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Tracking System Is a Lifesaver in World's Toughest Race

Mushers and their dogs in this year's Iditarod race were tracked via satellite-based transponders and sensors, and the near-real-time data helped rescue racers who got into trouble.
By Beth Bacheldor
Apr 09, 2009A satellite-based RFID system that included speed and temperature sensors not only gave fans a near-real-time view of last month's Iditarod Sled Dog Trail Race in Alaska, but also helped save lives. Using the system, race organizers were able to rescue stranded mushers and their packs. The trail stretched more than 1,150 miles from Willow to Nome, through mountain ranges, forests and desolate tundra, as well as across frozen rivers, all in temperatures far below zero.

The tracking system consisted of RFID transponders built by IonEarth a Traverse City, Mich., company specializing in satellite race-tracking solutions. Each transponder contained a GPS receivers, an Iridium short-burst data (SBD) modem that transmits a signal encoded with a unique ID number, an accelerometer to track speed and a temperature sensor. The waterproof transponders measured 6 inches long by 3 inches wide by 3 inches thick, weighed less that 2 pounds and were powered by high-capacity batteries designed to tolerate severe cold, according to Jerry Miller, one of IonEarth's owners. The devices, affixed to the front of the sleds using stainless steel brackets, were able to pinpoint a sled's position to within 20 feet.

Attached to each dogsled was an IonEarth RFID transponder containing a GPS receiver, an Iridium short-burst data (SBD) modem, an accelerometer to track speed and a temperature sensor.

The devices were programmed to transmit their position, speed, heading and temperature every 15 minutes via Iridium's satellite network, to a central server managed by Iridium. Iridium's network, according to Pat Shay, VP of the company's data division, consists of 66 low-earth-orbit (LEO) satellites that cover the globe and provide voice and real-time data communications.

The data from the Iridium server was relayed via the Internet to IonEarth's servers. An IonEarth application culled the information and made it available via a map that fans could view via Iditarod's Web site, to track the mushers' positions. In addition, race organizers, volunteers, media representatives, veterinarians, medical personnel and rescue workers on hand for emergencies all had IonEarth satellite communication terminals connected to handheld computers, so they could monitor the mushers from remote locations without requiring an Internet connection.

Because race organizers were able to keep a close eye on each musher's progress, they were able to determine if a particular racer's pace seemed slower than normal. Not only were they able to determine a musher's pace—or if the individual was not moving at all—they could also monitor the temperatures endured by that particular racer. That type of data was then used to determine whether a musher might be in trouble.

The system's tracking capabilities may be what saved Lou Packer, an Alaskan from Wasilla, and a rookie Iditarod racer. While running the race, Packer lost and then found the trail, but had to slow down considerably due to battering winds and temperatures dropping to -50 degrees Fahrenheit (-46 degrees Celsius), according to a story published in the Anchorage Daily News. Two of Packer's dogs perished on the trail.

During his ordeal, the newspaper reported, Packer was forced to lead his dog team through wind and blowing snow, in order to look for markers on the trail, which had become buried under snow and were no longer visible. At that time, the system tracked his speed at less than half a mile per hour, and also reported extreme temperatures. According to race officials, because the system was able to pinpoint Packer's location, rescuers in a helicopter and on snowmobiles were sent after him, and he and his dogs were airlifted from a spot 22 miles north of Iditarod—an abandoned town now considered the halfway point on the race's southern route.

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