A few hours from Hokkaido’s capital city Sapporo, tucked away in a snowy mountain range is the tiny resort town of Kiroro. The snow makes it a prime spot for Japan’s skiing, snowboarding and trekking communities. It’s a beautiful location with huge drifts of snow lining the mountain roads and some first-class winter sports facilities on hand for locals and visitors alike.
To be sure, avalanches can happen in any ski area, however, another danger not so well documented is becoming lost in backcountry areas. Trekkers and skiers can easily become disorientated in the whiteout and blizzard conditions that often blight mountain ranges during the winter months.
As a keen snowboarder himself, HAKUHODO i-studio Inc’s Junpei Kawasaki, recognized the need for a kind of tracking device which can pinpoint people’s locations accurately in backroad mountain areas. Avalanche beacons, radio transceivers used to find people buried under snow, are popular in ski resorts all over the world but they have a considerable drawback – the beacon can only usually be detected if the search party is able to get within 30m to 50m of it. Without a wide area to search, unless they are lucky, sometimes rescue teams come too late. Kawasaki, then, developed a small device known as TREK TRACK which is faster and operates over a much wider area (up to 10km). TREK TRACK has a simple help button which trekkers push and the beacon reaches the Mountain Center as well as family members and rescue teams who are then able to pinpoint the location on a 3D map designed by Kawasaki, using a LPWA (Low Power Wide Area) Network. Essentially, antennas with wireless communication technology have set up in the mountain, creating a new rescue network. The location map is visualized in 3D using HAKUHODO i-Studio’s TREK TRACK technology, making it possible to view from a computer or smartphone. The Mountain Center has a display unit as well, made in collaboration with NTT, so those waiting know exactly where you are.
The TREK TRACK technology has been tested in resorts such as Niseko in Hokkaido and Kagura in Niigata with positive results. Organizers are planning to include TREK TRACK as part of a rental equipment package. Kawasaki and the HAKUHODO i-studio team have recently expanded the service to include the Lifeline LunchBox which is essentially a life saving bento box where trekkers put lunch, chocolate and the TREK TRACK device. This Life Line Lunch Box, available for rental from the Mountain Center uses a radio transmitter to communicate with the network of antennas. Data is consolidated on SORACOM’s original platform which specializes in IoT devices. Life Line Lunch Box contains a dedicated LPWA wireless module. By taking it up a mountain, the location will be regularly transmitted to the Mountain Center. Containing a handmade meal from the resort, as well as these invaluable safety tools the Life Line Lunch Box is essential equipment during skiing, snowboarding and mountain treks.
The Life Line Lunch Box is packed in a natty cotton bag which can be strapped around the body and is easy to access. Takashi Mori, General Manager of Kiroro’s ski area says, “For the patrol staff and instructors here, TREK TRACK and Life Line Lunch Box has worked well so far. We’d like it to be included in the equipment rental service for sure. Of course we tell new trekkers to avoid backcountry areas which can be dangerous, however for more experienced users, and those who become distanced from their group, these devices can be crucial in maintaining safety.”
Life Line Lunch Box, then, in addition to being a cute piece of mountain gear is an essential safety apparatus for those interested in winter sports. The product will be available in Hokkaido and Hakuba next winter so tourists coming to Japan for the snow season are encouraged to give it a try. The lunch and chocolates may sound superfluous but when lost in freezing backcountry roads these provisions can be a real lifesaver. The box even has a handy gochisousama (thanks for the meal) button to let people know when you’ve finished eating. It’s an inspiring device which, according to Kawasaki, could be rolled out into other resorts around Japan, Europe and America in coming months and years.