An extra piece of hardware coupled with the LawinenFon app transforms any smartphone into an avalanche transceiver

Smartphones converted into avalanche tranceivers

Smartphones could soon be used to help locate those buried by avalanches thanks to a system that turns them into a transceiver.

Scores of snow sport fans are buried under avalanches every year and chances of survival dwindle with each passing minute – on average, rescuers have 15 minutes to recover victims alive.

Avalanche transceivers, which can both transmit and receive low-powered pulsed beacon radio signals to help locate buried people, are advertised as an essential piece of kit for anyone spending significant time off regulated skiing pistes as they allow a companion to retrieve the victim long before emergency services are able to get there.

Unfortunately a price range that starts in the hundreds of pounds means many snow sports enthusiasts still do not carry one with them, but researchers from the Fraunhofer Institute for Material Flow and Logistics (IML) in Germany are now developing a system that incorporates the transmit and search functions of an avalanche transceiver into a smartphone at a much lower cost.

In an emergency situation, mobile phones using the Galileo-LawinenFon system can locate buried avalanche transceivers using satellite navigation – drawing on the combined signals of the USA’s GPS, Europe’s Galileo and Russia’s GLONASS satellite systems to do so.

“Like commonly available avalanche transceivers, the Galileo-LawinenFon has a transmit and search mode. Unlike previous transceivers however, when looking for victims the system is not restricted to the electromagnetic field formed by a transmitted signal but makes use of satellite signals as well,” said Holger Schulz, a scientist at Fraunhofer IML.

“Since our solution draws on numerous available sensors and satellite systems, the signals transmitted by victims can be located with a great deal of precision. Magnetic field signals are processed in 3D so that we can pinpoint accident victims in a matter of seconds and improve their chances of survival.”

This is one of system’s big advantages over currently available devices, where ‘send’ mode involves emitting only an electromagnetic signal. The device then searches for any missing persons along the lines of this magnetic field.

In the case of the most basic devices, this means that only a semicircular area is being covered at any one time, which in turn prolongs the search. The new technology, on the other hand, leads straight to the buried skier.

Galileo-LawinenFon consists of a smartphone app and an extra piece of hardware called Galileo-SmartLVS that is connected to the mobile phone via USB. This is compatible with almost all of the newer generation of smartphones.

Galileo-SmartLVS includes a 3D magnetic field antenna for picking up signals, an analog-digital converter, a satellite navigation receiver, acceleration sensors and a reserve battery.

The LawinenFon app displays the distance to the victim and direction to take on the smartphone screen and in future the user interface will also to show the depth at which the missing person is trapped.

“There is also the possibility of adding other useful functions to the app such as current snow and weather conditions. These are extras that standard search devices simply don’t offer,” said Wolfgang Inninger, head of the IML project center.

Researchers were able to use a prototype to locate a buried transceiver with centimetre precision using satellite navigation in a test of the system and it is hoped the solution will be on the mass market in two to three years.

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