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Avalanche Beacon Smart Phone Apps...

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  • Avalanche Beacon Smart Phone Apps...

    I've heard a fair bit of recent murmuring in the avy industry (most of it terrified) about the impending launch of a number of smartphone apps that are intended to be an alternative to wearing an avalanche beacon. I think there have been a number of attempts at doing this over recent years and there appears to be at least one "live" contender out there for the iPhone at least (see, although I haven't downloaded the app myself so will not comment on its effectiveness. ...perhaps in a later post.

    Personally, I have a number of concerns about using a smartphone to replace a purpose-built, engineered and reliable piece of safety equipment. First, this could set back more than a decade of key messaging around getting the "right" equipment, knowing how to use it, etc. etc. I could see younger backcountry users, for whom a smartphone is like a body part, thinking they now had a $0.99 solution to finding their friends (and being found) in the so-called side country and putting their lives almost certainly at risk as a result. Not to mention the huge ethical issues that might arise by using such a system; for example, a smart phone would allow you to identify and target a significant other in a multiple burial scenario. I could now dig my wife out first and my "friend" second - thankyou iPhone.

    I'm not ignorant to the potential PROs, however. A smartphone-like avalanche beacon that could notify other beacons in the group that it's owner was likely in an avalanche (i.e. experiencing the combination of rapid downward movement and being randomly churned) would be an asset. The ability to utilize GPS in addition to radio signals and two-way communication seems like an advantage. Maybe you could even send a verbal message, or a "message received" ring tone to the victim that you're on the way. I'd like those features for sure.

    But is a smartphone the right platform to deliver this type of product? Is this the future, or are we looking at potential disasters in the making? I'd be interested in hearing people's thoughts on this...

  • #2
    I'm waiting for them to put MP3 players and a camera in my beacon.

    Realistically, putting 3 Tx/Rx antennas in a smartphone and circuitry that works outside the range of cellphone reception seems say nothing of the battery life.
    backcountry in northern New Mexico


    • #3
      Originally posted by Kevlar View Post
      I'd be interested in hearing people's thoughts on this...
      uh, I don't even own a smart phone. was pretty damn happy with my tried and true pieps 457 opti-finder. phone's and app's in the bc? you're already asking for trouble.
      good snow comes in many different types and consistencies. STICK YER FEET IN IT!!!


      • #4
        FWIW, aside from all the other issues, I would not count on GPS nor on smartphone frequencies (cellular or wifi) to work well through a pile of snow. Beacons operate in the kHz range at very long wavelengths in part for that reason.

        Safety equipment needs to have a simple interface and not trying to do too much is important.

        There are a couple of threads on TGR about interference and why it's a good idea to keep electronic devices (Go-pro, cell phone, ipod, etc) away from the receiving beacon. For example I contributed under my TGR name "coldfeet." Basically, IMO, you should not have anything with a potentially noisy power supply next to your searching beacon.


        • #5
          It's an interesting idea. One I'm a little embarrassed to say I didn't see coming. Like others have mentioned I would think there would be too great of technical difficulties with the different antennas. It scares me to think it could be rolled out as an ineffective bug-ridden beta and confused as a legitimate alternative. I think the potential is worth investigating though. It seems it could be ideal for mountain communities where accidental avy exposure could take place, like walking to work or driving your car. I don't think you're going to sell non-skiing members of mountain communities on buying and carrying a beacon just in case but to download an app? Probably for the right price (ideally free) you could get really good saturation.


          • #6
            It is pretty interesting to be sure. Here's the official position of the Canadian Avalanche Centre on the topic:

            Canadian Avalanche Centre Warns Backcountry Users About New Smartphone Apps
            Apps marketed as transceivers give users false sense of protection
            Oct 24, 2013, Revelstoke, BC: Smartphone avalanche search applications that are marketed as avalanche rescue systems are not recommended, says the Canadian Avalanche Centre (CAC). Three European-made apps are presenting themselves as economical alternatives to avalanche transceivers, the electronic device used by backcountry users to find buried companions in case of an avalanche.
            After close examination, the CAC has found a number of issues with the technology. Two of the main issues are compatibility and frequency range. All avalanche transceivers conform to an international standard of 457 kHz. Regardless of the brand, all transceivers can be used to search and find other transceivers. “Not only are these new apps incapable of connecting with other avalanche transceivers, they are also incompatible between themselves, so one type of app can’t find another,” explains CAC Executive Director Gilles Valade.
            The 457 kHz standard was chosen because it transmits very well through dense snow, is not deflected by objects such as trees and rocks, and is accurate. “None of the various communication methods used by these apps come close to that standard,” adds Valade. “WiFi and Bluetooth signals are significantly weakened when passing through snow, and easily deflected by the solid objects we expect to see in avalanche debris. And the accuracy of a GPS signal is nowhere near the precision required for finding an avalanche victim. ”
            Other critical issues include battery life, robustness, reliability and interference. “These apps are being actively marketed as software that turns a smartphone into an avalanche transceiver but the CAC has serious concerns about their vulnerabilities,” says Valade. “We are warning all backcountry users to not use any of these apps in place of an avalanche transceiver.”
            The three apps are:
             iSis Intelligent (Mountain) Rescue System
             SnŮ‘g Avalanche Buddy:
             SnoWhere:

            full link ink is here:


            • #7
              Thanks for posting the links. I just did a quick search of the Google Play store as I have an Android phone. Of the apps listed ^^^ the first one that came up is the "Snog Avalanche Buddy." I think we are all thinking about liability and effectiveness when we read about these kinds of technologies Immediately, the first thing you notice is that the two profiled reviews on the App Store are negative. One claims you lose wireless if you install the app and the other is alluding to the risk of the this replacing a dedicated beacon. The second thing I noticed is they have a link to a lengthy liability waiver. I'm thinking about giving it a test on my wife and my phones and then using my Tracker to test compatibility with a true transceiver. I'll post my observations in a few days.


              • #8
                An article posted on CBC's website:

                The Canadian Avalanche Centre is warning backcountry enthusiasts about new smartphone apps that claim to help save lives in an avalanche.

                My sense is that there would be huge liability for the app developer in the event there was a fatality and the victim / rescuers relied on this type of technology. ...I might use it to find my wife in a grocery store, mind you!


                • #9
                  Might be ok for body recovery if you get to it before the battery dies.
                  But I'll chime in with everyone else and say it sounds like a formula for trouble. Smartphones are great and do a lot of cool and useful things but this task probably isn't one of them.


                  • #10
                    Even though the app is free, I'm not sure it is worth your time testing it. A lengthy disclaimer (who reads those) doesn't make up for misleading marketing, even though the disclaimer does says at the end that it is not a beacon nor is it lifesaving equipment.

                    The app can't possibly be compatible with a beacon - they operate on very different frequencies (2.4 GHz wifi vs 457 kHz beacon). If it does anything with a beacon other than interfere with it, I'll buy you a package of pink pony bacon.


                    • #11
                      Originally posted by polemonium View Post
                      Even though the app is free, I'm not sure it is worth your time testing it. A lengthy disclaimer (who reads those) doesn't make up for misleading marketing, even though the disclaimer does says at the end that it is not a beacon nor is it lifesaving equipment.

                      The app can't possibly be compatible with a beacon - they operate on very different frequencies (2.4 GHz wifi vs 457 kHz beacon). If it does anything with a beacon other than interfere with it, I'll buy you a package of pink pony bacon.
                      You're an engineer? I remember having some technical discussion with you over on Ttips and thinking you knew your stuff.

                      I'll take your word for it, as tempting as the pony bacon sounds

                      I should reread the app description because something about it made me think there was overlap with conventional 457 kHz technology.

                      I didn't really want to explain the clean install of the OS on her phone to my wife anyhow.


                      • #12
                        I'm an astrophysicist - I know some electronics, and some things about microwave and radio propagation, but am by no means a radio engineer.

                        I thought I might have been too snotty, not towards the app (which I really bet is worthless) but towards your impulse to play with it as a test. Testing for oneself is good, if it wasn't for the possibility of screwing up the phone, downloading it and running it against a beacon would be harmless test of my prejudice against it.

                        Wi-fi operates on 2.4 GHz frequency (wavelength 12.5 cm), cell phone signals on various bands from 0.8-2.1 GHz, and beacons operate on 457 kHz (wavelength 656 meters). I can't find a good plot of water absorption in these frequency ranges right now, but basically, water absorbs much more at the higher frequencies. Wifi is similar to the frequency in a microwave oven which works by the food absorbing the radiated energy. So a wifi-based signal is going to have a hard time punching out through several feet of snow (several inches of water equivalent). The difference in frequencies is so large that there is no way the phone electronics would be able to radiate effectively at the beacon frequency.

                        Beacons operate at quite low frequency, probably to minimize the effects of absorption and interference or reflection due to solid objects, metal, etc. Here is an interesting short paper about some of the beacon radio technology issues:


                        • #13
                          I have tried to use a smartphone GPS to locate cave entrances in the desert that I had solid locations on (coordinates) and I fpound the damn thing was about as useful as a map and compass. That means an accuracy of about a hundred feet and a drift that was frustrating as hell as it cahnges even when you are standing still. NOBODY should ever expect to find a human body in time to save their life using such a thing. YES, you can find your wife in Wallmart, but under a pile of snow? Instant divorce I'd say.

                          A bad, sad joke for someone desperately hunting for a friend. And what if you are "out of bars"? You are NOT going to wander around looking for some more bars;