Avalanche Rescue Smartphone Apps

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Smartphones are a now a part of most people's lives. Over the past few years there has been an explosion of new Apps (Applications) on smartphones. Whether you want to book a hotel room, check in for your flight, or see where the nearest restaurant is, there is almost certainly an app to help you do this.

However, there is now a new breed of safety app appearing. These apps are designed not to prevent us being avalanched, but to help with the rescue process afterwards.

The three apps that I will look at here are:

1. ISIS http://www.isis-application.com/en
2. SNOG Avalanche Buddy http://www.avalanchebuddy.com
3. Snowhere http://www.charcoalfrost.com

Before we go any further, each time someone tries to innovate a new piece of avalanche safety gear there is always someone else who immediately ridicules it on-line. It is perhaps worth noting that when transceivers (aka beacons) were first used over 30 years ago people claimed that they were endangering lives, encouraging reckless behaviour etc. So, I want to state now that I think it is great that people are trying to use modern technology to make avalanche rescue easier. However, let's now take a look at how good these new apps are and whether there are any limitations.

Availability of Information: The websites for these apps were surprisingly bad ! The ISIS site only had some pages available in English. The Avalanche Buddy website was actually ok, with useful videos of the app in use. The Snowhere site would not run on my laptop, but would on my iPhone. The Snowhere video was appalling, containing no useful information. The website also contained a limited amount of information, and yet asks for people to pay for the app. With such limited info, it was not easy to sift through these sites and compare the apps.

How do they work ? The apps work in a variety of different ways. ISIS and Snowhere use GPS technology to pinpoint the victim via the Internet. If no connection is available to upload the maps they use a mapping function to record your search pattern. Once within 45m ISIS uses Bluetooth connections between the victims and searchers phones to allow a pinpoint search. The SNOG Avalanche Buddy uses wifi connection between two phones, and gives you a stronger or weaker signal display on the screen (in effect the same as a single antenna beacon). Once close to the victim it was not clear whether or not Snowhere uses Bluetooth to carry out a pin-point search.

Initiation: ISIS can be triggered either manually, or automatically. The motion sensor allegedly allows rapid changes in trajectory, speed, and motion (ie tumbling) to automatically start the rescue procedure. The other two systems are effectively transmitting at all times and do not need initiation.

Cost: ISIS: Free SNOG Avalanche Buddy: Free Snowhere: 8.99euro

Range: ISIS claims a maximum range of 1000m using Internet and GPS, and 45m when using Bluetooth. Snowhere does not give a figure. SNOG Avalanche Buddy states 40-50m

Accuracy: In the pinpoint search all systems appear to work the same way as a single antenna beacon (ie informing the user whether they are getting closer or further away, but not giving direction). They are therefore accurate, but slower at this point than a multi antennae beacon. ISIS and Snowhere may have the ability, using their GPS functions to reduce the amount of time spent on primary search (aka signal search).

Operating System and Platform: ISIS: iOS7 or later only on iPhone4, 4S, and 5. SNOG Avalanche Buddy: Android Only. Snowhere: iOS6 on iPhone 4S or newer. So if you're intending on using one of these apps you need to make sure you are riding with people who all have the same phone platform as you ! At this point, I have to ask how likely that really is.

Battery Life: All of the apps claim to use very little battery. However, I often find that my iPhone battery is running low if I have been using the internet a lot or making lots of calls. A modern avalanche beacon such as the Ortovox 3+ will have over 240hrs of life on transmit with a fresh battery.

Interference with Avalanche Beacons: Every electronic device, including your smartphone WILL cause interference with an avalanche beacon in search mode if in close proximity (generally less than 30cm). FACT.

Compatibility: All of these apps are incompatible with any other app or existing avalanche beacon.

Other features: Both ISIS and Snowhere allow a message to be sent to rescue teams giving GPS coordinates of the victim (it was not clear whether a phone signal is required for this, but I dont see how else it could be done).

Testing: Having read all the info, I already had my reservations about these systems. However, I thought it wouldn't hurt to test them. I then realised that my iPhone 4, using iOS6 was not actually capable of running any of these Apps ! Not one ! So I have not been able to actually trial any of the apps personally.

Conclusions: In my opinion none of these smartphone apps offer a suitable replacement for current beacons. They are not compatible with any other apps or beacons. The ISIS or Snowhere apps might be useful in conjunction with a beacon for reducing the primary search time (ie If the beacon search begins out of range), by allowing a rescuer to rapidly narrow the field of search. However testing in the field is required to assess this. All of the systems, in the pinpoint search work like a single antenna beacon (which most professionals do not recommend people to use), so a multi antenna modern beacon would undoubtedly work better at that point.

As I said earlier, I really am a fan of innovation. Technology is currently progressing at a rate so fast it is sometimes hard to keep up with the latest gadgets. However, until apps like these are available on all platforms, and are fully compatible with each other and existing beacons, I think we still have a lot more development to do. Personally I would like to see manufacturers of beacons combine the GPS function of these apps into their beacons, and reduce their size (after all, my iPhone is now a phone, computer, GPS and a video camera all in one so why are avalanche beacons still so big ??).

So, if you're heading off-piste, make sure you have your shovel, beacon and probe, but don't rely on a smartphone app. Have a safe winter.....

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