Anyone who solves problems for a living knows solutions sometimes come from unexpected sources.
Regardless of the industry, it’s not uncommon for day-to-day professionals to suffer from tunnel vision, overlooking obvious clues that may lead to solving the larger puzzle. However, it’s somewhat less common for that game changing perspective to come from a child.
On Sunday, members of the Summit County Rescue Group visited with students from Aurora Quest school in Aurora at the west portal of the Eisenhower Tunnel to test a device that may someday save the lives of backcountry skiers and riders caught in an avalanche. The device is an autonomous robotic drill backcountry explorers could wear on the top of their helmet. Should an avalanche trap the user, the drill would deploy automatically and punch a hole in the surface of the snow, providing the victim with an indefinite air supply until located by rescuers.
Preston Burns, a ski patroller at Keystone Resort and a volunteer for four years with the Summit County Rescue Group, has been on numerous avalanche rescue missions and knows an infinite air supply could be the difference between life and death.
“It’s not hard to see where an avalanche has broken, but searching for people who may be trapped under the snow is a completely different story,” Preston told the students. “We like to say we respond quickly to emergencies, but when you’re looking for people trapped in an avalanche, nothing moves as fast as you want it to.”
The team, known as “les sauveteurs,” which is French for the rescuers, consists of seventh graders Makenzie Bell, Logan Marcoux, Mia LaMontagne, Anusha Vajrala and Anna Szantruchek. They came up with the idea for this year’s FIRST LEGO League competition. The theme focuses on how to prepare for, survive or recover from natural disasters.
FIRST LEGO League is the largest robotics challenge for middle school-aged children in the world, said Scott Bell, who runs the robotics club at Aurora Quest and is serving as team coach. More than 200,000 students from 70 countries are participating in this year’s competition.
Living in Colorado, Makenzie Bell said a project focusing on avalanches was a natural decision among her classmates.
“We thought it would be easy to do because we live in the mountains,” she said. “(Avalanches) happen a lot and people usually have about 15 minutes before they run out of air, so we wanted to do something that would be able to save people.”
Although coming up with the idea for an autonomous robotic drill, which the team has decided to call the “Snow Shark,” was easy, engineering the device is a lot more complex.
The students are currently working on their fourth prototype and in its current form the Snow Shark looks a lot like any lithium ion-powered drill. However, the kids have modified it with some interesting features in their goal of making it a hands-free lifesaving tool.
In addition to fins to steady the drill in the snow and a custom-made oversized auger, the Snow Shark features an electrical gyroscope, as well as an accelerometer. Using a software program the students wrote themselves, the students think they can design the Snow Shark to recognize when it has been in an avalanche and deploy the lifesaving auger automatically.
The gyroscope would recognize its been in an avalanche through increased vibrations in the electrical unit. Once the victim has stopped moving, the gyroscope would determine which direction is up and initiate the accelerator to cut a hole in the ceiling.
Although too large for practical use today, the team plans to continue to modify the device down to about the size of a GoPro camera, which could similarly attach to a skier or rider’s helmet.
Charles Pitman, liaison director and public information officer for Summit County Rescue Group, also attended Sunday’s test. Pitman has an electrical engineering background and in the past tested ship defense systems for the U.S. Navy.
“I’m really impressed kids that age are working with electronics and engineering, and writing their own computer programs,” Pitman said. “I know from experience that there are a lot of false starts when you’re developing something totally new and it takes a lot of motivation to work through problems to find solutions. It was impressive to see that kind of dedication in kids so young.”
The Aurora Quest team is participating in its fourth FIRST LEGO League competition and made it to the state finals the last two years.
“We think we have a good chance at going back to state,” Scott Bell said. “There’s still some problems to address and some engineering work to do, but that’s what this competition is all about. It’s not just the robotics, but also about teaching these kids problem solving skills.”
Regional finals begin Saturday, Scott Bell said. Competitions will be taking place through the month of November all around Colorado.