Use of IT helps snow removal to evolve
This winter, Hokkaido has been hit by record-breaking snowfalls. Transportation was paralyzed and large piles of snow lined the main roads and residential streets, heavily impacting the lives of the residents. In an attempt to solve this situation, ‘smart snow removal’ that utilizes information and communication technology (ICT) such as artificial intelligence (AI) and high-performance sensors, is attracting attention.
In late January, an experimental rotary snowplow operated on a test course in the city of Yubari. Despite the driver not touching either the steering wheel or the accelerator, the snowplow advanced while carving away the piles of snow. The plow successfully completed its ‘automatic snow removal’ without deviating from the white line it used as a reference.
The Hokkaido Branch of the East Nippon Expressway Company Ltd. (NEXCO East Japan), which is responsible for snow removal on expressways, has installed the automatic snow removal system ‘ASNOS’ in order to make the work less labor intensive. By utilizing the Quasi-Zenith Satellite ‘MICHIBIKI,’ which has a smaller margin of error than the Global Positioning System (GPS), and high-precision 3D map data that includes information on the terrain and roadside guardrails, the system enables automatic snow removal with an error margin of a few centimeters.
In the background of the development is the aging snow removal workforce and the shortage of workers. According to the City of Sapporo, it is estimated that the number of snow removal operators will decrease by 40% by 2037.
Developed by BaySherwood, a venture company in the city of Otaru ‘SnowBell’ is a snow removal matching app that connects snow removal requests with workers, via smartphones and other devices. It is currently undergoing trial with the aim of starting operation next winter. The concept is to link elderly people who have difficulty clearing snow, and office workers who do not have time to clear snow, with students and young people who want to earn money. According to Hikichi Chikashi, who used the service on a trial basis, “It’s hard for the elderly to shovel snow, but when young people do it, it doesn’t take long. This is a convenient service that we can rely on, on days of heavy snowfall.”
Associate Professor Emaru Takanori of Hokkaido University, who carries out research on robotics, is conducting research on the use of automatic driving technology in snow-covered environments, to support and automate snow removal. He has installed sensors on vehicles to gather three-dimensional distance data, and thermal cameras to detect heat, and is continuing to conduct demonstration tests to ensure safety and improve work efficiency by determining snow removal locations and recognizing pedestrians and other obstacles.
According to Associate Professor Emaru, “A shortage of snow removal workers is predicted due to the declining and aging population. It is necessary to shift from conventional snow removal methods to more efficient snow removal using ICT. There are still many issues to be resolved, such as the establishment of laws, but we need to speed up the development of technology.”
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