Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Mountain Tragedies & Modern Mobile GPS & Data Solutions


This last week I have been captivated by the tragic mountain climbing accident that took place on Mt. Hood in Oregon. Three experienced mountain climbers were caught in 100 mph winds and temperatures below zero on the very top of Mt. Hood at over 11,000 feet. It took over a week to find the snow caves that the climbers had used. Tragically it appears that they all may have succumbed to injuries and the cold. One of the climbers had been able to make a mobile phone call asking for help, but then went silent.
As a person involved in the mobile data collection software industry, I began to think about the software tools and technologies that could be used to help find missing climbers, hunters, hikers and other outdoorsman faster.
Today, many mobile Smart phones can be purchased with GPS receivers built in. Software companies like MobileDataforce can easily create data collection applications that would automatically report the location of the user at specific time intervals, distance covered, speed, and distance remaining to target destination. The GPS receiver captures the GPS coordinates, the data collection software pulls it into the database and connects to the internet at specific time intervals and uploads the data to a web based map. The user could also capture additional information such as the weather, supplies remaining, physical condition, status (resting, digging a snow cave, setting up camp, injured, etc). This is the same technology we use today for fleet tracking applications so fleet owners can know the location of each truck at any given time.
One of the necessary ingredients for a tracking solution like this is a wireless network (wireless mobile phone network or a satellite uplink). In the recent tragedy on Mt. Hood, there was indeed mobile phone connectivity available. If the climbers had had a mobile solution like this with them, their location would have been displayed on a map for the search and rescue teams to view. This would have saved hundreds of man hours devoted to searching, and would have quickly directed the search and rescue teams to the location of the Smart phones as soon as weather permitted.
The technology exists, although it remains to be seen how it would have worked in the fierce cold and rugged conditions these climbers experienced. I know batteries would be an issue, although spares could be carried. Conceptually, it seems that a simple data collection application could be configured, rented out or made available for purchase to climbers. They could register themselves with a unique ID on a website. Thus, family members and other folks interested in their location could view the web based map from any computer in the world.
This needs to be done.