Public Works wins national honor for road conditions monitoring system

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Public Works Department  • Richard H. Hansen Transportation & Public Works Complex
4787 Midway Road, Duluth, MN 55811 • Phone: (218) 625-3830

James T. Foldesi, P.E.
Public Works Director/Highway Engineer




August 17, 2023

MEDIA CONTACT: Matthew Beyer, Maintenance Principal
St. Louis County Public Works



St. Louis County Public Works wins national honor for developing low-cost system for monitoring road conditions

When a winter storm hits overnight, with the vast size of St. Louis County, it's not unusual to see high levels of snow in one area, possibly freezing drizzle in another area, and nothing but cloudy skies in other parts. In the past, St. Louis County Public Works crews would be responsible for getting up early and heading out onto the roads to check conditions and plow and apply de-icing materials as needed.


For the past two winters, thanks to a new camera and data gathering system, Public Works supervisors have been able to monitor conditions remotely from a computer or smart phone and make better decisions faster about the response needed. This enables crews to better focus their efforts and improve traveling conditions more efficiently across the county's vast 3,000-mile infrastructure of roads and bridges. 


This new remote monitoring system just earned St. Louis County Public Works the "National Build a Better Mousetrap - SMART Transformation Award”. The Build a Better Mousetrap award celebrates innovative solutions to transportation problems in local and tribal government regions. It is a national competition sponsored by the U.S. DOT Federal Highway Administration.


St. Louis County staff working on the project researched cameras that would be durable and reliable in winter conditions, including subzero temperatures, and able to transmit real-time images of current road conditions to pair with air temperature data. The Public Works team ultimately identified the relatively low-cost and sturdy Barn Owl camera system, which is solar-powered, capable of capturing still images and short video clips day or night, and is compatible with virtually any cellular network, thus is able to transmit information even in areas with poor cell phone coverage.


By mounting the cameras on existing structures such as light poles and trees, rather than purchasing poles, Public Works was able to buy and install a total of 51 cameras. The total project cost was $27,612. Of that, $20,000 was funded by a grant from the University of Minnesota's Local Operational Program Research Assistance (OPERA) Program.


"When we started our research, we were looking at road weather information systems that would have been $50,000 to $100,000 each," said Matthew Beyer, St. Louis County Public Works Maintenance Principal. "So to develop a system that is so much more extensive for just a fraction of the cost is really satisfying. And these cameras have now served us through the last two winters with very little maintenance."


Once triggered, the camera captures an image of current conditions along with the current air temperature. This image is then uploaded to the Barn Owl website, making it possible to group and archive images. Meanwhile, the Barn Owl company has worked with the county to customize certain abilities, and to allow multiple supervisors to log in at the same time.


The extensive camera network offers a number of benefits. For example, it allows the county to identify microclimates or areas where weather conditions seem to change more frequently and to check on remote locations that are difficult to access. 


"If I can put one less truck on the road because the camera is showing less snow in an area, that alone paid for the camera in one day," said Chad Walters, Public Works Highway Superintendent for Hibbing and the southwest portion of the county.


"This is about putting the right assets in the right place at the right time and in the right amount," said Brian Boder, St. Louis County Public Works Deputy Director - Maintenance. "We think this could be a model for other jurisdictions to follow, because we all share the same goal of safer roads for the traveling public at significantly less cost.”



Matt and Brian with award

Matthew Beyer and Brian Boder of St. Louis County Public Works stand with the "Build a Better Mousetrap" award they received for developing a low cost system for monitoring road conditions.

Camera view example

Public Works supervisors are able to view real-time images of road conditions throughout the county to better determine the appropriate response.

Camera mounted on pole

St. Louis County Public Works has purchased and installed 51 Barn Owl cameras to provide real-time images of current road conditions.

Map of camera locations

A map shows the locations of the cameras providing real-time views of road conditions throughout St. Louis County.