions without physically having to be out on the road,” Bargfrede said. “Generally, supervisors have to ride the roads to see what kind of conditions they were running into. But this system allows a safer way for us to figure out if treatments are effective and what additional resources are needed.”

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