Snobots, shoveling and changing the way we think about things

Today is our second snow day this week, and yesterday the schools had a delayed opening due to weather. I grew up in this area so I’m used to the snow, but lately I’ve been thinking about it differently.

Live look out my office window

If you live in an area where it snows regularly you’ve probably developed your own approach to snow removal. You can ignore the next part and skip down to where I ask you to think. Our driveway is one that the plow truck operators refer to as a blower only drive. So before you tell me to “get a plow” it’s not an option.

If you’ve never dealt with snow, let me explain a few things. Snow is like a living organism, it’s constantly changing. Temperature, sunlight, wind, kids, pets, you name it and it has an effect on the snow. This means clearing the snow, so that you can get on with life, has an intuition aspect to it that’s hard to quantify (sounds like something A.I. would struggle with).

On Tuesday, when we last had school canceled, it didn’t start snowing until mid-morning, around 9:00. But then it snowed all day, dropping 4-6 inches. It was cold, so the snow was light and fluffy making it relatively easy to clear. BUT! Wednesday was forecast to warm up and possibly rain. So I had to clear it. Otherwise it would have packed in and frozen into a sheet of permafrost, not to be removed until May.

I timed my shoveling to about an hour before the snow stopped falling; roughly 4:30. This allowed me to get it done in the last drops of daylight and while it was still light and fluffy. On Wednesday morning there was a dusting coating the driveway and walk but I knew it would melt with the sun and rising temps.

Today we’re scheduled to get 10-16 inches with temperatures in the mid to upper 20’s. I just got home from running some errands and the snow is wet and heavy.

There is a huge difference between shoveling or snow blowing 5 inches of wet snow and 10 inches of wet snow. The effort curve is non-linear. Dealing with double the snow requires more than twice the effort. Instead of planning to go out close to the end, I have to figure out when we’re about half-way and get out there.

In fact, I like to wait until we’re a little past half way. That makes the second pass a little easier than the first. This is a good thing because by the time I’m doing the second pass I tend to be tired and grouchy.

Here’s where I start the thinking part.

I can clear up to 6 inches of snow from our walks and driveway in about an hour. If it’s really wet and heavy it might take 90 minutes. The issue us more about how much ground there is to cover than the snow itself. Walking the snow blower up and down the driveway simply takes time.

So even if I went out to clear snow every time it accumulated to 3 inches it would take me an hour. On a day like today thats 4 or 5 hours outside in the cold and snow. It wouldn’t bother a Snobot, but for me it would bring new meaning to the words grumpy.

That means that all the snobot has to be able to do is clear the maximum amount of snow in an hour – 6 inches if you don’t want to check.

But the other challenge of clearing a foot or more of snow is where to put it. In years when we’ve had multiple storms the driveway and walkway get more narrow with each snow. Three and four foot high snow banks are not unheard of. Lifting or throwing snow up and over a four foot high bank requires some muscle.

And this is where I remember we have to think differently. The problem statement is simple – how do I keep the walk and driveway free from snow?

The challenge isn’t about automating the snow blower or creating a robot to use one of the snow shovels. The snobot could be a tracked electric vehicle with a heating element underneath. It could be a flying drone that relies on the wash from it’s rotors to blow the snow away. Or it could be some crazy combination of heating, pushing, blowing and throwing that I can’t name.

A snobot would be connected, getting real time updates on both hyper-local and regional weather conditions, as well as smart. It would understand the ground temperature and topology and it would be tireless.

Artificial intelligence and automation doesn’t simply mean having computers take over existing machines. It’s about re-thinking how we solve problems.

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