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'Spaceship Landing Capsules': Pods In Place To Manage Avalanches

GRAND COUNTY, Colo. (CBS4)- Giant egg-shaped pods are in place in the mountains in Colorado's High Country. No, the pods aren't signs of an alien life form, but new avalanche mitigation technology designed to make highways safer.

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Snowplows blocked a section of Highway 40, west of the Berthoud Pass summit early Thursday morning as a helicopter maneuvered into position to place the pods on the mountainside.

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Jamie Yount, the Avalanche Program Coordinator for the Colorado Department of Transportation, says this mission is an important step in making mountain passes safer for drivers.

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"They look like spaceships, spaceship landing capsules," Yount laughed as he explained the new system to CBS4's Matt Kroschel, the only Denver television reporter on hand for the historic instillation.

"You're constantly looking at ways we can be better, bring a new technology into our program," Yount said.

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CDOT and the Colorado Avalanche Information Center is installing the biggest Obell'X array in North America.

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Built by the same company that builds the GAZEX avalanche mitigation systems currently in use in Colorado, Obell'X is the next generation of equipment using the similar principle of setting off small explosions to manage avalanche paths that threaten CDOT highways.

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The large pods are literally self-contained bombs that are placed on platforms previously installed at key points in avalanche paths. Once completed, more than a dozen of the pods will be in operation this season.

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A helicopter is used to place the pods on their platforms. No workers are required on the ground at the site. When avalanche season ends, the pods are retrieved by helicopter and put in storage until they are needed again.

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Yount says the pods contain hydrogen and oxygen tanks that are used to generate the explosions.

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Already installed similar systems called GAZEX requires personnel to transport, via helicopter, tanks to replenish the fixed propane supply used at the site of the cannons. A much more labor-intensive and risky operation for the CDOT avalanche mitigation teams.

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The system is remotely controlled by radio. CDOT personnel, in line-of-sight, sends commands to arm and detonate the system.

They tested the newly installed pods Thursday. After a loud boom, a snow slide came down the path, just as it was supposed to do under controlled situation without traffic passing below.

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Each pod costs about $120,000 but the payoff may be in safety and efficiency.

In decades past, CDOT used large bombs either launched at the slide path or dropped from helicopters. They hope to phase out that dangerous work in the future as more next generation technology like the pods becomes more popular.

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