Ultimate Survival Technologies has resumed production of the StarFlash Ultra signal mirror after originally ceasing production back in October, 2008, based on concerns we had expressed after testing, primarily regarding the effects of immersion in water. When initially presented with our test results, they did some months of preliminary testing before they concurred with our concerns and ceased production. (Read the original article.) I think they deserve kudos for acting responsibly in this regard, once they became convinced that something odd was occurring.
They now claim that subsequent testing indicated that our collective assumptions as to the severity of the problem were not substantiated and that, “the Ultra mirror will do what it is intended to do under all reasonably encountered circumstances for the end user – it will perform as an emergency signal mirror – wet or dry.”
There were two issues we originally identified as concerns. One was the effects of immersion, the other the apparent variability in production quality. They produced a 26-page report on their investigation into the immersion issue, a preliminary version of which was shared with me subject to my signing a non-disclosure agreement (NDA).
To summarize the following information (though I urge you to read through for important details) for us the current bottom line for the StarFlash Ultra is that it is probably a good to very good signal mirror for use where it is unlikely to be immersed for a significant period of time. Rain, splash or a quick dunking are not an issue, only longer term immersion (see our initial report for details). That covers the majority of those looking for a signal mirror. This assumes that they have solved their production issues. In my opinion, it is probably okay in wet conditions if it is packaged in a sealed waterproof manner so that it stays dry until needed, for example, inside their Aqua Survival Kit.
Let me first address the production variability issue. While I was told I would receive a report on how they solved that issue, it was never provided, so all I can go on is the reference in their posted document:
A notable phenomena was observed in our initial run of a few hundred parts that caused a measure of variation in reflective surface dispersion separate from temperature shock or water absorption. This occurred during the manufacturing operation and was immediately recognized and corrected. UST went to the added expense of installing custom machining bits that allowed alternate manufacturing methods to be used to reduce to a minimum the heat build up during the fabrication of the mirror.
In our small sample of mirrors we experienced a wide range of reflectivity from better than the 90% of glass they claimed to as low as 60%. That’s not grossly poor, as plastic signal mirrors go, but hardly the performance promised (and more on par with the best of the previous generation StarFlash that we had tested, in our experience). If they have, indeed, solved the production issue, then that is good news for consumers. A high quality (90%), low cost mirror would be a great find. Whether they have actually solved the problem we are not in a position to say and won’t be until we are able to get some mirrors to test. That will take a while since they have to get this new production into the retail distribution chain first before we can obtain truly representative samples. Then we have to schedule testing and perform the tests. Hopefully, they will mark the new production in some clear manner so that consumers will be assured they are getting the improved production mirror.
Back in October, I was told that once they had resolved the issues, they would offer existing owners an exchange. There’s nothing about that in their release or posting, but I sincerely hope they follow through with that. Existing owners of the initial production StarFlash Ultra mirrors (sold both independently and as part of various UST survival kits, most notably their Aqua Survival Kit) have no way of knowing if they have a good or poorer performing mirror. Most consumers never even try out their signal mirror; it is stored in their survival kit until needed in an emergency. I’m not sure that there is any simple test that a consumer can do to determine how good a performer their mirror is. We use a test set-up that requires a sophisticated light meter. Lacking a simple test, replacement seems the only practical solution. If there are only “few hundred parts,” that shouldn’t be an undo burden in UST.
In case there’s any question about the variability in the performance of those initial production mirrors, just this past week there waa s signal mirror test conducted for an upcoming magazine article. A short summary was posted on KnifeForums.com Outdoor Survival Forum in which the Ultra was at the bottom of the tester’s “acceptable” group, instead of at the top where it should have been if it actually delivered consistent 90% performance. Since production is only just resuming and the mirror was obtained at an earlier date, the conclusion is that this is an initial production mirror. This would appear to bear out the fact that some owners of the initial production Ultra mirrors didn’t get what they paid for. We also have no way of knowing if this mirror is representative of the worst, or just somewhere in the middle.
With regards to the immersion issue, they claim that the warping of the mirror does not significantly alter its performance, even though the short range indications suggest otherwise. Mind you that the initial warning of poor short range reflectivity being representative of poor long range performance was based on many years of signal mirror testing that has proven to provide a direct link between the two. A poor quality short range reflection has always correlated with poor long range performance. Of particular note, when we consider long range performance we are talking about ranges in the 10-20 mile range for smaller mirrors such as this.
It is the “range” issue that becomes the crux of the matter, in many respects. Their long range tests were conducted at 3 and 6 miles, based on prior email correspondence, and showed what they estimated to be a 10% deficit at 6 miles. That actually correlates reasonably well with our own testing where we saw no noticeable difference between dry and wet at 1 mile and about 20% deficit at 5 miles. So, it is fair to say that at those ranges, the warping of the mirror probably doesn’t have any terribly significant effect.
According to our email correspondence, their local conditions in the Northwest precluded testing at greater ranges and weather issues made testing difficult. Easy enough to understand. I invited them to join us in the Phoenix area numerous times where the weather is more conducive to signal mirror testing and we have a good location for testing at longer ranges. UST did not take me up on the invitations.
Our tests were conducted on March 3, 2009, from 10:15 – 11:40 AM MST with the signaler on top of South Mountain at the base of the antennas (for those familiar with the area) signaling south from there. This provides near ideal geometry. Myself and one ETS volunteer each judged the strength of the flashes independently and without prior knowledge of which mirror was being flashed with the dry mirror being deemed a 10 on a scale of 1-10 at each location. The results of our tests were shared with UST.
We also performed tests at 10 and 15 miles and to our eyes there was a significant fall-off in performance at these greater ranges. At 10 miles we estimated a 50% reduction and at 15 miles an 80+% reduction, wet compared to dry. We have no way to know if our samples were representative of all the StarFlash Ultra mirrors, but they both tested better than 90% when dry.
It is worth noting another perspective on the performance degradation when wet. Assuming a 90% mirror, it could lose approximately 30% to 40% of its performance and still be no worse than the previous generation StarFlash. Somewhere in the middle distance, beyond the 5-6 mile point and before the 10 mile point, based on our testing, there will be a balance point beyond which the wet Ultra mirror would likely perform worse.
For us the current bottom line for the StarFlash Ultra is that it is probably a good to very good signal mirror for use where it is unlikely to be immersed for a significant period of time. Rain, splash or a quick dunking are not an issue, only immersion (see our initial report for details). That covers the majority of those looking for a signal mirror. This assumes that they have solved their production issues and are consistently delivering the promised 90% performance. In my opinion, it is probably okay in wet conditions if it is packaged in a sealed waterproof manner so that it stays dry until needed, for example, inside their Aqua Survival Kit. I wouldn’t consider that ideal, but useable if you work to keep it from being immersed after removal from the waterproof packaging.
Since UST make a big deal out of the fact that their mirror is inherently buoyant (floats without additional floatation attached), I think I might as well voice my opinion on the matter. While a buoyant mirror may have some small advantage over one that does not float, the bottom line is that the mirror should always be tethered to you for security in any situation where it is likely to be lost in the water.
Relying upon the mirror’s buoyancy provides a false sense of security, in my opinion. In many, if not most cases, if you do not immediately notice that the mirror has been dropped, it will either float away out of reach or be carried away by the current. If you are likely to need your mirror in a maritime environment, you better secure it, if you don’t want to lose it, buoyant or not. In my opinion I am not convinced that buoyant vs. non-buoyant is a significant differentiator. Buoyancy is nice to have, but not essential. All other things being equal, buoyancy is an advantage, not a critical necessity. Tethering is essential in a maritime environment.
Signaling performance is much more important and if the StarFlash Ultra delivers on its 90% promise, that’s what counts. However, in my opinion, buoyancy doesn’t compensate for the performance degradation after immersion that we saw in our tests at longer ranges.
Where do we go from here? We’ll wait until we can procure a larger selection of the new production StarFlash Ultra mirrors off-the-shelf and we’ll perform another test, likely in conjunction with tests of some other new signal mirrors coming to market. In the meantime, I and my ETS volunteers are working on an improved test set-up that will make signal mirror testing a bit quicker and easier.
DISCLOSURE: Doug Ritter helped design the RescueFlash Signal Mirror produced by Adventure Medical Kits and which is included in the Doug Ritter designed Adventure Medical Kits Pocket Survival Pak. Ritter and The ETS Foundation receive a royalty on sales of Pocket Survival Paks. No royalties are received on the RescueFlash mirror itself.