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Tracking performance of a HSGPS receiver under avalanchedeposited snow
J. B. Schleppe
G. Lachapelle
Received: 5 November 2006/Accepted: 14 February 2007/Published online: 10 March 2007
Springer-Verlag 2007
The tracking performance of High SensitivityGlobal Positioning System (HSGPS) receivers under ava-lanche deposited snow was investigated. Two field trialswere held during April 2006 in the Canadian RockyMountains to study the factors affecting GPS signals andpositioning performance for avalanche rescue. The PLANGroup at the University of Calgary has developed theminiature Global Navigation Asset Tracker (GNAT
)which integrates the SiRFstar III HSGPS receivers with amicrocontroller, onboard flash storage and a 2.4 GHzZigbee radio modem. The test systems were placed down a6 cm hole bored in avalanche deposited snow for 2.5 hwith data collected at 1 Hz. Post-mission analysis showedaverage GPS signal attenuation of approximately 11 to13 dB within the first 1.5 m of avalanche debris. SufficientGPS signals for positioning were received by GPSreceivers buried in 2.7 m of avalanche deposited snow.Methods of improving the GPS position beneath the ava-lanche debris were investigated, resulting in horizontalposition RMS values of 7.4 and 2.8 m at depths of 2.0 and2.68 m respectively.
Avalanche rescue
GPS signalreception under snow
With the recent advent of low-cost High Sensitivity GlobalPositioning System (HSGPS) receivers it may be possibleto locate avalanche victims at snow depths of 2 m andbeyond. Manufacturers are producing HSGPS receivers forthe cell phone market in response to the FCC enhanced 911(E911) phase II mandate which requires GPS receiverequipped cell phones to be capable of positioning inattenuated environments such as built up urban areas andindoors.Research and development has resulted in L1 receiverscapable of tracking GPS signals down to C/N
of 13 dB-Hz. Could the same receivers capable of tracking throughtrees, roofs and walls for urban cell phone users (Lachap-elle et al2004) also be capable of tracking through snowand debris to aid in the rescue of avalanche victims? Theapplicability of standard sensitivity GPS receivers to ava-lanche rescue was investigated 1997 by a pair of medicaldoctors from the Mayo Clinic. A pilot study by Stepanek and Claypool (1997), researching the use of GPS for ava-lanche rescue, showed that a six channel L1 MotorolaTraxar was capable of positioning in 1 m in packed snow.In the nine years since their study, little research intoGlobal Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) use for ava-lanche rescue has been published and no manufacturer hasincorporated a GNSS module into their avalanche beacon.In 1997 the cost of GNSS modules as well as their lowersensitivity may have been factors limiting acceptance.However, in recent years low-cost HSGPS receivers havebecome readily available from several manufacturers.What are the factors limiting the acceptance of GNSS asan avalanche rescue tool? Perhaps existing equipment andmethods are sufficiently effective to preclude the need forGNSS or perhaps GNSS positioning performance is
J. B. Schleppe
G. Lachapelle (
)Position, Location and Navigation (PLAN) Group,Department of Geomatics, Engineering,Schulich School of Engineering, University of Calgary,2500 University Drive NW, Calgary, AB, CanadaT2N 1N4e-mail: glachapelle@geomatics.ucalgary.caJ. B. Schleppee-mail: jschleppe@shaw.ca
GPS Solut (2008) 12:13–21DOI 10.1007/s10291-007-0060-1
deemed insufficient. On the other hand, the lack of followup studies into the viability of GNSS for avalanche rescuemay have stifled progress. In either case, an effort has beenmade to answer some of these questions while providinggroundwork for future studies. This research will look atthe tracking and positioning capabilities of the SiRFstar IIIHSGPS receiver in post avalanche conditions. Tests wereconducted under avalanche deposited snow at two sites inthe Canadian Rockies during April 2006. A previous paperby the authors (Schleppe and Lachapelle2006) gave theBanff test results for the SiRFstar IIe based receiver alongwith the Fernie results for the SiRFstar III. Here we willpresent previously unpublished SiRFstar III results fromBanff along with results at a test site (Fernie) reported inthe previous paper for comparison. The results from theSiRFstar IIe are not presented here, since it is unlikely thatthis older receiver would be employed in any futureapplications. Post-mission analysis includes determiningGPS signal attenuation, pseudorange measurement error,measurement availability, and single point position solu-tion accuracy and availability as they relate to the snowdepth.
GNSS for avalanche rescue
Statistics by rescue agencies reveal that approximately 150people die in avalanches each year in western countrieswhere alpine search and rescue programs along with edu-cation and safety products are readily available (ForestService Utah2002). In many cases avalanches are self-triggered during backcountry skiing or snowmobilingwhere the initial response is limited to traveling compan-ions. Time is of the essence during avalanche rescue (Falk et al.1994) and the ability of companions to quickly per-form a rescue is crucial for survival (Tschirky et al2000).Rescue times of less than 15 min should be strived for.Methods used by companions to locate fully buried ava-lanche victims include a combination of transceivers (Ja-mieson1994; Schweizer and Kru¨si2002) and probing(Jamieson and Auger1997) while trained avalanche rescuedogs are typically reserved for professional search andrescue teams. GNSS receivers could be employed incombination with transceivers and probing by bringingsearchers within the effective range of transceivers andhelping to locate multiple victims. GNSS horizontal posi-tioning accuracies of 25 to 50 m (95% confidence level)should be adequate for this purpose; however improve-ments in this accuracy to the 5 m level would improvesearch times and bring rescuers within effective probingrange. GNSS receivers should also provide positioning insnow depths of 2 m, beyond which few victims are foundalive (Falk et al.1994; Tschirky et al.2000). GNSS signals penetrating avalanche snow may take several pathsdepending on scattering and refraction caused by densitychanges. Figure1illustrates several paths taken by a signalfrom Satellite A to a receiver buried within the avalanchedebris. Refracted signals may combine with direct signalsand multi-path signals resulting in power loss and mea-surement errors.Figure1also shows the increased snow that a signalfrom an upslope satellite (
) must penetrate versus a signalfrom a down-slope satellite (
) with the same elevationangle. Within this study, depth will be used to describe thevertical distance a receiver is buried in the debris. Snowpenetration will denote the straight line distance a line of sight signal travels through the snow to reach the receiver.The snow penetration is computed based on the receiver’sdepth, the debris’s slope angle and uphill azimuth alongwith the satellite’s azimuth and elevation angle.
Test methodology
Two tests were conducted in the Canadian Rockies duringApril 2006 to measure the performance of the low-cost L1C/A code HSGPS receiver under avalanche debris. Thefirst test was performed on April 6, 2006 at Mosquito Creek in Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada. The second testwas conducted on April 11, 2006 at the Fernie Ski Resort inBritish Columbia, Canada.Four Global Navigation Asset Tracker (GNAT3
)boards incorporating Falcom JP13 modules were used. TheJP13 GPS module contains a SiRF Technology Inc.SiRFstar III, L1 C/A code chipset with firmware version3.1.1 and cold-start, hot-start and tracking thresholds of 30,15 and 13 dB-Hz respectively. Details about theGNAT3
can be found in Schleppe and Lachapelle(2006). Test data collected at 1 Hz included: position,velocity, time, receiver status, C/N
and tracking status.
Fig. 1
Signal paths in avalanche debris14 GPS Solut (2008) 12:1321
During the Fernie test, pseudorange and Doppler mea-surements were also collected. Data was stored in the on-board 4 MB flash disk as well as broadcast every tenseconds using the 2.4 GHz Zigbee modem. At each testsite, a 6 cm diameter hole was drilled in the post-avalanchesnow pack. The receivers were powered up and left on thesurface until all available satellites were tracked and thensuspended in the borehole and the top capped with packedsnow. Borehole coordinates were measured using a dualfrequency GPS receiver and antenna. The reference an-tenna was set on the snow surface, offset north from theborehole. Three hours of dual frequency data from eachsite was submitted to the online Precise Point Positioning(PPP) service provided by the Geodetic Service of NaturalResources Canada. Pseudorange and carrier phase mea-surements are processed using precise satellite ephemerisand clock data (Ghoddousi-Fard and Dare2006). Estimatedhorizontal positioning accuracies of each borehole areapproximately 20 cm, including the error resulting fromthe offset measurement.
Test results: Banff, Alberta
An avalanche run-out on the western aspect of a mountainsouth of Mosquito Creek in the Banff National Park wasselected for the first test. The debris field was approximately100 m across and 200 m long. The slope angle was 22
.Alocationinthemiddleofthefieldwas selected where the debris depth was approximately1.7 m. Much of the surface was composed of blocks of packed snow and ice 30 to 40 cm in size. The debris surfacewas covered with 1 to 3 cm of wet snow. Beneath the ava-lanche debris, the mountainside was covered with looserock.Themountainpeaktotheeasthasanelevationangleof 35
. Spruce trees growing south of the run-out partiallymask GPS signals below 5
. A light drizzle fell during thethree-hour test. Snow samples taken at depths of 0.5 and1.3 m had densities of 0.47 and 0.50 g/cm
respectively.The test hole had two GNAT3
placed at depths of 1.45and 1.05 m and was completely backfilled with snow. Twoadditional receivers were placed on the surface but failed totrack. Figure2shows the receiver placement.
Satellite availability: Banff 
The number of GPS satellites tracked and used by thereceivers to compute a position solution while buried issummarized in Table1, with the mean and standard devi-ations given for each receiver. The sample for the receiverat 1.45 m is shorter, since its dataflash was filled before thetest end. Broadcast data confirmed the receiver’s perfor-mance during the test’s second half. Both receivers initiallytracked ten satellites in the first few minutes of the test.They both subsequently lost seven satellites for severalminutes. This loss of lock, timed minutes after burial couldhave repercussions for rescue use. Following reacquisition,the receiver at a depth of 1.05 m starts to drop satellitesslowly over a 30 min period, so that mid-way through thetest, it is no longer tracking satellites. It only momentarilyreacquired one satellite during the test’s second half. Thereceiver at 1.45 m did not experience this gradual loss of satellites and continued to track between five and ten sat-ellites through the entire test. The shallow receiver appearedto have ephemeris for the satellites lost and reported ade-quate power supply voltages and disk space. Problems werealso experienced with the two surface receivers during thistest. A factory reset of the GPS receivers on our return toCalgary corrected the tracking problem. It is believed thatan incorrect receiver setting caused the tracking problemswith the two surface receivers and the one shallow receiver.Polar plots of the satellites tracked by the receivers areshown in Fig.3. Satellites in the northeast are blocked bythe mountain while tracks are intermittent for low elevationsatellites with both receivers. Difficulties tracking the highelevation angle PRN21 were also experienced by theshallow receiver.
Signal attenuation: Banff 
The number of observations falling within a 1 m by 1 dB-Hz bin is plotted in Fig.4, showing the relationship be-
Fig. 2
GPS receiver placement at Banff 
Table 1
GPS satellite tracking: Banff Depth (m) Sample size # SV tracked #SV usedMean SD Mean SD1.05 11,713 3.4 4.3 3.2 4.31.45 5,523 9.4 1.0 8.6 1.5GPS Solut (2008) 12:1321 15

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