Earlier this year, Ultimate Survival Technologies, manufacturer of the popular mil-spec StarFlash signal mirror, introduced a “new” signal mirror, the StarFlash Ultra. The Ultra mirror was claimed to be significantly superior to the regular StarFlash; UST claiming it was 90% as reflective as a glass mirror, the gold standard. They also claimed other improvements and advantages, including a hard coating to protect the surface from scratching.
While claimed to be “new,” in fact, the Ultra is very similar in concept to the original StarFlash mirror that was offered years ago, a few companies before the current company existed, and prior to introduction of the StarFlash most everyone knows with the molded surround/case. I have one of those original mirrors from School of Survival Specialties, predecessor to SOS Survival Life Support, predecessor to Survival, Inc. and now, UST, in my mirror collection (and Sue wonders why I never throw anything out). I think I got all the companies over the years, I apologize if I missed one.
The new Ultra is produced from polycarbonate mirror sheet laminated to a closed-cell foam backing (see photo above, lower image) to enable it to float and with an inserted retro-reflective aiming aid. As with the original StarFlash, this aiming aid has a piece of retro-reflective material with a star-shaped cut-out (though larger) and the aiming “hot spot” or “fire ball” is formed on the edge of the star. The polycarbonate material used for the mirror is just a wee bit heavier than water, so it won’t float without some added buoyancy.
Initially, I was quite excited over the prospect of a production mirror that might approach the performance of Malcom Murray’s Rescue Reflectors handmade mirrors, and at a reasonable price and without having to wait months. My excitement was tempered as associates and I noticed issues with the first sample mirrors. The first batch leaked water into the aimer and there were lamination issues and UST quickly called me to tell me to throw those out. Okay, stuff happens and as long as they caught it before sales to the public, no harm, no foul. UST followed up with new production, supposedly with those issues solved, which they did indeed appear to be.
However, as more of these new Ultras got in the field, associates and friends of ETS reported widely varying results. Further testing suggested that there was quite a bit of variability in the mirrors. Some were as good or better than claimed, but others were quite a bit worse, some being no more than 60% as bright as glass when we measured. That’s closer to what the original StarFlash typically provided.
About that same time, we tried testing the new mirrors for water resistance almost by happenstance noticed that after floating in water, the reflectivity of the mirror degraded significantly, to the point in some cases is was effectively unusable after 30 minutes of floating in water. This wasn’t a case of water getting inside, the mirror was being warped in some manner. The wetted mirrors we tested simply lost virtually all their reflectivity. Given that these are supposed to be mil-spec mirrors, meant for use in all environments, and that certainly includes in the water, this would be a problem. This is a far greater problem than the production variability in reflectivness. It can render the mirror useless to a survivor in need of signaling Search and Rescue.
I contacted UST and discussed my findings and concerns and asked them to confirm the issues. After all, we had results only from a handful of mirrors. To give them full credit, they were very responsive at an executive level and started a serious look at the issues. Over a period of weeks we communicated regularly, with UST providing me updates on their testing. While a sunny day to test was easy enough to find here in the desert Southwest where I am located, up in the Seattle area where UST is located it is a problem and they had to also develop other tests that could be done using artificial lighting. In the end, they essentially confirmed the problems and said they were working on solution with their contractor who actually manufactures the mirror for them.
One theory was that by floating the mirror, which results in one surface being exposed just above the water surface, there was some unequal expansion going on between the laminated layers, causing the mirror to warp and the reflectivity degradation. I recently conducted some additional testing (which results I shared with UST); fully submersing the mirror, including overnight, so as to at least ensure it had reached a stable temperature throughout. The degradation problems remained, and if anything got worse.
To illustrate the problem, examine these images: On the top is the normal round reflection of the unsoaked Ultra mirror at about noon (+/- one hour) when aimed directly at the wall from 60 feet away. This is about what you expect, with varying sharpness and brightness, from a reasonable quality 2 x 3 signal mirror (the sun’s round disk, reflected off a reasonably flat mirror). On the bottom is another photo taken after the mirror has been fully immersed in water. This was taken with the mirror only 18 feet away because from 60 ft. the reflection was so dispersed and dim it was not photographable with the equipment I had, and it also was far larger than the 16 x 20 inches paper we were using as the target.
At this point, in my opinion, there’s just no question that there’s something wrong with these Ultra mirrors. If you own one of these StarFlash Ultra mirrors, you need to be aware that if it is soaked in water for any appreciable length of time, it may well not function adequately. Under dry conditions the reflectivity degradation issue doesn’t seem to be a problem. The production variability is an issue, however, regardless. Without the right test equipment, you probably cannot tell if your mirror is one of the really good ones or one of the not so good.
When I spoke to UST today, they advised that they have ceased shipping Ultra mirrors to their retailers and customers. UST continues to examine the issues and are working to integrate solutions into new production and have assured me they intend to solve the problems. Once they have resolved the issues, they say they will offer existing owners an exchange. I’d say that this is a responsible and reasonable reaction to these problems we have identified. Kudos to UST.
Note that these issues have nothing at all to do with the standard StarFlash, identifiable by the molded surround/case and triangular lanyard hole. (see comparison above – note that the Starflash was produced in various iterations over the years and by a number of precurser companies to UST. Military version backs were gray, like the Ultra pictured, not yellow, and some came with a black plastic adhesive light shield on the mirrored side.)
UPDATE: Three days after the inital posting on this blog, on Octorber 27, UST posted in the News section of thier web site a “StarFlash Ultra Water Immersion Notice” regarding a “decrease in mirror performance in the rare situation where the StarFlash® Ultra™ mirror is immersed in water for extended periods of time.” Click here to read their complete notice.
I will update details as I receive them from UST and we’ll have a full review of the new production mirrors when they arrive.
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.