Utah engineers turn to Onshape to improve device that finds potential trouble spots in the snowpack and shares real-time safety data

Avatech has developed a handheld wireless snow probe that measures risk factors for an avalanche and automatically shares the real-time data with ski areas, government forecasters and the general mountain community.

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Industry: Safety Equipment

Website: www.avatech.com

Industry: Safety Equipment

Website: www.avatech.com

It was so cool when I first imported my SolidWorks files into Onshape. There was no computation holdup. Things are so much faster. Onshape is going to really change how I approach CAD modeling as a whole.

Jim Christian, Avatech


As with earthquakes, tidal waves, hurricanes and other natural disasters, there’s no way to stop an avalanche once it happens. The best option for saving lives remains staying out of nature’s way.

Unfortunately, many tragedies do not provide any advance warning. Inspired by a frightening close call with a friend in the Swiss Alps, backcountry skiers Brint Markle, Sam Whittemore and Jim Christian founded Avatech in 2012 while they were classmates at MIT. This year, their Utah-based company launched its first product, the SP1, a handheld pressure-sensitive probe that measures the relative hardness of snow layers and crowdsources data with fellow avalanche forecasters.

"There’s something appealing about going somewhere remote on just your own willpower and your own two legs,"" says Christian. "The backcountry isn’t necessarily unexplored terrain, but it’s terrain less traveled. It’s very peaceful out there and everyone has a different acceptable level of risk."

How to Avoid an Avalanche

"The only way to completely avoid avalanches is by staying out of avalanche territory. You could stay home," notes Avatech Brand President Thomas Laasko. "Improving safety is very personal to us. The mountain community is a very tight community. You don’t have to reach too far to know someone who died or had a close call."

In the winter of 2013-2014, there were 35 people killed by avalanches in the United States. The footnotes of the official government statistics are especially sobering, noting which casualties are still missing or were fully buried under the snow. In January 2015, two U.S. Ski Team prospects, Ronnie Berlack and Bryce Astle, died in an avalanche in the Austrian Alps. The two Olympic hopefuls had been doing most of their training in Park City, Utah, not far from Avatech’s office.

Avalanches happen when there is a hard slab of snow on top of a weaker and looser layer. The slide is usually triggered by the added weight of more snow, rain or the moving weight of a person or animal. Digging a hole in the snowpack will reveal stratified layers formed by new storms, wind or fluctuating cold and warm temperatures. Traditionally, avalanche forecasters have analyzed these layers by digging a 4-5 foot deep snow pit and subjectively measuring the snow hardness by pushing it with their hands.

Avatech’s Jim Christian demonstrates the traditional snow pit method of measuring avalanche risk.

Using pressure sensors at the end of a collapsible probe (that folds like a tent pole), the SP1 offers standardized measurements of snowpack hardness and instantly shares them through the company’s mobile network, AvaNet, allowing the backcountry community to benefit from streaming real-time intelligence. Avalanche conditions can change quickly, sometimes within only a few feet, based on the slopes and other factors.

The SP1 snow probe is currently not marketed for recreational use, but Avatech is considering creating a consumer version.

Although the device, which retails for $2,200, is now aimed at avalanche forecasters at ski areas, government agencies and utility companies, there are plans to develop a consumer version for recreational snowmobilers, hikers and skiers. According to Christian, Avatech’s lead product designer, much of the early design work, prototyping and experimentation for the SP2 has been accelerated by using Onshape, a new browser-based 3D CAD system in the cloud that allows him to collaborate in real time with his mechanical engineer in Boston.

Real-Time CAD Collaboration

"I’m usually in Utah and being able to actually look at models together with Andrew has been huge for us. We get on the phone together and can get into the same part and start spinning it around and hiding and showing different elements of the product. We can do this as quick as design reviews in conversation without having to do a lot of preparation," he says.

Having completed their previous design work in SolidWorks, the team used to share Zip files of their CAD models by email or through Trello, a free project management software program.

"Onshape makes a world of difference because we don’t have to worry about opening or closing or saving files, and keeping different versions," Christian adds. "We can do it all in the web browser."

Accessing Full-Cloud in a Browser

"I bought the newest MacBook Pro so I could run Boot Camp and use SolidWorks on Windows. But even with all that computing power, I still found that anytime I needed to change anything in a file, I’d have to walk away and get a cup of coffee while my computer was processing," he recalls.

"What was so cool was when I first imported my SolidWorks files into Onshape. There was no computation holdup. Things are so much faster. Onshape is going to really change how I approach CAD modeling as a whole."

The team at Avatech similarly hopes their SP1 changes how the mountain community approaches personal safety. Currently, the device cannot completely replace the traditional hand-dug snowpit method – two other critical tests, the Compression Test and the Extended Column Test have not yet been replicated. However, crowdsourcing up-to-the-minute snowpack data may soon improve the accuracy of avalanche forecasting.

AvaNet is Avatech’s mobile crowdsourcing network to share avalanche risk data in real time.

Ethan Greene, Director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, was one of the earliest testers of SP1 prototypes. His agency collects snowpack, weather and other avalanche-related data to help protect ski areas, residents and businesses, as well as state and federal highways. Greene maintains that there have been significant technological advances in avalanche rescue devices (i.e. beacons to locate missing people, airbags that keep people on top of the debris flow), but nothing so far to proactively reduce the risk of being trapped.

"Avatech has the potential to really speed up the data collection process," he says, noting that the SP1 takes less than 5 minutes versus 30 minutes to analyze snow layers in a pit. "The faster we can make measurements, the more measurements we can do – and the less interpretation we need to do between places."

"The hope is that the more data we collect, the safer we all can be," Greene adds

Avatech’s Laasko, who enjoys adventure skiing and snowboarding in his spare time, agrees.

"It’s like forecasting the weather," he says. "There used to be only a few weather stations spread out in a few places. Now that we have more and more weather stations, the forecasts can be fine tuned for specific places. We’re helping the mountain community share data like they never have before."

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