UB Insider #38: How a Utah Company’s Radar is Saving Lives
About this episode:
On January 18, a massive avalanche buried a luxury Italian ski resort hotel. Over the next eleven days, rescuers scrambled to pull out nine survivors and recover the bodies of 29 victims. Keeping a close watch on the slopes to make sure a second avalanche didn’t endanger the rescuers was a radar system adapted from the SpotterRF Radar, built by Orem-based SpotterRF. In this episode of UB Insider, Logan Harris, CEO of SpotterRF, talks about the radar’s primary purpose, as well as adaptations for avalanche detection, polar bear spotting, drone defense and others. Subscribe or download this episode on iTunes and Stitcher.
Lisa Christensen: Hello and welcome to UB Insider. I’m Lisa Christensen, online editor at Utah Business magazine. On January 18th, a massive avalanche buried a luxury Italian ski resort hotel, killing 29. Rescuers scrambled for 11 days to rescue those trapped inside, eventually rescuing nine and finding all of the victims. While the rescuers were searching though, there was some technology from Utah that was allowing them to do so safely. Here to talk more about that is Logan Harris, the CEO of SpotterRF. Welcome.
Logan Harris: Thank you. I’m happy to be here to be able to talk to you about the potentials and what’s been done using radar for things like detection of avalanches which is fairly new in terms of what’s been done and what is being done. This is a perfect example of how radar systems can be used to provide early warning of potential threats, in this case, avalanches.
Lisa Christensen: Yeah, so if you wouldn’t mind just telling me, how was your system adapted for this use to help make sure those rescuers were safe while they were trying to save other people?
Logan Harris: I’ll give you a little bit of backstory then. For several years now we’ve been working with a company called Geopraevent based out of Switzerland where they have taken our base radar platform, which we have developed over many years being used across the world for security applications where typically we detect people, vehicles of different types far beyond the fence line and then use that information to alert security personnel that something is going on. And then prevent that incident from ever happening. S
o think of it this way. Instead of waiting for a burglar to be breaking down your door before an alarm goes off, we detect them when they are on the road way outside of your property. So that’s what we do for lots of different customers, in particular electrical utilities where they need to protect these critical substations and power plants, dams and bridges. So that’s our primary market. But we have this powerful radar technology. It’s small and light weight, I brought one. Of course you can’t see it, but I brought one to kind of give you an idea of the size and scale of what we’re talking about here. Most people think of radar systems as being huge devices.
Lisa Christensen: Oh, wow.
Logan Harris: This right here is one of our mid-range models. It’s not the exact one. The one that was used up in Italy at the avalanche is a little bit larger, about twice as big. So still quite small.
Lisa Christensen: This looks a lot like my modem at home.
Logan Harris: Yes. You know, if you look at it, it looks like a Wi-Fi antenna or even just some electronic device. It doesn’t look very interesting in terms of its appearance, but inside of it has quite a lot of technology that is unique to this industry. It’s been unique to the security applications, it’s also unique to avalanche detection. Because now we have this device, and this device right here can detect and track a person moving anywhere within 50 acres. So that’s over 600 yards. That’s over six football fields away we can detect and track and give you a GPS location of a person walking around. So they saw this information and said wow, this is a really powerful, light weight radar system. We need something like that to detect avalanches that we can deploy up in the mountains quickly, easily, that can see avalanches at far ranges. So that’s what they’ve done.
They’ve taken our base platform, put their own algorithms on top of that over years. They’ve spent years collecting data on real avalanches all across Europe, perfecting their algorithms so that they can detect with very high accuracy and very low response time. If anything starts to move, they know about it very quickly, within literally less than a second they know something is coming down. And that is what they applied to the system that they took out with them to Italy. So after the avalanche occurred, we have hundreds of rescuers out there on the slope where there might be further avalanches. And so they needed something that could be deployed within hours. So that’s what they did with a small lightweight radar system like this, there’s pictures of it strapped up in a tree. I don’t know if you’ve seen those.
Lisa Christensen: Yeah, I have seen those. It gives them a real boots on the ground kind of warning system.
Logan Harris: Yeah, and they were able to just put the couple of cases in a van, drive it down, strap the thing up on a tree and then that provided them the ability to monitor out to several kilometers from that site, looking for any type of other avalanches that might come down. Because they still had a lot of snow up there. They had a lot of people in the slide path, and that was a dangerous situation for those rescue workers. So that’s what they were able to do is deploy that system very quickly and monitor up on that slope for any other avalanche activity.
Lisa Christensen: So this sounds like it’s something that can be utilized in other areas in order to warn people, so you don’t have a hotel with people in it. Or at least those people have a little head start before the avalanche actually hits.
Logan Harris: Oh yes. Yeah, definitely. And that’s where Geopraevent is using them for detection of avalanches just by the town of Zermatt in Switzerland, looking up on the slopes across the canyon. It’s really quite a pretty area. You can see the Matterhorn right off in the distance, and there’s these large slide areas that they have where it’s consistently, year after year, the snow builds up and you have slide action.
So that happens here in Utah in many cases, where you have certain areas that are prone for avalanches. In the past, what could they do? Well, they couldn’t do anything until the slide hit the slope, or hit the road and hopefully no one was there. So instead of having that, or building a tunnel. That’s the other option, building large structures or barriers or tunnels which are really expensive. So instead of doing that, they have this advanced warning system. And the advanced warning system detects, using our radar systems, detects avalanches then triggers the flashing lights on the road and closes a barrier on the road stopping all traffic into that area.
Lisa Christensen: Kind of like train tracks.
Logan Harris: Yes. Just like train tracks except instead of a train going over a pressure sensor, it’s a radar looking up on the slope several kilometers away for avalanches coming down.
Lisa Christensen: Alright, so that’s got the potential to save a lot of people then.
Logan Harris: Yes. I mean, people, if you think of a bus loaded with tourists going through there, yes, there’s a lot of people’s lives at stake when those avalanches come down.
Lisa Christensen: So talk to me a little bit about the system in general. How was it developed? How did you hit on it? Tell me a bit about its developmental story.
Logan Harris: Yeah, it’s come through a long history of development through radar. I’ve been involved with doing radar since 2000, and it’s grown from radar that was developed for doing traffic control – monitoring traffic on freeways and highways – to radar that was done for airborne drones and then now to ground base, what we call ground surveillance or compact surveillance radar that is looking for people moving at far distances. All through that, the capabilities and the ability to also make it cost effective has continued to push the edge of technology. And that’s where now, what we’ve done is brought radar to the point where it could be used for these more commercial or industrial applications.
In the past, the only time radar was really used is on airports or large military installations, or sometimes on satellites or things of that nature. People would never think let’s put radar system on a substation or a large estate. They wouldn’t think about that. But now we’ve made that possible. We’ve done even homes, where they have large areas and they don’t want to put up big fences, but they want or need the protection for VIP protection or other people who have large areas. And now it’s put it into the category of more commercial security type equipment. So if they’re used to using thermal cameras, then this is in the same type of scale of what they’re used to.
It’s all IP based, an Ethernet cable goes into it, it has a web-based user interface. It plugs into their existing systems. It doesn’t cost that much comparatively to what it does. And so it now makes it something that can be accessed by a whole new group of people who didn’t have the power of radar before.
Lisa Christensen: The analogy that keeps coming to my mind when you’re describing this is like a guard dog in a house or in a yard that lets you know when someone has pulled up so that you can be more alert and assess whether that is a threat or not.
Logan Harris: On a very large scale.
Lisa Christensen: With a much smaller dog.
Logan Harris: Yes. With a much smaller dog that doesn’t get distracted.
Lisa Christensen: Well tell me about how the security applications and also the avalanche alert applications fit into SpotterRF’s overall mission or goal as a company.
Logan Harris: As a company, our main mission is to make a difference in our communities. That’s what we do. That’s what we’re about. In our particular case, the way that we make a difference is to help provide security and protection of critical infrastructure. So our main focus as a company is on protecting the electrical grid.
The electrical grid is what supports our entire civilization. If you think about what happened in 2003, where there was a branch from a tree that made contact with a transmission line up in upstate New York and it blacked out all of New England into Canada. New York City was without power for 29 hours. What we’re trying to do is make sure that that doesn’t happen because of some sort of terrorist or other type of action.
Lisa Christensen: Some type of radical group.
Logan Harris: That’s correct. And so what our focus as a company is to prevent that from happening. And we have the best technology, and the best solution for preventing that currently in the world. And that’s what we do. These other applications come to us because they see us, but it’s not our main focus. Even though we do, of course, sell our equipment to them and are happy to make a difference, that’s not our main focus. Our main focus is to protect the electrical grid.
Lisa Christensen: Are there any other ways that people are trying to adapt this like that company in Switzerland to other applications?
Logan Harris: Yes, there are. And some of them are quite interesting. Of course, we weren’t really targeting avalanche detection when we formed SpotterRF. Some of the other ones that are interesting that are public out there are detecting polar bears. We have a site with ExxonMobil in the Artic Ocean where the polar bears come to get on the ice and they have people working there. And that’s a dangerous mix. You don’t want polar bears by people. They don’t get along. Polar bears are hungry, especially when they’re waiting for the ice to come. And they have really bad weather conditions, snow, fog, rain, all of that is going on.
Lisa Christensen: And polar bears are white.
Logan Harris: And polar bears are very low profile. So they use our radar system to give early warning so that they can get off the area where they might have a polar bear when someone approaches. If they didn’t have that, it literally comes where you’ve got some really tense moments where there’s a polar bear twenty feet away from me, I need to get away before it gets me. So that’s an interesting one.
We’ve been talking with some other groups that are looking at doing this on a larger scale with cities and areas that area dealing with polar bears. Hopefully we can help them out with some solutions on that. So polar bears is one.
Another one that has recently come up that we’ve been doing quite a bit of work in is detection of drones and countering drones. Now this critical infrastructure, they’ve had to worry about things on the ground, now they’re starting to worry about things in the air with the proliferation of these quite capable drones that can be purchased for less than a thousand dollars that are being used by say ISIS as flying IEDs. There’s problems both domestically as well as internationally, saying what do we do here? That’s another thing that we’ve been doing quite a bit of work with. And this is also for the electrical grid as well. What if someone brings something over into a secure area, how disruptive can that be? We now have systems and solutions to prevent, detect and prevent drones from entering into certain air spaces.
Lisa Christensen: That’s really interesting, and clearly there are lots of areas where people could continue to adapt the technology in the future.
Logan Harris: Yes, I’m sure there are many other areas that we really haven’t considered that could benefit from a high performance, lower cost radar system that is simple, easy-to-use and setup and it’s kind of like most new technologies that start out with the internet. And it’s a bunch of researchers communicating some basic information back and forth where that turns into what we have now where it’s a huge generator to our economy and our overall style and lifestyle that could never have been conceived by the original inventors of the net that turned into our internet.
Lisa Christensen: That’s fascinating. Thanks so much for coming on today and telling us about that.
Logan Harris: You’re welcome.
Lisa Christensen: Thanks also to Mike Sasich for production help. Drop us a line at email@example.com or follow us on social media at @utahbusiness and be sure to subscribe to our podcast on iTunes or Stitcher. Thanks for listening.