Preventing Avalanche Fatalities

My senior thesis at RISD was a joint semester long project with MIT. Working in a large team, we created the worlds first pre-emptive avalanche safety device. The basic concept is a portable snow tester capable of detecting weak snow layers, the most prevalent cause of avalanches. 

Together we developed a fully working prototype for the "Snow Probe". This product is now the first of the newly formed company Avatech, formed by three of our team members. The final product issued two new patents and is the process of being brought to market.

4 Months - Group Project

Partners - MIT Product Design Development

Skills - Ergonomic Studies, CAD, 3D Printing, Working Prototyping, User Interface, Graphic Design, Branding

Team -  Allie Owens, Jim Christian, Sam Whittemore, Tom Sanderson, Paul Meggs, Hugo Ni, Brint Markle

A Growing Problem

Each winter season for the past 20 years has show an increase in avalanche fatalities. This is linked to better available equipment which pushes people to go off piste onto the un-groomed sides of mountains. Although their equipment may be better, many are often inexperienced and do not understand proper avalanche safety.

Reactive Market

The currently available avalanche safety products are all purely reactive solutions which activate only after an avalanche has already been triggered.  They rely on making the user easier to locate, or keeping them alive until rescue arrives. These methods are not sufficient, considering that a staggering 52% of those who are buried in an avalanches will not survive.

The Cause of Avalanches

Avalanches can be caused by human activity atop unstable areas of snow. This snow has distinct layers of varying densities due to different weather conditions. If layers occur in a distinct order,  an avalanche is highly probable.

This layering is – freshly fallen snow, atop a layer of ice, with a final layer of super lightweight snow below it. When the fresh snow's weight becomes too much, it can crack the ice-shelf, collapsing the entire mass onto the light packed snow below. The loose snow compresses and slides down the mountainside, essentially functioning like millions of ball bearings which accelerate the avalanche. This distinct layering of dense snow, over an ice shelf, over light snow, is the defining marker that our product detects. 


The Current Method

The only way to test preemptively for avalanches is to dig a 1 meter by 1 meter pit straight down into the snow layers. After this arduous task is complete, an educated user must poke at the different layers of snow with their hand to determine their density. This task takes well over an hour and only gives information about a very limited area of snowfall. During the day, skiers will cover hundreds of different types of snow beneath their feet, most without recognizing the danger lurking below. 

What we set out to build

Our initial proposal was to develop a  a collapsible testing device capable of measuring the varying densities of snow; and alerting the user when the patterns in the snow layers might be hazardous. The basic form was initially inspired by a collapsible ski pole, which could be deployed and pushed into the snow to gather data.  Here are some of my initial drawings to illustrate the most basic shape of the device. The question was, what would be the technology used to gather data about the snow pack? 


Tech Development

The team set out to build a series of prototype sensors which could record the varying densities of snow. The final sensor which went on the be our final technology was a force sensor. Essentially a button with a spring behind it, it proved capable of detecting how strong the snow was it pushed against.


Handle Prototypes

As part of developing the concept I began creating form studies that could be molded around the components we already had working in our prototype.  The form evolved from a traditional ski pole grip, towards a double ended cone design. This was due to the fact that the device would have to be pushed downwards into the ground, but also pulled up vertically. These two directions guided the widening of the grip, and a more detailed design was created. 


User Feedback Crisis

This was 2 months into the project. We had a functioning prototype and a strong understanding on our steps to move forward. However once the new compact form was shown to users, they weren't as enthusiastic about the shape. It was seen as too elegant and formal, when it was going into an environment littered with extremely rugged looking equipment. The biggest critique was that it didn't visually look like it was about to save your life. This ushered in a new wave of form development.


A Tool to Save Your Life

Our final working prototype was displayed at RISD in June 2013. It featured a working measurements, and an integrated display capable of giving data in real time. It has since become the first product of the newly formed company Avatech, created from three of our team members. The device holds two patents in the US and is currently in its second phase of testing in alpine environments. 

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Current State

To see the company continuing to produce and develop the Snow probe: