Developing Innovative and Effective Technologies

Carson Technologies Story

Carson Technologies was formed in honor of Carson May who lost his life in an avalanche, January 14, 2016, at age 23. Carson loved skiing, music, visual arts, social justice and accessibility for all. Carson Technologies endeavors to embody these themes in the spirit of his life passion.

How could technologies be better used early in a search and rescue? (SAR)

23 year-old Carson May went missing on January 14, 2016 at the Sugar Bowl ski resort in Tahoe and was found six weeks later on February 29.

Here is Public Radio story that summarizes some aspects of the Carson search. It includes interviews with Wyndham and me as well as others.

If Carson was around, he would be the first to research about search and rescue technology and the privacy limitations in using it and then to rant about how bad it is. With the help of smart and connected friends, I am embarking on a project to ultimately provide some technology solutions early in a search that will augment the traditional SAR methods that were impressive but ultimately not enough to find Carson in time to save his life.

Over 435 people, Sheriff’s staff, SAR volunteers, ski patrol plus friends and family, engaged in the search for Carson as well as several dog teams, snowmobiles, one CHP helicopter and one National Guard Blackhawk helicopter. It is impressive that so many people gave their time and expertise to search, often in very snowy conditions over the course of 4.5 days. They use GPS trackers on the searchers in order to create a map of where they searched and where they needed to search.

There is a chain of command and numerous entities involved in this type of search including the ski resort, Forestry department, Sheriff’s department and Office of Emergency Services. Bureaucracy is bound to slow things down at the same time that it is meant to keep everyone organized. I believe everyone did a good job under the circumstances but there were definitely territorial issues when it came to using and understanding technologies.

Here is a snapshot of what technologies I have learned about so far and some recommendations for everyone. During the Carson's search, I found with the help of my friend Rob Reis, an expert at the Yosemite SAR who connected me with the Airforce Rescue Command. A guy at AFRCC was able to assist the local Tahoe sheriff in analyzing the ambiguous cell phone data from the cell towers near Sugar Bowl. It took two days to bring in that expert. Positioning from cell phone towers in remote areas can range from a couple hundred feet to a half mile so not very precise especially if the phone might be under the snow.

The “find my phone” feature is meant to locate your phone when it is lost but not necessarily to find you if you are lost with your phone.

It took us a couple days to get into Carson’s computer to his phone account. Law enforcement is supposed to be able to get help from the providers to get password information but we had no luck with Google over the MLK holiday weekend. Please share your login information with loved ones in case your phone needs to be located by someone other than you.

There is a portable cell phone tower called a Stingray by Harris Corporation that can be used for surveillance. Privacy laws require that a court order be obtained to use the Stingray. There is no exception for use in a search for a phone as with Carson’s desperate search. His phone battery lasted for 30 hours. It would have taken days to get a Stingray approved and transported to the search location. I need to learn more about the effectiveness of a Stingray for finding a cell phone and how the law could be changed.

My friend Katie Gilmore suggested the use of drones in the search and she came up with contacts for doing that. The air force drones fly quite high and would typically not be made available for a search for one person. I did reach senior air force officials who were informative about that.

A Reno based company called RafterCam did offer to get involved in the search. By that time, the weather was too bad for flying. There were also issues with jurisdiction and permission for them to fly in the area. They have extensive SAR experience including a recent search in Nepal.

The question arose as to what they could find that a Blackhawk couldn’t. They say it depends a lot on what sensors are on board but in terms of the camera, the drones can get close to the ground, under cliffs and around tree wells where a helicopter could not. We still hope to get some drones into the area to conduct a search. Carson was intrigued by drones and would love the fact that they were searching for him. Katie is trying to make this happen.

This would not be relevant in Carson’s situation but I have also learned that 10,000 people die each year because of poor location information when one calls 911 from a cell phone. The 911 system was set up for landlines and works great for that. 70% of 911 calls are however from cell phones. Calls may be routed to the CHP and not your local police. FCC requirements do not help with calls from inside buildings where your position can appear to be a block or two away from where you really are.

I highly recommend that everyone install BlueLight, an app that makes better use of 911 and your emergency location. It also alerts your emergency contacts with a text if you call 911. If you choose the “Start My Trip” feature, your position once a minute can be tracked by a family member. It is completely accessible with VoiceOver for people who are blind.

Finally, there is a device that should be out in the next year, which is a satellite transmitter built into a cell phone case. If you are off the grid, out of cell phone range, this device can send a text along with your GPS position to friends and family. Surprisingly, there is still a large portion of the rural US that does not have cell phone coverage.

I am certain there are other SAR technologies I have not discovered yet. Thanks to all of you for sending ideas and links that might be helpful in the endeavor to deploy technology early in a search. For now, get BlueLight and give out your “find my phone” details to friends and family. Ultimately the solution is probably in finding better ways to do direction finding on a cell phone since hundreds of millions of people have them. Carson would be livid about how little of our high tech resources are used in SAR. So on his behalf, join me in making some changes to save others.