Sensors and social networks make slopes safer

While outdoor pursuits offer a great opportunity to get away from the busy reality of the tech-fueled daily life most people lead, it is also worth remembering that technology can help immensely in the outdoors as well. Two alumni from the Massachusets Institute of Technology have as a result developed an app to help those who enjoy exploring mountain terrain and skiing to avoid the dangers of avalanches through using crowdsourced data. The founders, Jim Christian (who studied Mechanical Engineering) and Brint Markle (who has an MBA), realised that by providing a digital platform for hikers and outdoorspeople, the safety level of these activities could be greatly increased.

Their app, Mountain Hub, is free to download, and as Christian said, they “want to crowdsource trip data and safety information for the outdoors”. With Mountain Hub, communicating dangerous conditions becomes easy.

Christian was motivated to design the functionality of the app while studying a course at MIT that required getting a solution to a tangible real world issue. Markle had an experience of the dangers of mountaineering when he was travelling in Europe, so the student team latched onto that idea. They came up with a probe with sensors to guage the safety of a sheet of snow by detecting its structure. If there were layers in the snow sheet that were not tightly packed then this would indicate a greater risk of an avalanche occuring.

Previously, this risk was measured by creating a pit in the snow which takes a lot longer (close to 1hour) to guage the final results. Furthermore, while this is fairly accurate, it only shows one position on the slope and while this can usually be safely extrapolated to the rest it is still not ideal. The new solution aggregated many more data points and returned the estimation in only a matter of seconds. As the professor of the course said, “Jim and his team identified an important opportunity for a new product. They all put a great deal of energy into the development process.”

At the end of this course the founders had developed a working prototype to measure the correct conditions, which was enough to prompt them to set up a new company. Avatech, founded with fellow MIT Mechanical Engineer Sam Whittemore, shortly thereafter made its first test product, the SP1, could take 5,000 readings per hour. It encompasses a probe (5 foot long) with pressure sensors that detects pressure levels beneath the snow. Whereas the previous solutions would take a long time to generate the results, near real-time graphing of snow pressure is possible with the SP1.

While this was a breakthrough in and of itself, there was still the issue of how this data should be shared with those who use the slopes. They came up with a network to help mountain users to spread their readings on slope condition in real time. Since mountain terrain conditions do not only relate to skiing, a variety of outdoor enthusiast groups were shown to benefit from using the network, since there is always a danger involved in every kind of outdoor pursuit like this.

As Christian said: “Most mountain athletes do multiple activities all year round. What a rock climber has to say about hazards on a trail is relevant to hikers and mountain bikers in the same area.” This chang in focus warranted a pivot in the purpose of the company. They changed the name to Mountain Hub and this app can be used for those involved in mountaineering, hiking, climbing and other mountain related activities.

According to Christian: “We are spearheading a culture of contribution and sharing in the outdoors. We want to build a real-time network that has daily engaging content so that the first thing someone does before they hit the trail is open up our app.”

More information can be found at: MIT.




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