'Winter Is Coming!' New sensors could cut millions from gritting costs

Supplementary content information

Close-up photo of Wintersense sensor on lamppost

Simon Bell

'Winter is Coming', the motto of the House of Stark, from the hit TV series Game of Thrones®, warns of the inevitable onset of bad weather and bad times, and implies the need to prepare.

Researchers, funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) at the University of Birmingham have clearly taken note.

They have been developing sensors that could cut millions from road-gritting costs and help local authorities be ready for the darker days ahead.

Unnecessary gritting of roads and car parks could be avoided and road safety in cold weather boosted, thanks to these new internet-connected, temperature sensors that have already been successfully trialled in Birmingham, London and elsewhere across the country.

Fitted to lampposts, for example, the low-cost devices collect and transmit a non-stop stream of data on road-surface temperatures that local authorities, highways agencies and other organisations can use to target precisely where gritting is needed - and where it isn't.

The sensors have been developed by meteorologists at Birmingham in conjunction with Amey plc, the Oxford-based engineering consultancy and infrastructure support specialists.

Each of the hand-sized sensors costs only around £200, compared with the £10,000 or so needed to maintain a weather forecasting station like those currently relied on by local authorities to help them make tough decisions on when and where to grit.

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, says Dr Lee Chapman, who led the project. 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.

The sensors are inspired by the fast-developing Internet of Things* by utilising increasingly pervasive WiFi networks to transmit a single number indicating the local road surface temperature every ten minutes. No cabling is necessary, deployment is rapid and the sensor boxes are fitted unobtrusively near ground level on the street side of the lamppost or whatever else they are attached to.

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

This cost-effective, real-time decision-making approach also has potential to be extended even further, with individual gritting lorries switching their gritters on and off as they go in response to the data generated by the sensor networks.

The next step for the Birmingham team is to continue to work with key industrial partners towards full commercialisation and eventual mass production of the sensors. The team are also now looking to secure further support to enable them to continue their work to other infrastructure sectors, including solving the infamous leaves on the line problem on the railway network.

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, Lee Chapman comments.

Notes for Editors:

The two-year research project Wintersense: Demonstrating the Potential of the Internet of Things in Winter Road Maintenance began in October 2014 and has received total EPSRC funding of just over £164,000.

* The Internet of Things involves connecting up all kinds of objects and devices to the internet, enabling them to transmit and receive data, and using this information (eg about level of usage, energy consumption etc) to improve their efficiency or to help inform the decision-making of individuals or organisations.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)

As the main funding agency for engineering and physical sciences research, our vision is for the UK to be the best place in the world to Research, Discover and Innovate.

By investing £800 million a year in research and postgraduate training, we are building the knowledge and skills base needed to address the scientific and technological challenges facing the nation. Our portfolio covers a vast range of fields from healthcare technologies to structural engineering, manufacturing to mathematics, advanced materials to chemistry. The research we fund has impact across all sectors. It provides a platform for future economic development in the UK and improvements for everyone's health, lifestyle and culture.

We work collectively with our partners and other Research Councils on issues of common concern via UK Research and Innovation.

The University of Birmingham

The University of Birmingham is ranked amongst the world's top 100 institutions and its work brings people from across the world to Birmingham, including researchers and teachers and more than 5000 international students from over 150 countries. In 2016, the University has risen to fifteenth in the UK university league tables with 50 percent of its subjects in the top ten and three subjects rated number one in the country.

Reference: PN 22-16

Contact Details

In the following table, contact information relevant to the page. The first column is for visual reference only. Data is in the right column.

Name: Dr Lee Chapman
Section / Team: School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences
Organisation: University of Birmingham
Telephone: 0121 414 7435

In the following table, contact information relevant to the page. The first column is for visual reference only. Data is in the right column.

Name: EPSRC Press Office
Telephone: 01793 444404