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High tech to the rescue

Once again, high-tech types are joining the life-and-death search for snow-trapped travelers: Less than a week after the drama of the lost Kim family played out in southern Oregon, heat-seeking planes and phone-seeking gizmos are being employed to look for three mountain climbers missing on Mount Hood in the northern part of the state.

The last time anyone heard from the lost men was on Sunday, when veteran mountaineer Kelly James placed a cell phone call to his family and told them he was worried about the worsening weather conditions. Now James is thought to have sought shelter in a snow cave at about the 10,000-foot level of the 11,235-foot peak, while companion climbers Brian Hall and Jerry Cooke may have attempted a descent.

In cooperation with the authorities, T-Mobile has been "pinging" James' phone, and Hood River County Sheriff Joseph Wampler said that as of Tuesday, a confirming ping was still coming back. "The technology is still talking to the phone," Wampler told reporters.

Wampler said that technique can narrow James' location down to a level of a quarter-mile or so. Now North Carolina-based Iomax Management Group has brought in a phone-locating kit that can get much closer.

"Under ideal conditions, which we hope to be in up there, we're talking 10 or 20 meters," Iomax's president, Ron Howard, told me Wednesday. "If you look at what cell phone companies do for a living ... they have no reason to refine the technology to this degree."

Iomax's reason for refining the technology has to do with its government contracts. In fact, the same technology can locate the cell phones that bad guys use to detonate roadside bombs in Iraq, NBC's George Lewis reported from Oregon.

Howard didn't discuss that aspect of Iomax's work in detail, but he did say the Iomax kit should work even in Oregon's inclement weather, at distances of well over a mile - as long as the cell phone issuing the signal is on a line of sight from the detector. "If it's on, we should be able to find it," Howard said.

Time is of the essence, however: James doesn't have to be talking on the phone, but once the batteries run down, Iomax won't have anything to ping. That's why Iomax's team flew out from Florida and North Carolina just hours after Oregon authorities accepted their offer of assistance Tuesday night. They started their search efforts late Wednesday.

Colorado-based Aracar is also getting its search operation off the ground ... literally. Aracar specializes in search-and-rescue robots - the nonprofit organization's name is actually an acronym for the Alliance for Robot Assisted Crisis Assessment and Response. One of Aracar's founders, John Blitch, told me via cell phone that he and his team are getting their camera-equipped, remote-controlled robo-planes ready to look for the climbers' trail.

"We're getting ready to head up to the mountain," he said at midday Wednesday.

Aracar's unmanned aerial vehicles range in size from your typical radio-controlled airplanes to drones with a wingspan exceeding 3 feet. But even the RC-scale planes are packed with technology - including an autonomous guidance system that can take over if the plane loses contact with the remote operator.

The planes can be equipped to send back still imagery or real-time video, or even thermal imagery from a microbolometer. Such thermal images could identify the "plume" of heat rising from a warm body set against the colder background temperatures of snow and ice, Blitch said.

Blitch said he is a retired Special Forces colonel who has been involved in research and development as well as "intelligence collection for battlefield missions."

"Some of the systems that we have, have been used quite extensively in Iraq and Afghanistan," he said. "What I'm trying to do now is take that same technology and bring it into disaster response applications."

He was one of the founders of the Center for Robot Assisted Search and Rescue, which played a part in post-9/11 recovery, and he's also put search-and-rescue robots through their paces in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

High-tech is coming to the rescue amid the ruins, on the battlefield - heck, even on snowy roads. If Blitch and Howard have their way, similar high-tech tools - and the people who wield them - will help get those three stranded men off the mountain in Oregon.

"We almost had no choice but to send our team out there," Howard said.

Update for 12:35 p.m. ET Dec. 14: Oregon authorities say Aracar's team wasn't able to send out their unmanned planes on Wednesday, and the Iomax team is working away but has not detected a ping yet. Overnight, Iomax's Ron Howard sent out this follow-up statement:

"Our core customers are the U.S. and allied governments worldwide.  Our solutions have helped to resolve hundreds of cases overseas, including high-profile terrorists.  We rarely have the opportunity to put our equipment to work at home.

"We're happy that we have this opportunity to use our technology to help.  We hope and pray that we can work with the rest of the team here to quickly find these guys.

"If the climbers' cell phones are on, our equipment will more than likely find them.

"The equipment we're using here today is portable.  It can be hand-carried where it is needed. We also offer a new service for installation inside networks. If T-Mobile was using our Emergency Services Locator solution, the network could have located the hikers without us.

"This system is perfectly suited for backcountry cell phone networks or other high-risk areas where cellular networks are employed.  Networks serving areas like Mount Hood should consider installation of the Emergency Services Locator system of this kind.  If you become lost, and are carrying a cell phone from certain cellular providers, the Emergency Services Locator system will be able to locate you location within seconds.  To find out if your network technology is suited for our system, please contact us.  Our Web site is http://www.Iomax.net."

Update for 1:10 p.m. ET Dec. 14: Iomax's Ron Howard just sent this status report:

"The equipment is up and running at maximum power and has been since late last night. As of 10:00 a.m. PST, there is no response from our target phone, which is Miller's GSM Samsung flip phone. This could mean several things, good and bad. On the bright side, it means he is saving his battery strength for a more opportune time like a break in the weather.

"According to the intelligence we have been provided on site, our equipment is probing the proper side of the mountain where the climber was last located, which I think is the north side. Our equipment is emitting a continuous signal towards the last known location of his cell phone asking it to acknowledge receipt of that signal. We hope he has intentionally placed his phone in the off position.

"Worst case, and hopefully not the case here, his battery is dead and the phone will never be heard from again. Our guys will remain in place until they can get further up the mountain overland or in the air if the weather subsides. Currently it seems to us, Saturday is the day of reckoning for everyone involved. Our guys are currently co-located with the Aracar folks on the north face of the mountain.

"Interestingly, we have pretty well assessed the GSM (T-Mobile) network's ability to reliably talk to the phones which are located at altitude on Mount Hood. What we are discovering is, that around the 6,000 to 7,000-foot level, coverage is available, however predictably intermittent and unreliable. The signal strength where our guys are is bordering -100db.

"That is very, very weak and on the verge of becoming too weak for any two-way cellular communication to take place at all. Some calls still go through, some go through and are dropped, and most of the time they just don't get connected. Not knowing what the signal strength of the T-Mobile network is at higher altitudes, one can reasonably predict it will be significantly weaker than points further down the mountain, simply due to distance. This reinforces the fact that the network might only see the phone sporadically from here on out, or not at all. If the cell tower signal strength is as weak as it is, the signal from the handset to the tower will be several times weaker at this distance, very difficult for T-Mobile to receive and process."