It's been an interesting few weeks down here in Devon. The Beast from the East effectively shut down the whole county – twice!
For the benefit of our overseas readers, the Beast From The East is a polar vortex which Siberia periodically shoves our way. When it does so, hefty amounts of snow end up dumped over the UK. The Beast roared up at the beginning of March and brought the nation to a grinding halt, cutting off entire communities - much to (most of) our delight! We stockpiled beer, took a snow day and ran off to play in the car-free hills (there's me, to the left - conspicuously not at my desk).
A couple of weeks later, the Beast returned. By this time, we were rather less enamoured of the blocked roads, closed schools, lack of public transport and nationwide water shortages (sudden freezes followed by equally sudden thaws are not, it transpires, good for ageing water mains). Now they’re predicting a White Easter for us, to widespread dismay.
Our friends from snowier nations raise eyebrows at Britain's failure to function when there’s snow on the ground. After all, they cope quite happily with far greater quantities of snow, for far longer. Why is Britain paralysed by a light dusting off the stuff?
Well, it's pretty simple: with our temperamental climate, we Brits cannot RELY on getting snow every winter. It doesn’t snow often enough to justify our forking out for snow-management infrastructure. Why spend millions of pounds on extra gritters, snowploughs, triple glazing, snow chains etc when they’d only be needed once or twice a decade? Canada, Sweden and the like may be far more prepared for snow than we are – but that’s because snow-management is serious business in those countries, costing (and generating!) billions. Here, we just sort of accept that the nation is going to collapse for a few snowy days every 8 to 10 years.
But could automation make Britain’s sporadic snow problem a thing of the past? Could modern technology keep the country moving, despite the best efforts of our friend the Beast? Over our next couple of posts, we'll take a look at the options. Starting with...
Gritting robots are already a thing, and they’re likely to grow in scale and ‘intelligence’ pretty rapidly. These sturdy, weatherproof bots can be programmed to follow a route, laying down grit as they go. Lasers and sensors guide the robot away from hazards, keeping both the bot and those who encounter it perfectly safe.
Prototype gritting robots are currently still at trial stage, but they have enormous potential. Future models could be equipped with sensors to do things like measure the temperature and traction of the road surface and grit accordingly.
Automated gritters would be a far safer option than our current, human-operated gritting lorries (google ‘overturned gritter’ to see a host of horror stories from around the country). And cost-wise, having a fleet of automated gritters on standby for Beastly visits would be far cheaper over time than laying down the kind of snow-management infrastructures used by nations like Canada.
While it’s likely to be a while before these machines will have the capacity, durability, or cost-efficiency to be a viable options for county councils, I’d lay strong odds on gritting robots hitting the highways and byways of Britain before too long. So enjoy those snow days while you can...