NMSU engineers testing dust storm detection and notification system

Writer: Emily C. Kelley

Dust storms have long plagued the desert southwest and while they may be annoying, they can also be extremely dangerous — deadly even — for motorists. The New Mexico Department of Transportation District One office contracted with the Department of Engineering Technology and Surveying at New Mexico State University to find and deploy an automated system that will notify motorists of limited visibility conditions and direct them how to respond during the storms.

Dust storm

Interstate 10 was closed near Lordsburg during this 2008 photo. NMSU faculty are working with New Mexico Department of Transportation District One to detect storms like this one early, and to notify motorists about the danger as early as possible. (Courtesy photo)

“In Southern New Mexico every year, from March till sometimes up to September, we have problems with dust,” said Ruinian Jiang, NMSU associate professor of engineering technology and surveying. “When the spring wind speeds get up to higher than like 20 to 25 miles per hour, we have a huge problem on the roads. The dust will blow from the roadsides and suddenly blind people’s eyes; they cannot see anything.”

Jiang added that though people who have lived here for a little while might be used to the dust and know how to deal with it, people passing through likely will not, and will need to know what to do if they find themselves stuck in a dust storm.

The Road Weather Information System might be the solution. The system is comprised of weather stations set up on the roadside. Jiang and NMDOT officials can monitor the system from the comfort of their desks, saving the time and money required to go out to the field to observe weather conditions. Jiang said the system can capture and report temperature, moisture, humidity, air pressure, wind speed, wind orientation and visibility. With additional sensors, the system could also report pavement temperature and relay information about whether or not slippery, icy conditions might exist.

Jiang said that the contract with NMDOT District 1 was granted in three phases. Phase I consisted of a needs assessment and equipment survey. During Phase II, equipment recommended during Phase I was purchased, installed and preliminarily evaluated. Equipment operators received training during this time, too.

“The New Mexico Department of Transportation just installed several cameras, digital message boards and beacons along interstates 10 and 25 within District One,” said Frank Guzman, New Mexico Department of Transportation District One engineer. “These devices, along with the RWIS technology, will serve as key components in gathering data in regard to wind speeds and monitoring dust storms within this region. This system allows the District office to view this information and report these changes by activating the boards and beacons in order to alert motorists.”

Now, during Phase III, NMSU faculty members are working with NMDOT for long-term evaulations of the RWIS and to determine the best way to alert motorists when a dust storm is imminent or present.

“We started Phase III last month and it will last three years,” Jiang said. “It is to test the accuracy of the instruments long-term for effictiveness, and now to figure out the best way to inform the public” about what to do during a dust storm.

Jiang said that they are evaluating different types of public notification, including television and messages posted in kiosks in rest areas, but phone messages, Facebook and Twitter notifications also are being considered.

The department has already experienced high winds with dust storms this year and NMDOT used these tools to alert motorists and the traveling public of closures and conditions along the roadways.

“As the district engineer, I have had the privilege to take part in this project from the research phase to the hardware deployment phase within our district office,” said Guzman. “These measures will enhance traffic safety along Interstate 10.”

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