Jan 14 2011

Beacon Preview: Pieps Vector includes GPS

There are a number of new avalanche transceivers that will be unveiled to outdoor retailers and the privileged public next week. None of them will be available until next fall, but this is the time when we learn about what is coming.

The one I’m most excited to see is the new Pieps Vector. If you just read their brochure you may not grasp completely what is going on. I don’t. Some are obvious like the use of a rechargeable, Lithium Ion battery. The most exciting feature is the Vector’s ability to integrate the detection of GPS signals.

With GPS detection the Pieps Vector can be used to track your tour like any other GPS device. When you get back home, download the coordinates to your computer and share where you were.

From the brochure it sounds like a map view of where you’re at is possible to. I’ll have to confirm that since I doubt the screen has the resolution of a dedicated GPS device.

Those are obvious benefits to including GPS in an avalanche beacon. The net effect is the Vector is the first avy beacon to provide some daily functionality beyond catastrophe insurance. However, it has benefits in the event of an avalanche burial too.

For years I’ve heard lots of people wonder why beacon manufacturers don’t just use GPS to find buried victims. For that to work the signal must be detected by the GPS satellite, which means it needs to be strong enough to be detected about 50 miles above us. Considering modern beacons have a problem detecting signals only 50 meters away, let alone 50 miles, it seemed a safe bet that GPS signals would never be utilized for finding buried avalanche victims.

In terms of using GPS to detect the victim directly, that may be true. But Pieps came up with an ingenious way of utilizing a GPS signal with another concept that I’ve heard discussed over the years. That is the idea of finding a buried victim using triangulation. For triangulation to work you need to have a reference signal. A receiver can then compare the signals between the known reference beacon and the unknown signals to deduce the position of the unknown relative to the known.

What Pieps has done is combine the received signature of a victim’s signal – one or more – with the location of the searcher by tagging it with GPS coordinates. This allows Pieps to generate a virtual reference that helps to deduce, through triangulation, where the buried victim is located relative to the searchers beacon.

With more information available to determine relative positions, that suggests a graticle display similar to that used by Ortovox with their S1. Pieps brochure provides the following examples, suggesting that there are two display modes when using GPS to determine distance and location. Which one is shown is probably determined by distance to the victims, but maybe is switched manually.

My biggest concern is that GPS signals cannot always be reliably received, but even in that case I trust that the existing search algorithm will still work just fine. When it does, it ought to be able to provide more information on multiple victims than just how many, but also relative orientations, e.g., the strongest signal is 15 meters to the Left (approx 10 o’clock) and a weaker signal is 20 meters dead ahead.

There are some other cool features with the Pieps Vector, but I’m most excited to see this triangulation feature working in the field. Look for an update towards the end of next week.