Personal Messenger SPOT

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For casual use, and SPOTty emergency use, this piece of relatively inexpensive technology deserves consideration for those who need to check in on a long trip where other communication is unavailable.

When you need emergency assistance, there are some things you want - reliability, speed, accuracy and assurance. This SPOT product comes up a little short on these things compared to a personal locator beacon. While the PLB devices are reliable, accurate and easy to use, they are expensive. Originally they had a price of about $750.00. The newer ones with built in GPS are still that much. The ones that interface to your GPS have since come down to about $450.00 American Pesos, which for the rest of the world is now another 30% cheaper and is pretty good price. They are used strictly for calling big time Search and Rescue, (SAR) so with any luck you will never actually use one.

Now comes a new class of device with decidely a different aim as indicated by its name - SPOT satellite messenger.

This device is a GPS receiver combined with a satellite phone system that allows one to send back messenges to a web site and emails to people you have previously designated. It has four modes of communication. The OK function sends out an email to designated person(s) letting them know that you are "OK". In Track mode it displays a GPS location every 10 minutes on a web site incorporating Google maps. For the Help function its sends email to pre designated persons that you are in need of assistance at the GPS location. In true emergencies it has a 911 mode that calls the same SAR boys that the expensive system does.

All this is set up on a convenient and easily understood web site. You can set and manage who is going to receive OK and Help messages and what those messages say. You set up who your emergency contacts are and how to contact them by terrestrial phone. You can also set up a webpage that will display your recent tracks that others can see on the web. You can also include this map in your webste.

I can think of situations where I would want to call for help from my friends but not need the full blown and expensive help of calling the SAR out. I would be even more likely to use the OK feature just letting people know that I am OK and that I was making progress on my trip. All this is available for the $170.00 list price (currently $135.00 discounted) of the unit. Unlimited OK and Help calls are included. The tracking feature costs another $49.95 a year and the SAR 911 feature is another $7.95/yr at time of activation ($150.00 /yr later) . This price includes a $100,000.00 insurance policy that pays for the cost of emergency extractions, an attractive option.

So how does this work?

The world wide coverage is roughly the same as old satellite phones. Reliable coverage extends over most of the heavily populated world, India and southern Africa being notable exceptions. It wouldn't have been much good for my recent sea kayak trip to Southern Chile or my friends trip to east Greenland. If you are expeditioning in the middle of the oceans your out of luck there too. But for mose coastal kayaking, the coverage is there.

So how does it work. My first introduction to this little unit was through the equipment freak of our group, Susanita. She got one almost as soon as they came out. She took it with her on our trip to the Bahamas. She set up her account and emailed everyone her login and password so all our friends could track us on the trip. Now with the new webpage feature, you can provide that access to everyone without giving access to your accout - a necessary enhancement. During the trip she turned on the unit once a day and sent out an OK signal as a trace. Back home friends and family where able to follow us along on our trip, knowing just where we were each evening. Susanita was able to add our outfitter to the list so that they were aware of where we were each night as well. Although the unit took some time establishing its position, 20 minutes of pointing up into the sky resulted in a perfect record for reporting our position.

In late April I received a unit to test for two weeks. Although I didn't have any trips scheduled for the time period I had the unit, I did test it around town and at my home.

The unit is a small 4 1/4" x 2 7/8" x 1 1/2" unit with a belt clip on the back and a lanyard anchor at the top. It is built of bright orange heavy duty plastic with a rubber no slip edge. That unit feels substantial and is easily grippped with cold, wet and/or gloved hands. The front of the unit has 4 buttons, Help, On/Off, OK/Trace and 911 and four LED lights over each button. The 911 button is heavily recessed to prevent accidental activation. The other buttons are flush reducing the chance for acidental activation. The Help button is smaller than the other three commonly used buttons and proved difficult to activate because of it size and low profile. I had trouble activating it with gloves on. The other two were difficult also but easier than the Help button. I don't think the 911 button would activate with gloves on, but I didn't want to call SAR to find out. All must be pushed and held for at least two seconds to activate - another accidental activation prevention. Pressing the On button gets the green LED flashing on a 3 second interval.

Pressing the OK button to send a message to your designated persons starts that LED blinking in unison with the On/Off LED. When the message has been sent the LED light will go steady for 5 seconds. If GPS coordinates were available for the message sent, the lights while continue to blink is unison. Otherwise the lights are out of sync advising that the GPS coordinates were not available.

Which of course brings up the question..... why would GPS not be available? Like other handeld GPS units, this unit is sensitive to electronic noise and interference from heavy cover such as trees. It will not work indoors, although it did work on the dashboard of my vehicle parked in the open. It did not work under the tree cover in my back yard either, so being in a clearing is important. I understand that the GPS chip the current model uses is not as sensitive in reception or accuracy as the newer GPS chips available now in other handheld GPS units. However, I found the unit to be more than accurate enough in good conditions. Look for SPOT to update their chipset soon.

The unit will attempt to send three messenges over a twenty minute period. Which of course immediately brings up the question why does it need three shots at sending the message? The answer is that the satellite phone uplink to the commercial satellties that this unit uses is not as powerful as the higher power system used by EPIRBS and PLBs. Note that the map above is the percentage likelihood of getting one message through in a 20 minute period. The unit also likes to be pointed up at the sky and likes to be steady. This of course makes it much more reliable for those on a ground expedition. On the foredeck of a kayak, bouncing around in 3 meter waves, I expect that those percentages go way down. How long do you want to be in freezing cold water waiting for your unit to get a message through anyway? Twenty minutes may not be long while you are sitting on a rock in the mountains. Floating in 5 degree Centigrade water it can be a lifetime.

When a message is sent out the LED glows steadily for 5 seconds. This is great if your are standing on the ground holding the unit in your hand looking at the thing full time. When was the last time you had that luxury in a kayak in heavy weather? Personally I would feel lucky to have the two seconds to activate the unit. I am not going to be able to stare at it for minutes waiting for the 5 second steady green light indicating that the unit is sending the message. The unit goes back to flashing 3 second mode, synchronously with the ON/OFF LED if GPS coordinates are available and asynchronously otherwise, when it has sent the message out. So if you were looking the other way in that 5 second period you have no idea whether the message was sent out or not. In Help mode, the unit continues to send the message automatically every 5 minutes for one hour. Likely the message will get through. But you don't know that it did. But then there is no confirmation with a PLB either.

So how do you tell that the message was received? You can't. The steady 5 second light is not indicating that the message actually was received. It is mearly indicating that the unit sent the message, not whether the satellites and the system "heard" the message. There is no two way communication between the unit and the ground stations. So as a user you do not know for sure that your help or 911 message was actually received.

My first task was activating the unit which is easy enough except for getting the serial number and PIN which were in the bottom of the battery compartment. Normally the batteries are out of the unit when it comes but my demo unit had them in already. The battery compartment is secured by two recessed slotted screws that thoughtfully come with small loops of stainless steel (bales) that let you tighten them down with just your ungloved fingers. The compartment is protected from very light immersion. The manufacturer claims one meter for five minutes and I think that would be the upper limit as the battery compartment only has a raised lip and a flat rubber gasket that the case tightens down on. More robust PLBs are rated to 10 meters for an hour. The unit does float (tested for 5 minutes) but don't press your luck on the water thightness of this unit. It survived turned on in a night of heavy rain outside my house. I would put it in a bag, or at least a ziplock when its is not actively in use. A third screw tightens down the belt clip which can be removed completely or simply swung to the side to access the batter compartment.

The website was straight forward and I easily set up my notification, help and emergency contacts. I set the unit outside and it aquired GPS satellites and sent an OK message to the website. I displayed the resulting message on Google earth and it was acurate to the correct side of my street and to my house. I would say it was within about 20-30 feet.

Here is an example of the email sent out for the help message I activated in front of my house -----------------------

This is a test HELP message on behalf of Hank McComas. Please send for help ASAP.
Nearest Location: Crocker St, Bel Air, MD, US
Distance: 0 km(s)
Time:04/29/2008 12:15:39 (GMT),-76.3476&ie=UTF8&z=12&om=1 

I tested the unit on a walk around my neighborhood. I received 6 messages over the 32 minutes I had the Help function activated, every five minutes as advertised. This email barrage is a good idea to keep your help notification team from missing a message in the onslaught of spam that we all get each day.

I then tested the trace feature. I clipped the unit onto my belt using the built in clip. I punched the trace button for the required 5+ seconds and started my walk. I don't know what was wrong, but I never got any trace. Either I didn't hold the button down long enough or the unit was unable to communicate from the vertical position on my belt. The trace mode can not be distinguished from the OK mode as both show flashing green LEDs every three seconds. Since I didn't care much about this test, but I would have been disappointed if I had been relying on it to provide a track or documentation on a trip or day paddle. One never knows whether anything has been recorded until getting back to a computer or at leass to wireless communications range. Practice a couple of times before taking out on a real journey.

I activated the unit again and put it on my dashboard for a trip to Home Depot. Placed in its preferred skyward orientation, it accurately tracked my trip with reports every 10 minutes of my location. I thought that the unit would not report multiple times when in the same position but it did with 6 reports of my car's location in the parking lot. This proved that the GPS coordinates are very repeatable in the open with the unit pointed skyward, even behnd the glass of my front windshield. Here is the map from the website.

Personally, I don't find this function very useful. It seems insufficiently reliable for me to know that I am preserving my track. I get insufficient feedback from the flashing lights to know what mode the unit is in. Finallly, because the position is broadcast only every ten minutes, at four knots, the position is only recorded every 2/3 of a nautical mile. That is insufficient for an accurate reading on trip mileage in such places as the marsh where twists and turns in the river can cause mileage to be three or four times greater than that reported by this device. So, no thanks, for tracing my route I would stick with a GPS unit whose sensitivity as one tenth of a mile or less, records the track on the unit and can be verified while in progress.

The OK feature works OK. It can be used to provide a very rough trace for multiday trips where OK messages can be sent out at say lunch and at evening camp, giving two locations per day. It lets the people at home know that things are well when you are out of cell phone range. It is a feature that would get used if you had the device. The Help feature works if you are safely on shore and can orient the unit skyward and hold it steady. For non life threatening situations it is sufficient, but I don't think it cuts it for when you are in extreme conditions, over the side, cold and need someone fast. The trace feature doesn't work well enough to be worth the $49.95 yearly charge. Use your GPS instead.

The 911 feature I view as an another add on benefit of having the device. But it has to be considered as unreliable. Worth trying if you have the device and need the help. It might work, but then it might not and you won't know which it is. If you are in need, use it, but don't assume that someone is actually coming to rescue you.

This device would have greater value if the user could view the GPS coordinates. That would give it extra utility as a backup to a GPS or compass. But there is no screen on the unit only the four blinking LEDs, whose meaning is sometimes difficult to interpret.

Bottom line - if you need to check in daily, either as a guide reporting the group location back to base or someone who needs to allay fears with the home crowd, this unit wil do it. If you want a track of your day's trip position distance and speed, use a standard hand held GPS instead. If you think you might need to call in help from friends from shore, this unit does that. If you are looking for something to bring serious professional help in a dire situation, put your money into a PLB.

Personally, I am going to pass on this unit. In conditions I need to call for help, the unit probably will not function. I don't really feel the need to check in. I need better granularity in tracing my route. All in all, until it can offer more features and better functionality I am going to keep using my compass and map and get home by myself.

SPOT website:




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