dolaGon could provide easy access to skiing, powder without any chairlifts
The sun was high in the sky on a bright, bluebird day on Buffalo Pass as dolaGon engineer and Steamboat Springs native Logan Banning prepared to head into the backcountry on a Polaris Ranger.
However, this is not just another quest for powder in Colorado’s High Country.
“What this thing can do is basically lay a breadcrumb trail for itself, and then be able to follow that trail exactly back to where it came from,” said Banning, a mechanical engineer who has been testing and demonstrating the dolaGon in the Steamboat Springs area this winter.
“If someone that comes into the backcountry who is familiar with the area, and say they’ve got a specific spot in the Aspen trees where they love to ski, they can manually or autonomously drive this vehicle up to the top safely and then send it back on its way,” Banning said. “It can follow that exact route safely and return itself back to the bottom.”
The dolaGon, an autonomous vehicle built on a Polaris Ranger utility task vehicle with tracks to give it better flotation in the snow, is the brainchild of New York-based orthopedic spine surgeon Dr. Seth Neubardt, who also has a passion for creating things.
Neubardt has 21 patents in his name and has launched medical startups in the past.
Four years ago, Neubardt began a new quest to create an autonomous ski lift vehicle that could pick skiers up at any “base” area and drive them up to higher locations, allowing them access to groomed trails or backcountry skiing.
The passengers disembark at the top of the pitch, give the dolaGon a command to begin its decent and then ski or ride down the slope while the dolaGon drives itself to the bottom to meet them.
A 2017 graduate of Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, Banning has always been a bit of an entrepreneur, creating duct-tape wallets in order to donate money to the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International when he was 14 and again a few years later when he donated a portion of the proceeds to the development of Bear River Skatepark.
When he was a junior at The Lowell Whiteman School, now Steamboat Mountain School, he created Parka, a clothing company that made hooded sweatshirts, T-shirts and hats.
In March 2021, Banning got involved after being a part of a dolaGon demonstration on Jones Pass near Idaho Springs. Neubardt said he was impressed by Banning’s enthusiasm following the demonstration, and the two discovered a shared passion for the project.
“He came out with a bunch of people … and I got word back that there was some guy named Logan that was so fired up about it,” Neubardt said. “At that point, I needed an engineer, so I contacted him and I was like, ‘Would you consider leaving your job?'”
At the time, Banning was working developing satellites for Lockheed Martin, but after getting that call, he was on board with dolaGon.
“Logan’s engineering background has really turned things around, and we solved a lot of the problems with the navigation, autonomy and the flotation,” Neubardt said. “Logan and I — we have passion. We’re super laser focused, we love skiing and we love powder. We love the project. It’s fun, and even if this thing goes down like a sinking ship, it’s been a hell of a ride.”
Neubart said his first attempt at the dolaGon was built on a snowmobile platform, which he jokes that he quickly crashed.
However, the incident was no laughing matter for Neubart, and he put safety at the top of his list. The model that Banning is working on this winter represents the third generation of the dolaGon, and this one is loaded with safety features.
“We have LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) for collision avoidance, and we have a very sophisticated GPS system, which keeps it on track,” Neubardt said. “We have electronic triggers that we carry with us that will transmit over a mile range so that we can communicate with the vehicle and make sure it stays safe. Our focus really is on safety.”
Neubardt is taking a cautious approach to marketing the dolaGon at this point, and he expects that one of the four passengers in the vehicle will be a guide.
“We’re going to be more of a service business,” Neubardt said. “Initially, we’re going to start off with independent guides doing it or at a resort.”
He thinks the dolaGon might also appeal to private snowcat operations.
“We are talking with existing snowcat operators who now have these big snowcats with 14 people on them,” Neubardt said. “We would supply them with two or three dolaGons. Each one would have its own guide, so that’s the more personal experience, (and) you can group people a bit more on their abilities. We think the people in dolaGon are going to have a much better experience and be happier than the people who went on the snowcat.”
Neubardt is also hoping the dolaGon might appeal to hotesl, mountain lodge or ranch that has a slope that could support skiing but might not have the funds necessary to build a chairlift. The idea is to offer people a way to enjoy skiing in more locations with fewer crowds.
Neubardt is hoping the dolaGon will move past the demonstration phase, and if things go forward as planned, the dolaGon could be in operation for consumers by next winter. However, at this point it still unclear what that might look like, and Neubardt said the last thing he wants to do is rush to the vehicle to market.
“I think that a lot of big companies are working on autonomous vehicles, but this little niche space of snow autonomy is actually quite complicated, and there’s a lot of nuance to it,” Neubardt said. “We also want to be respectful of nature, and again, respectful of safety. We’re not barging in here with something like a high-speed snowmobile; we’re trying to do something that respects the sport of backcountry skiing.”
Neubardt said that a plan for an electric dolaGon is in the works, and the end goal is to allow people more access to enjoy skiing and to enjoy getting back to what the sport is all about.
“Skiing used to be a thing where you had an experience with nature … Now, what’s happened is it’s more of an experience with parking lots, long lines, expensive tickets, over-skied runs, overpriced food and bumping into people,” Neubardt, said. “I think we’ve lost sight of what skiing is all about.”
John F. Russell is the business reporter at the Steamboat Pilot & Today. To reach him, call 970-871-4209, email jrussell@SteamboatPilot.com or follow him on Twitter @Framp1966.
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