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Tracking system promises faster help for avalanche victims

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December 5, 2007

Researchers and mountain rescue workers discuss the requirements to be met by a new, autom...

Researchers and mountain rescue workers discuss the requirements to be met by a new, automatic positioning system for avalanche victims Photo: Fraunhofer IML

December 6, 2007 A new positioning system which will use Galileo, the future European global positioning satellite system, may prove to be a life saver for avalanche victims. Avalanches kill hundreds of people worldwide every year. In the United States annual avalanche deaths have averaged 25 for the last ten years, with 20 deaths occurring in the 2006-2007 season.

As daredevils venture further into the wild backcountry they are unwittingly endangering their lives. Going off-piste can sometimes prove fatal. Avalanche victims usually die from the trauma caused by colliding with trees or rocks or by suffocation. For the buried, every moment counts. Those who survive are usually dug out within 30 minutes and avalanche beacons (or “beepers”) are the quickest way to locate the victim. Uninjured companions can immediately start looking for the victim whilst mountain and air rescue workers can pinpoint the victim’s location to within about 65 feet (20 meters).

To date, the main problem for avalanche rescuers has been accurately locating the victim to within the last few feet but a new project aims to perfect the current system. Implemented by a consortium of regional companies, institutes and universities and sponsored by the German Aerospace Center DLR with funds from the German Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology BMWi) researchers intend to develop a new automatic positioning system - the ‘Galileo SAR Lawine’. This system will enable rescuers to pinpoint the victim’s location to an accuracy of less than 3 feet (1 meter). Researchers plan to use signals from transmitting antennas on six mountain tops at the Galileo Test and Development Environment GATE in Berchtesgaden in the German Alps. These signals simulate Galileo’s signals and will be combined with currently available satellite navigation systems such as America’s GPS and offset against error estimation and correction signals. Later, real signals from Galileo will be used. The combination of this information will enable researchers to develop a simple, light hand-held set which will have the capacity to lead search parties, even in steep terrain, directly to avalanche victims. Rescue workers from the Berchtesgaden mountain rescue service and German police are involved in the development of the system to ensure that it will meet the needs of future rescue teams.

In the meantime, if you must go into backcountry, carry your beacon and other essential equipment and make sure your beacon is set to "transmit". It could mean the difference between life and death. If you need more convincing take a look at “Yellow Mountain Avalanche Fatality”.

About the Author
Noel McKeegan After a misspent youth at law school, Noel began to dabble in tech research, writing and things with wheels that go fast. This bus dropped him at the door of a freshly sprouted Gizmag.com in 2002. He has been Gizmag's Editor-in-Chief since 2007.   All articles by Noel McKeegan
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