Golden Ice Project Worth Its Weight in Salt?
Powered by Windows Embedded, Giletta salt-spreading trucks go from “pesante to pensante.”
TORINO, Italy — Dec. 13, 2011 — The winter of 2009–2010 brought a dilemma to cities across Europe that may sound familiar to those in other locales: slick roads brought on by a dearth of road de-icing salt. As Europe’s major cities ran out of salt during that icy winter, the cost of it skyrocketed — from its offseason price of 60 euros per ton to more than 100 euros. Along with the spiraling expense, the taxpaying public’s temper flared.
With that drama playing in the background, some researchers at a Microsoft facility in Italy submitted a project proposal to the European Commission (EC) on a completely different topic: The EC’s Galileo Supervisory Authority was seeking innovative uses of Galileo, Europe’s version of the U.S. GPS global satellite navigation system, and offering grants for the best ideas.
Paolo Mulassano, an electrical engineer who runs Microsoft Innovation Center of Torino at Istituto Superiore Mario Boella, was already in talks with winter-services equipment manufacturer Giletta SpA when the EC’s request came across the wire.
“The CEO of the company, Mr. Enzo Gilleta, was proposing ideas to go from heavy machines to intelligent systems,” Mulassano says. “From pesante to pensante, from something heavy to something that is no longer heavy but smart. Given the EC’s proposal, why not find a way to use the precise global positioning features offered by Galileo to adjust the salt setting?”
In a traditional heavy salt truck, the driver simply turns on the salt-spreading machine attached to the rear of the truck and drives. Giletta says the spray is adjustable, but drivers by and large are concentrating on the road as opposed to monitoring their salt output, and hiring a passenger to run the salt-spreading controls is not a cost-effective option.
“We were looking for a way to innovate and optimize the de-icing process,” Giletta says. “Windows Embedded technology gave us the tools to connect these machines with Windows Azure systems in the cloud and Galileo satellites in the sky.”
By combining Galileo with a precise set of European road maps using Windows Embedded CE and Windows Azure, Mulassano and his team were able to develop a solution that continually compares the truck’s salt output against the actual needs of the road itself. The system uses Windows Embedded CE in the cockpit of the truck with a touch-screen monitor running a custom interface for drivers built on Silverlight for Windows Embedded. The application that connects everything is built on Windows Azure, but can be either hosted in the cloud or on-premises in traditional servers.
“If you’re on a bridge, for example, the probability to have ice is much higher than other portions of the highway,” says Fabrizio Dominici, the technical leader of the Advanced Technology Labs in Torino who worked on the so-called “Golden Ice” project. “So if the positioning system is telling the machine you’re on a bridge, the parameters increase, and the spreader lays more grams per square meter of salt. If the width of the road changes, the truck adjusts the spray to accommodate the increased or decreased area.”
Dominici says updating the system for new or modified stretches of road is similarly painless. Through a system called “route replay,” the driver simply “trains” the system the first time the new road is driven. Upon his return, the new information is synced with the Azure back end, and the entire fleet is updated from there.
“You store the new data at the server level, and that’s it,” Dominci says. “In the second mission, you have all the correlations.”
It’s such an efficient intelligent system that cities deploying the trucks are consistently reporting as much as 30 percent savings in the consumption of salt. For large cities and alpine highways in particular, that kind of savings can really add up. The highway that connects Torino with the mountainous skiing region to the north, for example, is just 80 kilometers, but it has historically consumed several million euros worth of salt per year.
There are also benefits beyond containing costs and conserving a natural resource. Less salt means less environmental impact, and the system keeps a precise, auditable record of how the roadway is maintained.
“With our system, you can actually certify the quantity and frequency of salt that was spread in a specific position,” Mulassano says. “So planning can be much more precise, and roadway managers can also have some protection from liability.”
The entire solution, including the truck, salt-spreading machine and software, is sold by Giletta, and business is brisk. The company reports sales of about 1,500 trucks per year, with a customer base that is rapidly, well, spreading: Giletta operates subsidiaries in France, Russia and Canada and plans to open a plant in the U.S. and the Middle East.
“We leveraged Galileo, as well as Microsoft leading-edge technologies, to build the solution, but the system is fully compatible with the American GPS, Galileo, and in the next version, with Russia’s GLONASS system,” Mulassano says. “So, in principle, it can operate everywhere in the world.”
Just in time for winter.