Drones in the Backcountry

Drones in the Backcountry

While UAVs or drones have become ubiquitous in recent years, one area where they are not yet widely used is as backcountry sports gear.  Several posts on backcountry forums indicate that people are interested in using UAVs to scout approaches for climbs, investigate ahead down a white-water rapid, and scout out ski descent routes, and of course to film their exploits.  However, many purist climbers and other sports enthusiasts are resistant to the idea.  When we did a survey of climbers to see if there was interest in drones to scout approaches, we got flamed badly.  One awesome post suggested “why don’t you just have the drone do the hike for you”.  While many drones are sold specifically for action sports and terrain park filming, the relatively niche backcountry sports market has not yet seen major players in the UAV industry move in.

Several companies, including Ascent Aerosystems based out of Arizona, USA with their Sprite UAV, have started entering this market with some success.  Clearly with backcountry recreationalists being very enthusiastic about their gear, and willing to spend in order to get the best, there is a great potential market for the “MEC/REI Drone”.  This UAV must provide at minimum, reasonable filming features when compared to the state of the art in consumer filming (DJI Phantom 4), along with follow-me and hands-free modes to allow automated self-filming (for those who choose to venture out without companions, or just to make things easier on your friendships).  Removable or detachable spare battery packs are critical for any serious backcountry application.  Most importantly, the UAV must pack all these features into a small, portable and rugged airframe or case.

Riderless was originally founded with this market in mind.  I started developing the Sentry because nothing like it existed, and because I wanted a UAV to scout and investigate my ski descents, white-water runs and climbing routes before undertaking them.  However, unlike the founders of Sprite and other similar UAVs, I was never that interested in filming beyond some very simple stuff.  I was much more interested in safety applications.  Three separate occasions were the genesis of the development of the Sentry:

1. In 2013, I was skiing in the Jackson Hole backcountry (or slack-country if you prefer) and came upon a cliff.  I couldn’t see any way down.  After walking as close to the edge as I felt safe, and trying to peer over, I couldn’t see much.  But it hit me that with a live video drone, I could scout a safe path down, if there was one obscured by the steep cliff edge.  I could also check if there were any overhanging cornices.  I ended up taking the safe route, and hiked for an hour around the cliff, but the idea was firmly planted in my head.

2. A near-disaster while white-water paddling in Alaska, I started out on a 10-day solo river trip down the Susitna River in a pack-raft (a rugged inflatable kayak-type raft) and was surprised to learn that many of the areas which were touted as relatively safe by the blogger whose journey I had read about, in fact held huge standing wave trains, dwarfing my tiny raft.  It was a record-breaking rainy June in 2014 in central Alaska and the river was monstrous, something I could have predicted.

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Not all sections were monstrous.

I actually started out in a cheap inflatable toy boat.  Thankfully, the Intex inflatable boat transcended the level of crappy that would have been dangerous.  It was so magnificently crappy that it failed by means of two separate and complete punctures within 30 minutes of starting my journey, meaning that my walk back to the car was a breezy afternoon jaunt.  Realizing how foolish this was, I went and rented an Alpacka raft, a much more durable (and expensive) design made for extended backcountry trips.

On the second day of my trip I suffered a flip-over, after hitting a hole behind a large rock.  A few bits of gear that weren’t tied down properly spilled out, and I dropped the paddle.  After surfacing and frantically finding the boat in the waves, I quickly prioritized the necessities as they floated about in the wild river next to me.  I saw my good bear-cache-slinging rope, my Jetboil cup with some valuable food in it, and the can of bug spray.  I dived for the bug spray.  Without the rope I would later risk leaving food where bears could take it, but then you can live for weeks without food, and I figured I was more likely to kill myself first if I didn’t have my Deet in central Alaska in the summer (Anyone who’s been there knows).

The paddle was gone.  Over the next few days I lashed together a series of wooden paddles, some of which were better than others:

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The first picture you see was an awful paddle.  Too short, and the paddle heads were almost round making it impossible to produce much force.  Lots of water got up my arms.  The last picture was a very effective single-ended paddle with a cup-like piece of driftwood.

On day 3, it started raining, and did not let up for the next three days.  I was wet, cold and my solar charger didn’t work, leaving me without GPS (my GPS had previously suffered water damage and I couldn’t turn it off to conserve battery).  The river was terrifyingly huge but the alternative was to wait somewhere and get cold.  A helicopter did pass overhead every one or two days.  Or, to try and hike along the banks in the thick Alaskan underbrush – my food supply that was 10 days worth would not have survived the 20+ day long trek to either safe end of the river.  I chose the river.  I was flipped again at one point, and for the second time lost my best wooden-made paddle.

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Solitude in a calmer moment.  I called this place Friendly Beach

When I got to Devil’s Island I had planned to hike for three days around the upcoming Class V canyon, as the trekker whose blog I read had done.  But I was completely exhausted from almost five full days of avoiding surprisingly massive river hazards with a weak wooden paddle, and I was cold and wet from the never-ending rain.  I didn’t have GPS anymore to tell me exactly where I was in relation to Devil’s Canyon – so either I was risking getting funneled into a certain death by delaying landing too late or starting a too-early hike which would have further drained my already-diminished food supplies.  Instead I saw some helicopter landing marks on the island and some scientific radio equipment.  I decided it was time to call it quits and set up camp on the beach, about twenty meters back from the river.  I slept for 26 hours straight, and when I woke up half my tent was floating in the river which had swelled from the relentless rain.

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This hike over Watana Canyon down to rejoin the river was the best part of the trip

I heard the sound of a chopper and went out to flag them down.  They landed and were a bit surprised to see me there but in true Alaskan fashion helped out a fellow traveler.  I’ll always remember Keetan, the surprised pilot, Karl the medic (who wrote nothing more than “fatigue” on my patient care report) and the effervescent pilot Charles who flew me back to Talkeetna.  While we were in the air the weather finally broke and I saw a clear view of Denali (Mount McKinley) from the air.

I thought about that trip since then and it hit me that had I had a working model of the Sentry back then, it would have helped me a lot.  More experienced whitewater paddlers than I might argue that reading a river is a skill done best from the river itself, and you can always hike the banks to see what’s around the next bend (as I did often) but when you’re in a survival situation or on an extended backcountry trip, your energy is limited and an hour-long or longer scouting hike through rough terrain and bush can seem like a nightmare.  And sometimes you can’t see every hidden river hazard from the river’s surface anyway.

3 – Although the first two events were the more powerful influencers, the idea to actually build a backcountry UAV didn’t gel until I was standing in the jungle-like woods near Darwin, Australia and just thought about how cool it would be to have a UAV to see what was up ahead of me.  Nothing existed which was portable and rugged like backcountry gear (can you imagine carrying a DJI Phantom in a Pelican case around in the woods?).  I stopped what I was doing and started working on designs for the Sentry in the Darwin backpackers’ hostel.  The other people at the hostel thought I was weird because of all the time I spent on the computer instead of socializing.  I was supposed to be selling my motorbike and meeting up with my girlfriend in Malaysia, but that took a back seat to the design work.

Despite the recreational origins of the Sentry, my colleagues and I found after a time that the most interested people were not the backcountry recreationalists but the backcountry professionals – Search and Rescue teams.  It’s harder to convince a weekend warrior that they need to buy a $2000+ drone (and we did not want to compromise on our commitment to high-quality components nor our unyielding focus on safety rather than filming) than it is to convince someone whose job it is to search for missing persons in the backcountry, and who can save far more time and resources by using a UAV than they spend on purchasing it.

That said, we do think there is a place for a Riderless-made drone in the backcountry consumer/prosumer market, something unique which offers a change from what is out there, perhaps much smaller, perhaps a completely different concept on getting eyes on what’s ahead of you.  The day will come where everyone can be a falconer without dealing with any bird shit.  But for now our complete focus is on making the best product for Search and Rescue and other safety professionals.