How Electronics Interfere With Avalanche Transceivers

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The International Snow Science Workshop (ISSW) is held every two years in a major mountain region of the world. It is regarded by snow science professionals as a top conference, bringing researchers and practitioners together to report on experiments, exchange theory and share their experiences in the field to better understand the science of snow.

This past fall, ISSW took place in Anchorage, Alaska, where John Barkhausen, a student at Alaska Pacific University, discussed his findings after organizing a field study to test the theory of electrical interference and avalanche transceivers. The topic has been discussed in many snowcentric circles across the globe for several years. However, a recent YouTube video posted by Stuart Pitches is arguably what has brought the topic into the households of a majority of everyday snow folks.

The video clearly shows that when a GoPro camera is on and in close proximity to a searching avalanche transceiver it can cause interference. The GoPro can facilitate false signal readings, which ultimately may negatively impact the searchers attempt to locate a buried avalanche victim. With so many people using GoPro’s and other helmet cameras while also utilizing avalanche transceivers in the field, it’s obvious there are reasons for concern. The range of interference has been identified as variable depending on model, but the bottom line is that these cameras do influence the working mechanics of avalanche transceivers.

What John Barkhausen discussed at ISSW was not solely related to helmet cameras, but electronics as a whole. Not only are skiers and riders who employ the use of avalanche transceivers increasingly using helmet cameras, they also tend to carry radios, cell phones, GPS devices, other types of cameras or an iPod. Simplistically, the answer to if electronics influence transceiver function is yes. However, the real question is to what degree? Even if helmet cameras were deemed unsafe for use do to the manner that they influence avalanche transceiver function, many backcountry experts support to use of cell phones in the field, as they can provide a necessary point of contact to initiate rescue efforts.

At ISSW Barkhausen placed several electronic devices including a RFID tag (Alyeska lift ticket), Spot emergency locator, cell phone, iPod, radio, digital camera, and GPS unit in the near vicinity of a searching avalanche transceiver to measure the effects. He tested for how the transceiver would be influenced in terms of a searching pattern as well as its receiving range. He used three different transceivers including a Pieps DSP, Barryvox Pulse, and BCA Tracker DTS.

Ultimately, Barkhausen found that none of these electronic devices produced negative impacts on a transmitting beacon. That was big news, as some outfits had initially thought the use of, say, a GoPro or even having a digital camera in ones pack might throw off the ability of a transceiver to function as it’s been designed. He also found that no particular brand of transceiver was more or less affected than the other.

However, Barkhausen did find that within a range of 17 inches, electronic devices will alter the ability for a transceiver to search for a signal properly. Above 17 inches, interference is minimal, but within that distance, problems are persistent. This is also evident in the video shared by Pitches. The safest way to insure you will not alter your transceiver’s ability to function properly when in search mode is to do what you are taught in an Avi I course — keep your transceiver at arm’s length when in search mode. That way, you should be at least 17 inches away from any electronic interference. The International Commission on Alpine Rescue is reportedly considering that the 17 inches be replaced by about 2 feet (24 inches) for all electronics to ensure a safe distance is met by all users. It’s also important to think about turning your electronic devices off entirely when in avalanche terrain.

As you can see in Picthes video, when your avalanche transceiver is being altered by electrical interference, you will either see erratic numbers or false triggers on your display window and/or overall range will be lost. You might also get false distance readings as well as wrong directions to follow when attempting to search. Even if you don’t have a purely analog transceiver, you will still get so much interference that instead of improper numbers and directions the beeps you are supposed to listen to and follow while searching will be filled with static and thus rendered inaudible.

Clearly, more study is needed to be able to provide full conclusive data regarding different brands and products that represent the most risk for users. According to Barkhausen’s work, iPod’s and GPS units seem to create the most interference of all the electronic devices, although from Picthes video GoPro’s don’t seem to be too far off in terms of potential negative impacts. I’m sure more study and conversation on the subject will be forth coming in the weeks/months ahead so we can all better understand the issue as a whole.

Barkhausen is scheduled to follow up this years presentation at the 2014 ISSW in Banff, Canada, but in the meantime, take home points in the now are to make sure you always perform a transceiver search at arm’s length. If you’re on a snowmobile, get off it to perform a search, so as to not allow any electronics (spark plugs) or noise to influence your search. Also, think about turning your electronic devices off and stowing them away from you transceiver when you are spending time in avalanche terrain.

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