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Temperature sensors 'could cut road gritting costs'



EPSRC highlights research by University of Birmingham into using internet of things technology in targeting gritting operations

Roadside temperature sensors developed at the University of Birmingham could help local authorities cut millions of pounds from their road gritting costs, according to the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

It has funded research, carried out by the university's School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, which shows the Wintersense sensors could enable councils to target their gritting operations more effectively than through the traditional reliance on weather stations.

This follows trials run by a number of local authorities in London and around Birmingham, in which the data was transmitted through Wi-Fi networks to a cloud service managed by the university team.

The internet-connected sensors could be fitted to lampposts near ground level and transmit a number every 10 minutes to indicate the temperature. This makes it possible to provide a stream of data to councils, highways agencies and other organisations, giving them a more detailed picture than available through local weather stations.

In turn, this could ensure they grit the roads where it is most needed. It would also be possible to direct lorries to switch their gritters on and off in response to the data generated by the networks.

Localised decisions

Dr Lee Chapman, who led the project, said: “Generally, a local authority may have just two or three of these weather stations, which means the decisions they make are based more on forecasts than actual information. But because our new sensors are so inexpensive, local authorities could afford to deploy scores or even hundreds of them and make very localised decisions about the need to grit on a route by route basis.

“That’s extremely useful in view of the fact that there can be a 10°c to 15°c difference in road temperatures across a county, say, on a given winter’s night.”

He added: “The UK typically uses 2 million tonnes of salt in an average winter. Our estimates demonstrate that, by eliminating unnecessary gritting, this new technology could easily enable savings of between 20% and 50%, which would be equivalent to over £100 million per year in salt taken across the country as a whole.

There could also be savings in reducing the costs of monitoring road temperatures. Each sensor costs about £200, compared with about £10,000 to maintain a weather forecasting station.

The university is now working with industry partners on commercialising the production of the sensors. Chapman said it is still open as to whether the university would continue to provide the cloud service to which the data is sent, or whether a commercial operator would provide the service.

Infrastructure potential

“We could see networks of these new sensors becoming a valuable part of local infrastructure in almost every corner of the country within the next two to three years,” he said.

The Birmingham team is also working on using sensors to assess humidity levels on stretches of railway track in order to assess the risk of leaves becoming stuck to the lines.

Chapman said it is broadly focused on how internet of things technology can be used to make public infrastructure more efficient.

Picture by Simon Bell

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