Unmanned helo might save stranded Everest climbers

 - April 30, 2007, 10:57 AM

Everest Rescue Trust, a New Zealand-based charity organization, is planning to operate an unmanned helicopter to rescue stranded climbers on Mount Everest, starting next year. The piston-engine Alpine Wasp will be able to carry two climbers at a time. Flight tests were scheduled to start at the end of last month and continue through November at New Zealand’s 12,300-foot Mount Cook.

Auckland, New Zealand-based TGR Helicorp is developing the Alpine Wasp. It is unclear whether the company has any helicopters in service. Its Web site claims that several helicopters–including a light civil model and an unmanned combat rotorcraft– are in development. However, Trevor Rogers, TGR president and one of the founding members of Everest Rescue Trust, declined to provide any updates on these programs.

Under the trust’s plans, each climber rents a compulsory emergency transmitter. If a climber needs assistance, he activates the transmitter, which sends its position to the base station. “We can produce a mission program immediately for the helicopter to go and rescue the climber,” Rogers said. The base station will be located in Namche Bazar, Nepal, at 12,500 feet. The village overlooks the valley up to Mount Everest.

The base operator programs the mission into the Alpine Wasp’s main computer and the helicopter flies directly to the rescue scene. A 27-foot horizontal probe that deploys from under the helicopter’s fuselage allows the base operator to talk to and observe a climber stranded on a cliff face or steep area, Rogers explained. Equipped with a camera and a speaker close to its end, the probe is extended once the helicopter is in a hover near the climber, allowing the base operator to communicate with the climber.

The rescue pod then opens down from the front of the helicopter and a recovery cable unwinds from a winch. At the end of the cable is a Kevlar strap, about three feet in diameter and rated for 20 tons. The operator asks the climber to secure the strap around the underarm area.

Then the helicopter backs off and the climber is pulled into space. The climber is swung under the helicopter and drawn in to the rescue pod. Once the pod is closed, it is fed with oxygen. The climber can also use an oxygen mask. Then the helicopter returns autonomously to its base.

The helicopter is equipped with special systems that measure distances from rock, Rogers said.

He said the Alpine Wasp can operate in bad weather because it “is stable and onboard computers react many times faster than a human could.” However, it cannot operate in challenging wind conditions.

The Alpine Wasp has a payload of 500 pounds, “more than adequate” for two slim, athletic climbers. The rotorcraft is powered by a two-stroke diesel engine, manufactured by U.S.-based DeltaHawk Engines. TGR will add a supercharger to an existing engine model.

The Alpine Wasp features special rotor blades that are said to yield extra lift. In addition, “their tip speed remains subsonic at high altitudes,” Rogers added. Another technical feature is the large vertical and horizontal stabilizers, needed to gain as much control authority as possible because of the thinner air, Rogers explained.

Funding Rescue Missions

TGR is building and donating the helicopter. It is also building the base station. “Rescues are not free,” Rogers told AIN, and the trust is talking to insurance companies and the Nepalese government about making insurance mandatory for climbers.

Rogers said the Nepalese will have complete control of local operations. “TGR undertakes the annual audits of the Nepal operation, trains the staff and licenses them at its own cost,” he told AIN. Talks are under way with Chinese authorities to enable rescue flights on the Chinese Tibet side.

Eurocopter holds several world records for its May 2005 landing and takeoff at the 29,305-foot summit of Mount Everest. So is manned rescue really impossible? “No, but there are dangerous limits to what a human can handle, when taken at high altitudes without acclimating. Moreover, the extra weight [of the pilot] is a disadvantage. And the computers on the Alpine Wasp react far more quickly than a pilot could hope to,” Rogers said.

The source AIN spoke with noted that current mountain rescue, at lower altitudes and employing highly skilled people, has relatively poor safety statistics.