‘Femi’ has program for safer winter roads

Dr. Olufemi Omitaomu leads a team at Oak Ridge National Laboratory developing a variable control mechanism to enable precision de-icing on urban roads.
Saying he has a special interest in Town of Farragut as a resident along Choto Road, Dr. Olufemi “Femi” Omitaomu decided to make a study of Town roads and streets for his “Precision De-Icing Technique” program.

“We just did it on our own,” Omitaomu, an Oak Ridge National Laboratory research scientist, said of his desire to inquire about the slope and amount of sunlight absorbed for each 50-meter stretch of a given Town street or road.

The bottom line is creating a more efficient way snow and ice treatments, such as salt, are spread — both for easier and quicker traffic passage and, more importantly, to decrease accidents. “This is going to save money, and most importantly it’s going to save lives,” he said.

“The system has been tested under laboratory settings,” Omitaomu added. “The next step is to put the control system on a snow truck for field testing before we can say it is ready for prime time.”

When ready, this ORNL program would be available, free of charge, to any municipality looking to improve its snow and ice prevention and removal, he said. “It started with the snow event we had in Knoxville a couple of years ago, where that actually happened back-to-back,” Omitaomu said. “Schools were out for about two weeks.

“That was what prompted our motivation ...,” he added. “We then did a quick study and we found that usually the way the icy roads are cleared is based on a very old idea where they use traffic volume.”

Defining the biggest priority roads for first treatment as level 1 roads, based on traffic volume, Omitaomu said, “Because [road crews] start with level 1 roads, they don’t usually get to de-ice level 2 and level 3 [less priority] roads. And because of that people normally were not able to get out of their neighborhoods to get on the Interstate.

“One of the issues is a resource allocation issue because they don’t have a sufficient budget to buy road salt to salt everywhere,” he added, “So they have to prioritize where they need to apply brine or salt.

“I’ve noticed that in the Town of Farragut as well. The major roads are usually treated first, but the neighborhoods are not treated, either because they don’t have enough resources or because they run out of resources.”

However, Town administrator David Smoak said, “We’ve got a little over 200 tons of salt in our bins ready to go. We can handle several weather events before we would need to go and get additional supplies.”

Their snow removal fleet is two dump trucks with plows, and two Ford F-250 pickup trucks with spreaders, Smoak said.

About any possible changes, Smoak said, “The Town strives to maintain an efficient and effective snow removal strategy based on the many variables that go into each winter weather event, and would welcome the opportunity to discuss how to enhance this service to our community with Dr. Omitaomu.”

“Now that the story is out, we are looking for the appropriate contact names so that we can shoot them some of these results and get their comment,” Omitaomu said.

Board of Mayor and Aldermen is scheduled to vote on releasing the Town’s “Snow Removal Schedule” for the 2017-18 winter season during its meeting starting at 7 p.m., tonight, Thursday, Dec. 14.

While Omitaomu was not critical of Public Works personnel, Smoak specifically praised the Town’s Public Works crew, led by long-time director Bud McKelvey. “Bud and his guys over at Public Works do a great job of keeping our roads clear during snow events,” Smoak said.

Having contacted City of Knoxville, Omitaomu said, “They actually provided some information to validate some of our results. … We discovered that some of the trouble spots that they have identified over the years actually correlate with … our model.”

Chad Weth, Public Service director for City of Knoxville, said, “There is not a plan currently to implement this system. While it is very interesting and we do plan on looking at the results, there are many steps that would need to be made for implementation.

“Currently our systems are all gravity-fed and when the chute is open, salt is applied evenly on every stretch of roadway. This system would help us define areas that need more/less salt or no salt at all.”

About his model, Omitaomu said, “We had to develop a method to classify road segments, every 50 meters, whether it should be treated or not treated. To do that we have to account for whether that segment is blocked from sunlight by trees or a structure, and whether it is a sloped road or a flat road.

“One formulation calculates the amount of solar radiation on a road segment while accounting for possible cloud cover. We used historical cloud cover profile for this area to determine a range,” he added.

“The other formulation is based on the thermodynamics of snowmelt, which accounts for several parameters including days since last snowfall, albedo of the snow, wind speed, air temperature, freezing temperature, dewpoint temperature and rainfall.”

With all data evaluated, Omitaomu said, “Once we come up with that we can easily integrate that information into GPS, so that we can then put that into snow trucks. When the snow trucks are going on the roads, using the GPS location, the truck automatically and intelligently determines whether that segment should be salted or not.”

As for contacting Tennessee Department of Transportation about the project, he said, “We are yet to contact TDOT. We plan to do that after the holidays.”

Omitaomu and his project team “of about seven” includes Farragut residents Daniel Koch, a research scientist, and Budhendra Bhaduri, a corporate fellow.