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January 2010

High-Tech Grooming

GPS-guided grooming can help resorts use resources more efficiently.

Written by Claire Walter | 0 comment

Love it or loathe it, technology is an increasingly important weapon in the battle to groom snow as economically as possible. To that end, on-board GPS units can collect data that enable mountain operations managers to analyze grooming activities and maximize the utilization of machines, as well as to help train operators to become more efficient.

The idea is simple enough: GPS units track the machines’ movement on the slopes, with data downloaded for later analysis. Snowcat suppliers can incorporate systems into new vehicles and also retrofit older ones.

Prinoth markets a data collection system developed by ISAAC Instruments of Chambly, Que., as The Prinoth Solution. This system has been used in the trucking industry and has been adapted for ski area operation. PistenBully, for its part, now owns SnowSat, an integrated system developed in France specifically for ski resorts. (For a report, see “Superman Snowcats,” SAM, January 2008). Both systems combine GPS tracking of machines’ movements with engine data—such as hours per gallon of fuel, acres groomed per hour, idling time and even how tillers and other grooming implements are used—to chart usage and forge documentable increases in efficiency.

Prinoth operations specialist Marvin Collins, former VP of operations for Sunday River, says that GPS technology can help reduce direct fuel costs and save wear and tear on the machines, which ultimately affects trade-in or resale price. Collins cited a New England resort that was reducing shifts to cut costs when fuel was $5 a gallon. When they analyzed engine data, they uncovered excessive idling time. And reducing idling time from, say, 23 percent to 10 percent can translate into a gain of 1,400 hours of grooming time over the course of a winter—and shrink fuel costs.

With better data, he says, areas can utilize machines more efficiently. For example, it’s common knowledge that older machines are best used to push snow and newer ones to groom, but data analysis from actual operations proves how much efficiency is gained. Efficiency also impacts emissions, and therefore helps ski areas “work toward green goals.”

With the acquisition of SnowSat and its wide-ranging capabilities, PistenBully is easing into the North American market and will roll out the product for the 2010-11 season. “The driver of all decisions in North America is economics,” says marketing manager John Glockhamer. PistenBully plans to introduce a four-level option choice. Level 1, the basic program, would capture working time, idle time, vehicle speed, acres covered and grooming data, to be downloaded and analyzed later in the operations center.

Level 2 would display the information on a screen in the cockpit, where the operator could see it in real time. Level 3 would add real-time communication between vehicles, which would require relay antennas on the mountain. “A grooming manager who also runs his own cat might need to communicate with other drivers,” Glockhamer explains. Level 4, the full-on system used initially at Alpe d’Huez, France, and now also elsewhere in the Alps, has real-time data transmission to the operations base not only of grooming operations, but also of snow depth, which requires mapping the trails during the summer or after just a little snow has fallen.

Who’s Using What
Mount Snow, with a mixed fleet of PistenBully and Prinoth cats, is in its second season with GPS capability, complete with relay stations on the mountain. When a cat is within a quarter-mile from a hub receiver, the data is relayed to mountain manager Elia Hamilton’s computer, which overlays the data onto a Google Earth image of the mountain. “I can see where they’ve been and how long the machines have been idling or shut down. It flags stop time.

“The primary reason we use it to make the operator more efficient. We can see that one operator grooms the Canyon trail with 10 passes in two hours, and another takes 16 passes and three hours.” Hamilton can see which operators are more efficient at linking trails, adding, “We work together to make everyone more productive. GPS tracking helps us save in redundancy and idle time and become more efficient.”

Deer Valley, with its rep for immaculate grooming, has mounted SnowScan on the front of Bombardier cats to measure snow depth, and a laptop in the cabin so the operator can see the reading in real time. Chuck English, director of mountain operations, says that they can put the system on the back of a snowmobile during the day and overlay it on a satellite map “to make a good game plan to make snow or move snow that night.” He says it’s especially useful for grooming steep faces. “We can see where snow has been pushed,” he explains, “and the operator has a real-time look as he is plowing.”

Some efficiencies are simple but eye-opening. Collins says that by tracking one snowcat, a New England ski area found a terrain-park groomer who was putting a lot of extra mileage on his machine because he kept going back and forth to the garage to pick up parts. With that information, the area moved the parts closer to the park. “The operator has been making five or ten trips of 2,000 yards every night, and that meant a lot of fuel,” he says. Another example: By analyzing engine and grooming data, a Midwestern area found that some operators were accelerating as much going downhill as up, and trained them to use a lighter foot on their downhill passes This led to a significant saving in fuel and wear and tear.

Even before the SnowSat introduction, PistenBully has encouraged the addition of GPS and other high-tech devices onto its equipment. Whistler/Blackcomb has done just that with its 25 frontline PistenBullys. “We put 45- to 50,000 hours on the fleet, so a one or two percent savings in fuel can make a difference,” says fleet maintenance manager Dave Hennessey. “We look at GPS as a way to validate what we know and fine-tune grooming. We can look at what our best and most productive operators do, and pass that on to newer operators.

“We have all different models with different horsepower,” Hennessey adds. “There are big, 500-horsepower winchcats and pushcats, and regular grooming cats with 375 to 400 horsepower. We dove into GPS last year by adapting the truck fleet system. There’s a computer in the snowcat cabin that becomes a tool for the operator. It’s not just Big Brother reporting on him.”

Whistler/Blackcomb installed GPS units on six groomers last season. “We spent a good part of the season sorting out security issues,” Hennessey admits. “We use a wireless network, and our IT people were concerned about security.” The goal this year, he adds, is analyzing data—presumably when they’re not busy with the Olympics. “We use the data as a training tool. Also, we’re trying to compare machine to machine, model to model, and tweak our mix of models. We are looking at dollars per acre, because cost per hour doesn’t really give the right information. Different operations like pushing, grooming, winching and park grooming have different operating costs.”

Some areas have developed other technologies. Okemo has adapted a simple laser-guided system for superpipe maintenance. “We started tinkering with lasers for the pipe,” says Barry Tucker, VP of mountain operations. “In consort with New England Laser and Transit Co., we mounted fixed horizontal points on a steel bar downhill of the halfpipe that shoots a beam to a receiver on top of a Zaugg pipecutter, 20 feet from where the operator sits. It sends a radio message that displays right in front of him. He watches the display and orients the machine to the center of the display, so the pipe is straight.”

For Tom Boxler, grooming manager at Squaw Valley, the jury is still out on high tech. “We haven’t found the need yet,” he says. “Some people say it costs, and others say, sure it costs but it saves money.” The resort’s 21-PistenBully fleet is still GPS-free, but he can envision it as a navigation aid, especially during heavy Sierra storms. Resorts are really just beginning to explore how GPS can make operations more efficient.