Avatech Electronic Snow Profile Sensor & Data Network

Post by WildSnow.com blogger | September 16, 2014      

Avatech launched their PR today with a revamped website. The company claims their hardware and software will take the tedium out of snowpit data recording — as well as making a major advance in avalanche safety.

The Avatech SP1 densitometer/probe links up via Bluetooth with a smartphone app that in turn works with a cloud database of snow profiles and observations. Goal is a massive and current store of crowd-sourced data, available to any skier in any area where the system is in use and a network is available (cell or wifi.) Apparently, the probe senses pressure as you push it down into the snowpack, thus recording the relative hardness of different layers (it’s tempting to use the word “density” instead of hardness, but a substance can be dense and still soft, so hardness it is, or perhaps the truly technical term is “compressive strength”). It appears that profiles done with the probe easily match or even exceed the accuracy of profiles done on a snowpit wall.

Sound like science fiction? Avatech is real, and probably a good example of how the “second machine age” is radically changing nearly any aspect of our lives. Indeed, if this system works the way it’s presented backcountry skiing will never be the same again. Our sport may become radically safer, but also more complex and dependent on yet another electronic device.

SP1 Probe is intended to duplicate or even exceed snowpit analysis.

SP1 Probe is intended to duplicate or even exceed snowpit analysis.

Avatech is nothing new in basic concept in that it goes back to the idea of snow profiles being predictive enough to keep you alive. Snow pits do have their uses, but for much of backcountry skiing have fallen out of favor as a primary predictor. This is due in part to the problem of “spacial variability,” a big-phrase that means snowpits tend to be different depending on where they are dug — sometimes so different as to render them meaningless.

Thus, the kernel of the Avatech idea is to quickly sample so much snow that the problem of spacial variability is obviated. Will that work in real life? Or will the variable data become concentrated into one averaged and subsequently meaningless hodge that looks good on your smartphone screen but tells you nothing? From what I’ve seen the SP1 may indeed take the place of tedious snow pit profiles, but does nothing to replace the basic shovel shear test or slide block. Those methods will have to continue for determining the actual strength of bonding between snow layers. Where Avatech will help is when weak a layer is discovered, information can be shared across the network so any user can quickly probe her vicinity and see if the same weak layer exists. As those additional profiles are created, they too go into the database. A powerful network effect will hopefully be the result. (For the system to work to full effect, a cell or wifi network must be available.)

Avatech will provide cloud based data that's available on website or app, and they also have a nice snow data recording app that integrates.

Avatech will provide cloud based data that’s available on website or app, and they also have a nice snow data recording app that integrates.

Real life consumer testing needs to commence, but my hopes are high. Now I know why we installed satellite wifi up at WildSnow Field HQ.

Press release, edited and condensed:

September 16, 2014 (Park City, Utah) — AvaTech, a new technology company focused on developing breakthrough, proactive snow safety solutions, will unveil its first products, the SP1 and the AvaNet™ cloud platform, during the International Snow Science Workshop later this month. Snow professionals can pre-order from AvaTech at www.avatech.com now.

AvaTech’s SP1 device reads snowpack structure, slope angle and aspect in seconds and then geo-tags the data, and uploads it real-time onto the AvaNet platform. AvaNet will dramatically increase the amount of data snow professionals can share and analyze, providing a unique geo-spatial database of crowd-sourced snowpack observations. Snow professionals will be able to gather more information and make better decisions with consistent data powered by this proprietary technology developed while at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Finally, professionals will also be able to rapidly upload their own manual snowpack observations with AvaTech’s Snowpit Editor, which features geo-tagging, photo upload and multiple forms of data visualization.

The SP1 features rugged construction with a collapsible 150 centimeter probe that folds easily into your backpack.”


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31 Responses to “Avatech Electronic Snow Profile Sensor & Data Network”

  1. Klemen Volontar September 16th, 2014 6:42 am


    My name is Klemen Volontar, I am a member of the Mountain Rescue Association of Slovenia, president of avalanches Commission. Researching and forecasting of avalanches is also engaged in private life. I work well with Mr Manuel Genswein from Switzerland.
    My question is, if the SP1 will be presented at this year’s meeting of IKAR in Lake Tahoe NV during the October 5 to 10?

    Thanks for your reply.

    BR Klemen

  2. Lou Dawson 2 September 16th, 2014 7:01 am

    Hi Klemen, you’d need to ask that question over at the Avatech website, http://www.avatech.com

  3. Mark Staples September 16th, 2014 8:17 am

    Lou, thanks for posting. I’m really curious to read everyone’s thoughts.

    You’re right, using it to find where a weak layer does and doesn’t exist may be it’s strength. Here’s the thing: if we already know what we’re looking for, then snowpits are not tedious. 5 minutes, a shovel, a probe, and a piece of cord and we can do an extended column test. In Bozeman, we work hard to stress doing very quick and simple pits.

    The other problem is that they seem to say that more data = better decisions. Data is the backbone for good decisions. However, in terms of quantitative information (which this device collects) the literature on decision-making/risk communication/etc is clear that more data does not lead to better decisions. Perhaps some wizardry in the AvaNet platform will deal this issue, but I have yet to see a computer model that can.

  4. Charlie September 16th, 2014 8:28 am

    It’ll be fun to try one out, to play with their dataset, and to see how the crowd-sourced information culture evolves. These tools could be a real boon to avalanche centers, ski areas, and avalanche-control outfits. The Stevens Pass patrol reported on densely-sampled anemometer readings at NSAS in ~2008; the study found several unexpected persistent wind directions in the folds of the mountain.

    The AvaTech website is short on technical implementation detail — anyone have a link to technical documentation?

  5. Clyde September 16th, 2014 8:45 am

    $2300 MSRP is a lot for a false sense of security. Even the pre-release price of $1500 will mean the network of data remains minuscule.

  6. lederhosen42 September 16th, 2014 9:09 am

    I spent quite a bit of time last season digging pits, recording densities of snowpack layers and then immediately adjacent to pits carefully probing the snowpack to correlate subjective resistance to observed measured (fist, 4 finger, 1 finger, pencil, knife) layers….after time and practice, I found that a fairly accurate result could be obtained without having to dig and a clear mental picture of the snowpack composition could be recorded in the mind simply based on ‘feel’. Of course, objective data from a sensor probe (and all the auto internet uploading potential) is the next level of accuracy and easy ‘sharing’ of results. Definitely a better tool for identifying thin weak layers like buried surface hoar and thin facet layers above/below m/f crusts, etc… pretty neat tech regardless!

  7. David September 16th, 2014 9:18 am

    This is a cool concept but there is almost zero real info available about the actual product. I give the company credit for being smart about marketing and generating hype but it’s not yet possible to draw any solid conclusions about the real world utility of this gadget.

    Mark’s general point is well taken. The biggest BC traveller problem is not lack of technical info but self control, judgement, culture, group management…I am a snow nerd and this device is intriguing but even if it works as advertised it doesn’t protect us from ourselves.

  8. Lou Dawson 2 September 16th, 2014 10:12 am

    I would agree that human factors are the big problem and this won’t do much in that area. For example, just think of the multiple lives that would have been saved over past years if we had all followed the one at a time rule more often. Those are easy saves that don’t require mmoney or modern tech.

  9. Me September 16th, 2014 10:28 am

    FWIW, they aren’t marketing the SP1 as a consumer product. From their FAQs:

    “We developed the SP1 for the avalanche professional: snow safety teams at ski resorts, guides, avalanche forecasters, scientists, transportation departments, military, mines and more. This is NOT a recreational tool. The tool requires prior avalanche education and training in order to be used most effectively.”

    One might want to take that into account when looking at the price or as an alternative to your personal avalanche best practices.

  10. Brian September 16th, 2014 10:46 am

    How does “crowdsourcing” avy data square with the idea that this device should only be used by alpine professionals? Might make sense in a zone with lots of helicopters, cats, and their associated guides. But that’s about the only place those two things both make sense.

  11. Lou Dawson 2 September 16th, 2014 11:49 am

    I’m not sure what they mean by “professionals.” They’re probably just being careful with their wording, the only way this will really work in my opinion is if it’s used by numerous experienced backcountry skiers in the same general area, though it does sound like you have to be a bit careful how you use it, you can’t just jam it willy nilly in the snow. Lou

  12. Tyler September 16th, 2014 1:25 pm

    In the hype video it looked like they were taking a temperature reading (3:55). One feature that would be interesting temperature readings at determined intervals, to be taken after the probe strike is completed. This would provide some interesting data for temperature gradients without having to dig.

    I think, generally, more data about a specific area (different elevations and aspects) can be beneficial. However, I agree with most of the previous comments, more information can give a false sense of security and data does not replace “best practices” for skiing in avalanche terrain. And, to Lou’s point, the AvaTech Probe doesn’t provide information about the bonds between the layers.

    I’m not going to completely poo-poo an idea that attempts to make it safer out there for all of us, especially one as cool as this. So, kudos to AvaTech for their passion!

  13. Andy September 16th, 2014 1:31 pm

    I can’t see how this wouldn’t be a huge boon to avalanche forecasters assuming these are well distributed to ski areas, highway departments and cat/heli/guide ops. Getting reliable observations in great numbers is tough. Some people chart pits. Some send you small column shovel compression results, others rutschblocks or extended columns or whatever cocktail napkin scribbling. And that’s when you get anything at all. Now, imagine getting a stream of consistently-formatted data from even more locations.

    I realize there’s always going to be those who feel it necessary to poopoo every piece of technology that comes out as not addressing the human factor, but how would this tool NOT be hugely helpful? Probably only if it doesn’t work or is too expensive for anyone (meaning mostly any organization) to buy it.

  14. Lou Dawson 2 September 16th, 2014 1:32 pm

    BTW, some of you might not know that over the years a number of “ram penetrometer” versions have attempted to do what the Avatech SP1 is said to do. The penetrometers worked by dropping weights on a rod and recording how far the rod sank, or by other means. I remember one prototype I saw in the 1970s that you pressed down in the snow and a strip of graph paper actually came out with the profile on it. All these devices had various limitations such as being tedious, time consuming, or just plain inaccurate.


  15. Andy September 16th, 2014 1:32 pm

    And, yes, the point about it not providing observations about the durability in bonds between layers is totally valid.

  16. Carl Redmond September 16th, 2014 1:42 pm

    How does the device measure/know the depth at which the relative hardness measurements are taken and graphed ??

  17. Lou Dawson 2 September 16th, 2014 1:43 pm

    I’ve been doing a lot of reading about crowd sourcing and network effects. Indeed, the whole idea behind these concepts in terms of data gathering is you need to get numerous data points, really numerous. Otherwise you’re not crowd sourcing, you’re just using that as a buzz word. So we’ll see just how much crowd sourcing really occures with Avatech. As you guys mentioned above, in an area with lots of guides or commercial operations the crowd sourcing could happen, but I ski in an area that’s used by nearly 100% non commercial folks, with one avy forecaster showing up every few days.

    Also, I can see it now, a network of guides does use Avatech and SP1 but they set things up so their data is private, or they charge for it.

    This is going to be interesting.


  18. Lou Dawson 2 September 16th, 2014 1:49 pm

    Pretty sure It has a sensor that reads where the surface of the snowpack is in relation to the head of the unit. Directions say to be sure not to cover up with your glove…

  19. Misha September 16th, 2014 2:45 pm

    Agree with Andy — this can only be a good thing. At a minimum, I see this tool contributing greatly to snow science research. The increased data will undoubtedly lead to improved modeling and better forecasting.

    I think we’re a few years from a recreational SP(N) that provides the user with any amount of actionable feedback (e.g., “risk = high/considerable/moderate/low”); however, the AvaNet could realistically (and quickly) become the platform of record for forecasting services and research — hosting local and global networks.
    For recreational use, I wouldn’t be surprised if the next offering is a read-only subscription.

    Lou, definitely an interesting comment re: data privacy. I can imagine AvaTech claiming ownership of all data generated via the SP1, though this might not be possible — the SP1 can operate with or without the network connection, so the data is stored locally prior to upload. If not yet, I could see a platform licensing fee providing API access for pulling data back out of the platform.

    Eager to get more details after ISSW if anyone can report back.

  20. mason September 16th, 2014 3:17 pm

    Looks like it can accurately detect super thin layers <1mm. And their hardness? I always question the accuracy of something like "fist" hardness of a layer that's less than the thickness of a pencil.

  21. Matt Kinney September 16th, 2014 8:32 pm

    Great idea and spent sometime @ISSW Anch with this or a similar device and the developer and blogged about it. It took a lot of time and money to get it to this stage since then. It seems more sensitive than it needs to be as it certainly picks up many nano-layers. Hopefully the technology will lead to a small disc that a skier can place on the snowpack, push a button and get a pit profile. I have a relative who his a chemical engineer and he says that seems pretty easy to do….. with some money and the right engineers. But, there is not money in snow science or research. One could just plant it in the snow and leave it. With a power unit it could transmit data to the ski patrol on a continuous basis. Good on these guys for this stuff.

    One can imitate the ram pentetrometer with your own avalanche probe with a light touch and feel. I do this frequently and record each layer as I “tap-tap-tap” to the ground. Side by side pits over the years has given me confidence in this method as to identifying suspect layers, Better than ski pole probing IMO.

  22. Jim September 16th, 2014 10:33 pm

    Isn’t just poking with a probe going to give much of the same info, tho not measured as exactly.

  23. jw7 September 16th, 2014 11:25 pm

    It will be interesting to see how long it takes the bc community to use this tool effectively while on a run vs using the data to make a decision on which run/location/aspect to ski in the future.

  24. mike September 17th, 2014 7:26 am

    This will speed up the process of data collection and much more data across a wide range. Hopefully they will allow the data to be accessed and reported on the CAIC website and other Avy sites rather than keeping it proprietary. I think that it would still be necessary to dig a pit every once in a while to cross-reference with the data you are getting from the probe as well as for stability test. This is no “Magic Wand” (as they even say on their site) but it will definitely help professionals gather data and hopefully we can learn more about how to avoid avalanches.

    The Human factor is completely separate from this discussion. This device is not designed for you and your buddy to go out and start probing around to decide where you are going to ski. I think they are pretty clear about that from the start. What it ill do is increase the amount of data that skiers have to work with in order to make their terrain decisions.

    Definitely excited to see how this progresses.

  25. Dawnpatrol September 17th, 2014 11:22 am

    No matter how good the technology is…the human “ego” factor will always be a huge part of the equation. Here’s to the new tech and here’s to us humans making better decisions:)

    Good rules of thumb: http://www.jonessnowboards.com/Avy-Awareness.html

  26. Alexis September 17th, 2014 3:26 pm

    Can someone tell me how the hardness of the snow is related to the stability? I understand that if the hardness reduces quickly as the depth increases that can be a red flag, but I know that this is not always the case. Furthermore, how can you find a thin layer of surface hoar if the layer above and below have the same hardness as the surface hoar crystals?

    I can understand how this tool speed up the acquisition of an hardness profile, which might allow professionals to sample more. But how is that over sampling useful? I don’t really see how this tool would give me the information I get from digging a pit and doing an extended column test (i.e., strength of the snowpack layers and the quality of the shear).

    Any clues?

  27. Andy September 17th, 2014 3:57 pm

    Wouldn’t you simply:
    1. Dig a pit, and note the profile, along with doing the usual compression/shear testing.
    2. Use the SP1 to take a profile right near the pit.
    3. Match up the SP1s reading (it’s diplayed on the screen) to ensure it’s seeing the same thing you did in the pit.
    4. Take additional readings with the SP1 throughout the day to see how/if the snowpack profile changes rather than digging multiple pits. If something changes, dig again and have a look at the bonds.

    Avalanche classes teach you to do this with a regular probe (probe down and see if you feel the same layers from the pit), and others mention doing so in this thread. I do it myself, though nowhere near enough.

    The added features of the SP1 are:
    1. You get a visual of the result on the device’s screen, which is good reinforcement for the “feel” test.
    2. This data gets potentially uploaded somewhere to be useful to others.

    I don’t think anyone is saying this replaces other snowpack tests, as the SP1 can’t give you information like the strength of the bond between the layers.

    Is it possible that there will be some people who won’t dig a pit because they have this wiz-bang toy? Maybe. People do all kinds of dumb things. A whole lot of people don’t dig pits EVER.

  28. Lou Dawson 2 September 17th, 2014 4:17 pm

    Alexis, the idea is that frequently slides originate from a variation in density and hardness of layers. This is 100% identified by doing a snow pit profile soon _after_ a slide has occurred, and doing the pit in the starting zone. Avalanche professionals do educated guesses _before_ slides occur, by analysing layers and snow types, along with how everything is bonding. My guess is that SP1 will be used to verify the existence of snowpack layers over a wide area, and thus more accurately extrapolate danger that is identified in just a few or even one pit. The perfect example would be a slide occurs, a profile is done on that slide. You are standing nearby on the same exposure at the same elevation. You whip out your SP1 and do a quick profile. It matches the profile that was done of the triggered slide, you go ski a different slope. There you go, the simple version.

  29. Lou Dawson 2 September 17th, 2014 4:21 pm

    P.S., as with a lot of “second machine age” technology, I believe the guys at Avatech have only a faint clue about how their system and hardware will really be used (grin). Sorry to say that Avatech, let’s see if I’m wrong (grin).

    They’re going to exert a lot of energy and website space to explaining how they think it will and should be used. The relationship between that and reality will be interesting to watch.


  30. Ian September 17th, 2014 11:39 pm

    Seems that this device has the potential to do the same thing to hand hardness profiles that gps did to paper maps. I could easily see hand hardness profiles seeming “old fashioned” in five years.

    If it works as advertised and doesn’t break, I think this could be a very influential piece of tech. Obviously a hardness profile is only one piece of the avalanche puzzle, but it could help extrapolate pit results to other slopes and track layers of concern.

  31. Halsted "Hacksaw" Morris September 18th, 2014 3:37 pm

    I saw the SP1 at CSAW last fall. It looks interesting. I have not used it in the field.

    I think with the SP1 display folks should keep in mind the “5 Lemons.” This method was developed by Ian McCammon and Jurg Schweizer. They looked at a couple thousand fracture line snow profiles and found that these five items where in common. The 5 Lemons: a field method for identifying structural weakness in the snowpack is the result. Here are the 5 Lemons:

    1) A weak layer within 1 meter of the snow surface.
    2) A weak layer thickness of less than 10 cm thickness.
    3) A hand hardness difference of greater than one step.
    4) There is a difference in snow gain size of 1 mm or greater, between snow layers.
    5) There are persistent snow grain types (depth hoar, near surface faceted crystals, buried surface hoar and mixed forms) present in the weak layer.

    I think with the SP1 you should be able to pick-up on at least 4 out of 5 Lemons. There are limitations to the SP1; like the length of the probe isn’t that long, for the deep persistent weak layers we get around here (i.e., more than 1.5 meters deep). And of course there is still the “spatial variability” issue of sampling.

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