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11.02.2020 | Earth Intelligence

Predicting Road Surface Conditions for Autonomous Vehicles with Storm Desk

By: Bob Haas, WeatherDesk Product Manager; Kevin Bullock, Business Development Director; Will Bryan, Business Development Representative, Maxar Technologies

Read Time: 3 minutes

Autonomous vehicles continue to rapidly advance with greater capabilities: they can interpret road markings and signs, navigate hazards and avert pedestrians. This technology is an increasingly common sight in California, Florida, Texas and Arizona, but is seen less frequently in other parts of the country. Why? Autonomous vehicles are struggling to overcome their warm weather bias. It is far easier to test autonomous systems when roads are dry, and the weather is sunny. For this reason, warm weather climates have seen the greatest amount of testing, such as Waymo making Chandler, Arizona the “capital of self-driving.”

In areas of inclement weather, sheets of black ice, sudden blasts of wind and snow-covered roads pose a huge challenge for even the most intelligent sensors. Thunderstorms with high winds, heavy rains and wet roads are regular occurrences from spring to fall. Without adequate information on actual road surfaces and the atmospheric conditions just above the surface, autonomous vehicles will be limited in their ability to safely navigate during inclement weather. Autonomous systems and even semi-autonomous systems in vehicles greatly benefit from knowing the current and future conditions of roads to be traveled.

Maxar overcomes these challenges with solutions from WeatherDesk, a platform that sets the standard for reliable weather forecasting through sound attention to science and customer focus. Storm Desk, a new application in the WeatherDesk suite, displays real-time weather conditions, provides immediate alerts of watches and warnings associated with threatening weather events, and delivers hour-by-hour weather forecasts. Surface and near-surface conditions of discrete sections of road become perceptible and navigable with the proper tools.

This Storm Desk screenshot highlights weather risks associated with Hurricane Delta as it approached the Gulf Coast on Oct. 9, 2020.

Consider the case of Hurricane Delta as it neared the Gulf Coast of the United States on October 9, 2020. Capturing the timing of the strongest winds and heaviest rains can predict opportunities that allow for autonomous emergency vehicles to safely travel between two points. For instance, traveling from Lafayette, Louisiana, to Alexandria, Louisiana, along interstate highway 49 might be deemed unthinkable much of the day, but between the bands of heaviest rains or winds, there are likely to be windows that would allow for safer passage between these two points for autonomous or driver-operated vehicles – and Storm Desk can provide that needed insight into wind and rain patterns.

This Storm Desk graphic displays the hour-by-hour forecasts for Alexandria, Louisiana.

Imagine algorithms that understand upcoming road conditions and manage vehicle speed to keep a vehicle from hydroplaning during an unexpected thunderstorm, speeding over an icy bridge or overturning on a gusty highway. WeatherDesk solutions such as Storm Desk, along with additional data products that will soon be available at sub-1km² spatial resolution, unlock these capabilities. Together with Maxar, autonomous vehicles can move beyond fair weather options to all-condition convenience and utility.

Learn more here.

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