Are Drones the Future of Avalanche Mitigation?

Mountain Drones is developing and testing technology that would allow UAVs to deploy bombs to help prevent avalanches. 

March 8 2016, 11:30 AM

Mountain Drones' custom-built hexacopter is used for R&D and testing.
—Image courtesy of Mountain Drones

Forget Amazon deliveries. Drones may have even more important work to do soon: avalanche mitigation.

Mountain Drones, which is partially based in Colorado (there are team members in Denver and Vail), is in the process of developing and testing technology that would allow drones to deploy bombs for avalanche mitigation (jargon for work done to prevent slides). Currently, resorts rely heavily on ski patrollers doing mitigation on the uncertain slope or nearby, and though it's rare, some have died in the process. Designed specifically for harsher, high-elevation climates, Mountain Drones' beefed-up, custom-built (using parts from various other vendors) unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV)—"The Prospect"—would be set off remotely. Sensors built into the drones would also be able to measure snowpack depth and density from the air—in other words, help forecasters understand what areas are at risk for slides. 

Mountain Drones' flagship prototype, "The Prospect." —Image courtesy of Mountain Drones

It's an inspired idea—but it's actually not the original plan the team had for the drones. Sitting on chairlifts at Vail Mountain, they discussed how drones could be used to find people caught in avalanches. The thought was a drone might be able to pinpoint an avalanche beacon faster than a human could. But the Colorado ski patrollers they brought the idea to had a different take: "They said, 'We have ski patrollers hiking up vulnerable faces, sometimes early in the morning, and putting themselves in dangerous positions to hang charges. Detonations can cause bodily harm to users. How can we do that more effectively, more efficiently, more safely?" says Warren Linde, CFO and co-founder of Mountain Drones (along with Brent Holbrook, CEO, and Robert Blank, CTO).

So Mountain Drones switched gears and applied to the Telluride Venture Accelerator, a five-month program for early-stage entrepreneurs. The goal: craft a drone hardy enough to withstand extremely cold temperatures, bad weather conditions, and high elevations. They joined TVA in February 2015, where they met Jon Tukman, Telluride Ski Resort's snow safety supervisor and a TVA mentor. "Conceptually it’s a great idea," he says. "The ability to do remote delivery of explosives is really important to us and something that we try to develop with different solutions as much as we can. It’s pretty obvious that any tools that the industry or other industries can develop to move the needle away from having workers on the slope is potentially value added."

Of course, risk management and regulatory concerns mean it may be quite a while before the technology can actually be used. The Federal Aviation Administration is still in the process of figuring out how to regulate unmanned aircrafts. Currently, UAVs are not permitted to drop anything while in flight. Mountain Drones' product falls into the commercial drone category, as the resorts themselves would be operating the technology, with oversight from Mountain Drones. (They haven't yet finalized a pay structure, but Linde says it will likely be a "lease-to-own type of agreement.")

Dave Byrd, director of risk and regulatory affairs for the National Ski Areas Association says the FAA is expected to release regulations for businesses' use of drones in their commercial operations this summer. And many ski resorts have their own bevy of rules and regulations that would need to be addressed. "I think there are probably a lot of systemic hurdles it needs to clear before it’s a viable commercial solution," Tukman adds. "The cool thing about the avalanche mitigation industry is that it’s traditionally been pretty innovative and pretty accepting of the new and the old, as long as it works."  

In the meantime, the company continues to field test their product and run mock demonstrations using dummy bombs. They're building in multiple redundancies (or fail-safes)—such as back-up battery systems and encryption technology to prevent hacks—for safety. Linde also sees potential uses in transportation (think: rock slide mitigation) and railway operations, though the snow industry is a chief focus. 

"We really considered everything in the drone space, and we chose to do something we’re passionate about and we think is really unique," Linde says. "It's something that solves a real problem."

Follow senior associate editor Daliah Singer on Twitter at @daliahsinger