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Avalanche invention could save lives

STABILITY DETECTOR: Professor Keith Alexander demonstrates a potentially life-saving snow probe being developed by Canterbury University to predict avalanches.

KIRK HARGREAVES / The press

STABILITY DETECTOR: Professor Keith Alexander demonstrates a potentially life-saving snow probe being developed by Canterbury University to predict avalanches.

A potentially life-saving snow probe for predicting avalanches was developed by mechanical engineers at the University of Canterbury.

The probe is the brainchild of Christchurch engineer Arthur Tyndall.

Tyndall, a past president of the Broken River Ski Club, built the first prototype in 1999 after his friend Neville Ryde died in an avalanche on the club field in 1992.

“He was picked up and buried nine meters deep,” he said.

“At the time I thought, ‘I think I can do something about it’.”

Three mechanical engineering students, led by Professor Keith Alexander, spent thousands of hours testing and refining the instrument.

Master’s student Mike Halsegger, a former Austrian ski instructor, completed his thesis on the device this year.

Alexander, who developed the springless trampoline, said early versions were complicated, but the latest model was simple.

Tyndall said the instrument was ready for production and he believed it could revolutionize avalanche control.

The device discovered an unstable layer during tests on the Broken River, and there was an avalanche when the temperature rose that afternoon, he said.

“I feel like I might have done something to avoid tragedy because I know what it feels like to lose a friend under such circumstances.

“I would like to see it in action and then I would be proud of it.”

With a rotating wing, the instrument detects instability by measuring the resistance of the snow. It then uses the slope angle to determine the likelihood of an avalanche departure. The assessment is sent to a handheld computer.

It takes about 30 seconds and eliminates the need for avalanche controls to dig pits to find unstable layers of snow.

Canterbury heliski guide Jonathan Morgan and Australian heliskier Llynden Riethmuller died in separate avalanches in the Ragged Range near Methven this winter, while snowboarder Ryan Campbell died after being buried in an avalanche on Coronet Peak.

IDesign Solutions’ Lincoln Sell estimated the cost from now to the first 10 off the production line at $ 500,000, including compliance testing and verification, design, and electronics.

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