Sky plow: City goes high tech

High above the earth, the satellite orbits, tracking the movement of specialized government vehicles. Back on earth, detailed data from that satellite appear on a map projected on a screen in a windowless conference room. Several specially trained government employees watch that map closely: It's crucial that those vehicles follow separate routes, and time is of the essence.

If you read much Tom Clancy, you might be picturing tanks or diplomats' limos tracked by deep-cover CIA agents. But in fact those vehicles are Charlottesville snowplows, and the GPS system the city's public service department purchased this year has made a big difference when it comes to clearing roads following a snowstorm.

According to Steve Mays, head of public service for the city, more than half the city's fleet of 15 plows are equipped with the GPS system, which shows how long each plow has been on the road, how many miles it has logged, and which streets it has recently covered. But the system's best feature, says Mays, is safety.

"Mainly, I would like to know if a driver is hurt," he explains. If a plow stops for more than a few minutes and Mays is unable to reach the driver by phone or radio, he knows its exact location and can send help.

Before implementation of the satellite system, says Mays, "it was four to five hours before we'd touch base."

The system has also helped the city become more efficient. Because the map allows Mays to see which streets have already been plowed and where each plow is at any given moment, he can make better judgments about the routes.

In fact, this year, for the first time in Mays' 16-year tenure with the city, the plow routes have been changed, a direct result of the system.

So how much did this fancy system cost?

"These things can go in the millions," says Mays. "We got ours for pennies."

Two million pennies, to be precise, or $20,000. And Mays says it was money spent none too soon.

"In my 16 years," says Mays, "Isabel was the worst disaster we've had." He says the city had 189 trees down across roads at one time. Adapting the plow tracking system to handle hurricane complications was simple, says Mays, who believes the system helped expedite the post-Isabel clean-up.

Transportation director Judith Mueller says she's also thrilled with the plow system, and would like to see buses tracked by satellite soon.

"It's done so much," she says, "for really not a big expenditure."

Steve Mays.