Some of life’s greatest ideas spring forth on chairlifts.
Seth Neubardt’s brightest light bulb moment came five years ago, while enjoying a ride up with his son.
“I said to him, ‘wouldn’t it be great if we had our own mini snow cat that could drive itself down the hill and meet us at the bottom?’” Neubardt said. “I bet we could do this run in 20 minutes round-trip, hit some un-skied territory, and not have to deal with lift lines at all.”
For most of us, that kind of pipe dream idea would quickly be dismissed as impractical. But for Neubardt, a New York-based orthopedic spine surgeon and entrepreneur with 21 patents to his name, the idea turned into an obsession.
“I set to work that day on creating dolaGon,” Neubardt said. “It’s such a fun project that I went right into it and have not stopped.”
The dolaGon will drive skiers from any base location to higher elevations. At the top, skiers command the vehicle to drive itself back down the mountain where it will meet them at the bottom. The dolaGon could be on the cusp of forever changing how skiers and the industry think about accessing untracked runs.
“It allows any hill with snow to become a ski hill,” Neubardt said. “People can even ski in their own backyards if they live near a hill.”
A play on the word, “gondola,” the autonomous vehicle he launched in Burlington, Vt. is now in its third iteration as it continues to evolve. Former Lockheed Martin engineer Logan Banning, a lifelong skier and Steamboat native, joined up with Neubardt last winter when he fell in love with the dolaGon during a demonstration at Vail Pass in Colorado. They now base their operation, together, out of Steamboat.
Neubardt said one of his goals with dolaGon was to recreate the skiing experience he remembers from a childhood he spent all over New York and New England. “Specifically, skiing nearly alone on trails, going through the woods in Vermont with really good snow underneath, and hearing nothing except the absolute quiet of dense winter and the rush of cold air on my face,” he said.
A longtime Stratton Mountain skier whose son has patrolled at many Northeast resorts and now works as an instructor at Stowe, Neubardt is a self-described powder junkie. “I’m the type of idiot you will find skiing on the very edges of the trails at Stowe, ducking down and still hitting my head on the tree branches, just to catch that two inches of fresh powder no one has skied on yet.”
Neubardt tested the first generation of his vehicle, an autonomous snowmobile, at the old Catskill Game Farm land not far from Hunter Mountain in New York. “That quickly ended in a brilliant crash and taught me that we needed a different vehicle than a sled,” he said. “You can’t control a snowmobile autonomously because it is too dependent on the driver shifting his weight.”
He switched dolaGon to the Polaris UTV platform and installed the autonomy function himself, using technology bought off the shelf. He tested that machine at the former Timber Ridge Ski Area land behind Magic Mountain in Vermont. Today, the dolaGon is a military-grade vehicle, equipped with more durable and higher-end sensors being tested in the deeper snows of Colorado. And with Banning on board, two new vehicle types will be in the fold by next winter – a small snow cat and a vehicle that can run on non-snow terrain; think mountain biking.
“Although it may seem quite simple, ‘snow autonomy’ is quite a challenge,” Neubardt said. “We have been spending a great deal of time learning how to move a vehicle through deep snow and also deal with the issues of autonomous functions in a freezing cold, backcountry environment.”
The vehicles are equipped with LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) for collision avoidance, and a sophisticated GPS system to keep them on track. Skiers can carry electronic triggers capable of transmitting over a mile in order to maintain constant communication with the vehicle to make sure it stays safe.
“Our machine is a high-torque, tracked vehicle,” Neubardt said. “So, although it goes at a low speed, we still have to be very concerned with keeping it safely on a deep snow track. We’ve had a great track record this winter accomplishing that and think that we are now in a position to release the vehicle commercially to carry passengers safely.”
Beyond its focus on safety, Neubardt said the company is sensitive to not introducing another loud, motorized vehicle in the backcountry. An electric version may be on the horizon. He envisions the dolaGon appealing to hotels, mountain lodges, or ranches with slopes that could support skiing but don’t necessarily have the means to build a chairlift.
“We don’t see this vehicle being used by people hotdogging through untouched beautiful backcountry land,” Neubardt said. “For that reason, we are releasing it in a staged manner. We’re starting with established commercial snowcat operators who are already in these areas using groomed utility trails. We will then release it the following season to people who have been trained and are responsible.”
The whole idea is to offer people a way to enjoy skiing in more locations with fewer crowds.
“At some level, dolaGon has really been driven by selfish motivation because I want the machine for my personal use to bring me to untouched snow,” Neubardt said. “My goal is not so much to get to deep snow as it is to get to quiet areas so I can ski without the crowds, and if I can get even an inch of powder that would be great too. I think New England has a lot of that type of territory.”
Matt Boxler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.