Ice road builders use technology to make work safer

Ice road builders use technology to make work safer
Department of Transportation workers and ice road contractors practiced with new technology at a seminar near Yellowknife.Photo courtesy of DOT

Climate change skeptics need only walk a few steps ahead of the brave souls who build the NWT’s crucial ice road network each winter.

Department of Transportation employees and ice road contractors gathered in Yellowknife last week to catch the buzz on all the latest technology that will make their jobs easier, more efficient and less expensive.

Above all else, though, is the safety of the road that will be below the wheels of those employees and every person who drives the frozen thoroughfares after them, according to the DOT’s regional superintendent, Michael Conway.

“Back in the day, we would send a bulldozer out, with probably a grader or a plough truck behind it, walk across the lake and life was good,” he said, but we probably had twice as much as ice at that time of year as we do now,” he said. “We have to use all of this technology just to keep up to where we were 20 or 25 years ago. Every year brings different challenges and we have to find ways to mitigate those and find ways to get out and get those roads open.”

That means floater suits on every worker, lighter and lighter equipment and more versatile vehicles including eight-wheel argos that can float if they penetrate the ice.

Participants in the workshop held Jan. 11-12 were introduced to recent advances in Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) technology used to measure ice thickness. The workshop included a one-day session of technical training and another spent doing hands-on group exercises.

The GPR equipment continues to evolve; when Conway started using them, they were giant, bulky machines that spit out a paper feed that had to be manually measured with a ruler.

“We used to drill holes in the ice every 100 metres and hope the ice was consistent, but it’s often not,” Conway said. “The new equipment lets us link to Google Maps, dial in to a spot in the ice that’s one-by-one metre and find out how thick it is there. Plus, we can collect the data and compare years.”

The training event was an opportunity for representatives from Sensors and Software Inc., a world leader based in Mississauga, to share their knowledge with 16 DOT employees, alongside three ice road construction contractors: RTL, Norex, and T??ch? Road Constructors.

“The safety of the public, our staff, and our contractors are the top priority at DOT,” Minister of Transportation Wally Schumann said in a press release. “At the same time, we are engaging recent technical innovations to adapt our construction methods to better respond to the effects of climate change. We will continue to work with the best technologies available to provide reliable ice roads and crossings in the NWT.”

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