Spook’s gadget could revolutionize mountain rescue

A system developed by a French company could revolutionize the search for people lost in mountains, even those buried under an avalanche. The device, a portable IMSI (International Mobile Subscriber Identity) catcher, developed by French company Diginext, is currently in use by the military.

An IMSI catcher acts as a base station. Mobile phones within its range will attach to the catcher. For intelligence use it can force connected mobile phones to not use call encryption. By relaying the signal to a real base station it allows call data to be intercepted in a classic a man in the middle attack.

The Diginext device, called the Pic 2G consists of a box about the size of a portable computer and a directional antenna which enables a mobile phone to be localized. The device is being tested in conjunction with the PGHM (Mountain Rescue Services) in the Alps. The first thing they wanted to confirm was that the Pic 2G doesn’t interfere with other equipment such as avalanche beacons and Reccos.

Assuming the mobile phone is switched on the Pic 2G can detect the signal within a 2km range. It would be ideal for helicopter based searches. As well as giving the location (direction and distance) of the phone, the operator can call the user. The system can be used where there is no mobile phone coverage which is frequently the case in the mountains. The Pic 2G can differentiate between the various mobile phones within range. However the device currently requires a skilled operator. It will have to be simplified for S&R use.

Given the widespread use of mobile phones the device could be a real advance in search and rescue, especially for people who are caught out by bad weather who can be given advice on how to seek shelter or give basic treatment for injuries. It will change the information frequently given by guides to turn mobile phones off in the backcountry.

Posted by davidof on Saturday, 27 February, 2010 at 11:27 PM

Does sound like a great idea for search & rescue. Hope it does well in testing.

Not sure if it raises the odds for avalanche burial victims very much. But it could help a lot with avalanche body recovery—which strikes me as a definite benefit for the search & rescue team.


Posted by  on  Thursday, 04 March, 2010  at 12:32 AM

I’m going to get some more details from Diginext. I think the point about body recovery is important. There have been a number of long and difficult searches this winter (Corsica, Pyrenees last week etc) and if these can be shortened so rescue workers can keep localize victims then that is a good thing. There was a case of a missing paraglider in the summer, it took 6 months to find his body and maybe some tragedies can be avoided if rescue workers can speak directly to people and give them advice - like “don’t move, dig a snow cave/seek shelter, we’re coming”.

Recco fills a similar but complementary role and can detect things like mobile phones even when they are not switched on.

Posted by  on  Thursday, 04 March, 2010  at 09:26 AM


I’ve been a member of pistehors for a few years. I’m also a bbc radio producer working on a tech magazine for Radio 4. I was really interested in your news post about diginext and the airborne mobile phone base-station being used for avalanche searches. Could you message me so we can discuss it.



Posted by  on  Wednesday, 24 March, 2010  at 12:09 PM


I have spoken to Diginext to get some more details about the Pic 2G.

First of all they couldn’t comment on any other use of this device apart from search and rescue!

It has been on test with the PGHM at Jausiers since January. With the increasing use of sophisticated electronics at search areas they wanted to ensure that it would not interfere with any other equipment: radios, helicopter systems, avalanche beacons and Recco sets.

The device has a 2km range for an operator on the ground talking to a someone on the surface.

It cannot be used in a helicopter due to interference with the avionics etc.

According to Diginext mobile phone signals can travel through snow fairly well and are very directional. In their tests they have been able to pick up a beacon under 2 metes of snow at 500 meters. That is a much greater range than a ground searcher with an avalanche beacon but helicopters are equipped with avalanche beacons and Recco which have a much greater range than handheld devices. An operator would get both a direction and distance readout.

The device will not be cheap, probably in the 30-50K euro range and needs to be simplified for S&R use. However set that against several million euros for a search helicopter and it is not such a big outlay. If you think of some of the difficult search and rescues of the last couple of years that cost can be soon amortized. Diginext would see all the Mountain Rescue squads in France being equipped with the devices, possibly from 2011.

To give an example last year the Chamonix Mountain Rescue were in contact with a stranded climber suffering from altitude sickness, he could give no clear indication of his location. After 45 minutes of conversation they lost contact and despite a huge search operation were unable to find him. His body was recovered recently.

Hope that helps

Posted by davidof on  Wednesday, 31 March, 2010  at 03:06 PM
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