dolaGon autonomous ski lift
(Photo/John F. Russell for Steamboat Pilot & Today)

Self-Driving Snowcat Will Pick You Up at Bottom of Ski Runs

The dolaGon Ski Lift is an autonomous vehicle that could open skier and rider access to terrain that lacks a permanent lift.

Here’s a scenario that should resonate with the backcountry skiing crowd: Your guide spotted a sick line, assessed it for avalanche risk, and wants to take a few laps on it. The only problem? Climbing up to the top more than once or twice would eat up an entire day.

If only there were some type of machine that could courier you from the backcountry basin to the top, then meet you at the bottom of the run.

Apparently, the dolaGon Autonomous Ski Lift is just such a machine. The latest prototype is a four- to six-person Polaris RANGER with GPS, LiDAR, and snow floatation modifications.

Call it a portable ski lift or a concierge snowcat — either image gets the point across. Here’s how it works.

(Photo/dolaGon Autonomous Ski Lift)
(Photo/dolaGon Ski Lift)

dolaGon Self-Driving Snowcat

The company’s homepage states, “Skiers are safely brought to elevations with access to powder and then the dolaGon drives itself down to any predetermined location.”

When in autonomous mode, the self-driving snowcat’s work cycle is, conceptually, simple:

  • dolaGon picks up skiers at the bottom of a run and autonomously drives them to the top.
  • Skiers unload at the top of the run and instruct the dolaGon to begin its descent.
  • While skiing, the dolaGon self-drives to the base of the ski run.
  • Skiers load back on the dolaGon, which begins its climb back to the top.

When not in autonomous mode, the dolaGon can be driven like a traditional utility task vehicle.

According to project engineer Logan Banning, it does all of this through the integration of fully autonomous GPS route-tracking technology, a collision-avoidant LiDAR system that can navigate uncharted terrain, and long-range wireless emergency stopping.

Banning also told us that the system’s computer saves routes to memory, which effectively allows the dolaGon to map entire backcountry trail systems.

(Photo/dolaGon Autonomous Ski Lift)
(Photo/dolaGon Ski Lift)

Limited Distribution and Safety Precautions

The vehicle is a several-years-long project of Dr. Seth Neubardt (an orthopedic surgeon from New York) and Banning, who resides in Steamboat Springs, Colo.

While GearJunkie can’t speak to dolaGon’s slogan “any mountain is now a SKI MOUNTAIN,” Banning told the Steamboat Pilot & Today that they intend the vehicle for groups that include at least one experienced backcountry guide.

It’s worth noting that, if and when the dolaGon is cleared for commercial production, Neubardt and Banning plan to limit sales to private guiding agencies, snowcat tour companies, and similar enterprises. Presumably, this provision is due to avalanche safety concerns that come with winter activities in the backcountry.

The limited distribution should ensure that only those with proven expertise in reading avalanche terrain and performing avi rescues can operate the dolaGon. It also appears that it could serve as an alternative to larger snowcats for guided operations with small client groups.

“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.”

To stay up to date on the company’s latest developments, head to dolaGon.com and follow @dolagonautonomous on Instagram.

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Jilli Cluff
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Jilli grew up in the rural southern Colorado mountains, later moving to Texas for college. After seven years in corporate consulting, she was introduced to sport climbing — and life would never be the same. She now works as a contributor, gear tester, and editor for GearJunkie and other outlets within the AllGear family. She is based out of Atlanta, Georgia where she takes up residence with her climbing gear and one-eared blue heeler, George Michael.