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MINNEAPOLIS - When Mother Nature creates problems for travelers across the state, snowplow drivers like Tom Schultz have one of the most important jobs. And, he's fine with that.

"It's kind of nice to be the guy that makes a difference," he said behind the wheel of an orange plow truck Friday afternoon. "We are the ones that are out there on the road. We get to look in the mirror and see we made a difference. That is kind of the satisfying part of the job."

And new technology is making his job easier. Now, about 120 snow plows in the metro are equipped with sensors that tell drivers about roads needing immediate attention. The trucks, called smart plows, were first launched as a part of a pilot program in rural Minnesota about two years ago. Initially, they were only used in rural Minnesota but all of that is changing.

Sensors installed on the trucks monitor air and pavement temperature.

Data collected along with computer weather models are transmitted back to maintenance garages. That information then shows up on monitors installed in each plow truck, giving the drivers live images of areas that need treating or that have been treated.

Curt Pape, the weather information system coordinator for the state, says the new technology helps cut cost. Pape said salt cost the state about $89 per ton.

"By putting down the right amount of chemical at the proper time we can use less (salt) and hopefully do as good or better of a job," he said. "It also improves our consistency. Plus, we can review and learn from storms."

Eventually, the state hopes to create technology allowing drivers to see which roads have been treated.

Schultz, who navigates with a smile on his face, said while the technology helps make his job easier, it's a tool to keep the community safe. He said the equipment will put drivers in position to clear icy roads before major accidents.

"If we can do it more efficiently, hopefully we can make a pass on that road before (drivers) end up in a ditch rather than after," Schultz said.

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