NOTE: Our First Look article on the introduction of McMurdo's new Fast Find PLB can be found here.
Efforts to put together a full-on test and evaluation of the new McMurdo Fast Find Personal Locator Beacon (PLB), McMurdo model 210, in the same manner and under the same protocols and circumstances as we have tested PLBs in the past have been frustrated by our inability to raise the funds necessary. The economy definitely is hurting our ability to conduct this sort of large scale and expensive testing. Beyond that, my own schedule has been jammed. Even a couple days to get me and volunteer assistants together has been difficult to arrange, though we finally did so over Memorial Day.
In doing this, we have attempted to conduct meaningful abbreviated testing in, literally, our own backyard and neighborhood, that would stress the PLB adequately to the point that it would show up any significant issues and, hopefully, provide us a reasonable level of confidence in the new Fast Find. I'll start off with the performance results, and then move to discuss ergonomics and related issues.
We obtained a production off-the-shelf Fast Find courtesy of West Marine (who has always supported our PLB testing). I then took the PLB with me to an RTCM SC110 Committee meeting in Florida and Neil Jordan, McMurdo's Engineering Manager who was attending from the U.K., reprogrammed it to test protocol with myself and many other witnesses present. While we prefer to use a new beacon for every test, for a variety of reasons that was not practical for this test and we relied upon the fact that the PLBs are required by the standard to "cold start" the GPS every time. That serves to ensure that the GPS is not put at a disadvantage if it retains old ephemeris data which could be years old or many thousands of miles off. We did enough tests and duplicate tests to assure ourselves as best we could that it was cold starting with no advantage apparent between tests.
After making appropriate arrangements with NOAA and the AFRCC, since we were setting off live beacons through the COSPAS-SARSAT satellite system, we proceeded to see how well the new Fast Find and its 50-channel GPS receiver would obtain a GPS fix under both ideal and less than ideal conditions. We have focused on the GPS performance in our testing since a quick GPS location significantly improves the time to rescue in most real emergencies. We like knowing the PLB has the back-up Doppler location capability, but you’re always ahead of the game if you can include your GPS location in the distress alert.
We were able to receive real-time data from the NOAA satellite downlink through the assistance of SafeLife Systems, a division of PROCON, Inc. Thanks to Peter Forey of Sartech Engineering Ltd. who once again provided us a TSR406 406 MHz beacon receiver. We'd also like to thank Bob Dubner who wrote our BDC program that collects the data and who then performed the data analysis for us.
We started off with one of the same Garmin eTrex GPS units we have used previously to determine how many satellites were visible. As we got to our more difficult scenarios, the older eTrex simply didn't gain a fix and we used a modern highly sensitive Garmin GPSMAP 60CSx.
We started with a baseline test with a wide open sky, lots of satellites visible, and the Fast Find consistently sent out its GPS location in the first 406 MHz data burst, 50 seconds after deployment. We then started to artificially create much more difficult circumstances, using a "space blanket" with metalized lining to block GPS signals down to no more than 3-4 satellites visible and forcing difficult geometry. Even under the most difficult circumstances we could create using the blanket, such as at the bottom of a 5-galloon bucket surrounded by the space blanket, it still got a GPS fix consistently within the first 1-2 bursts with a single case of 3 bursts.
We then tried it under a large deciduous tree, close to the trunk, with similar results, the worst performance being the second burst. Being as I live in the desert, really dense overhead cover is hard to come by, so we decided to try from inside the house, which has a heavy tile roof. Unless held right next to a window, the eTrex couldn’t get a fix indoors at all, we had to use the 60CSx to confirm we were getting signals and the location. We started in the middle of the family room, with numerous windows facing south, east and west, which worked fine, still transmitting on the first burst, then moved deeper into the house, down a hall with virtually no clear shots to the outdoors and finally into our laundry room in the center of the home with the doors closed. The Fast Find reliably got a fix by the third or fourth burst even in the laundry room.
NOTE: In our tests of prior generation PLBs, they failed to acquire a GPS location when the eTrex failed to show at least three satellites visible and at least moderate reception levels.
We then moved to our neighbor's swimming pool (which has a two-story house approximately 15 ft. away and a tall wall the other direction, resulting in a reduced sky view), wedged the Fast Find into a life vest and artificially induced motion to simulate the motion of a swimmer holding it in the ocean, increasing the motion in each test to see if that had any negative effects, which it didn't. Finally, we combined our maximum induced motion with simulated "rain" from a garden hose to see if that was a problem and that resulted in a fix on the 3rd burst. That's pretty good, considering how it was being stressed.
We also did a relocation test to see if the GPS would update the position properly. We turned it on in one location, got an immediate fix, and then moved it about a quarter mile. It updated on the first burst after 30 minutes in accordance with its GPS timing schedule. We would prefer to see the update occur a bit quicker, but it worked as designed.
While our tests were not perhaps as rigorous and scientific as I’d have preferred, and we cannot compare them directly with our prior tests, I think we can confidently state that the GPS receiver in this Fast Find PLB is vastly superior to that found in prior generation PLBs.
In all our tests where the PLB had a good sight line to transmit to the GEO satellites, the 406 MHz signal was received reliably. The 121.5 MHz homer was received loud an clear.
As for physical stresses, the PLB is rated in the literature for immersion of 10 meters (32.8) for 5 minutes and McMurdo advised us it was good for one meter (3.28 ft) for 1 hour. We dropped it to the bottom of the pool, 5.5 ft. depth (1.7 meters), a number of times for periods of 5-10 minutes and it worked normally thereafter. Later, we immersed it to 1 meter for one hour and, again, it worked normally afterwards.
The PLB standard also requires that it survive a one meter drop onto a hardwood block on all six sides after being frozen to -30 C (-22 F). We didn't have a 150 mm (5.9 in.) thick hardwood block, but at risk to my life and limb, I borrowed Sue's maple chopping block (1.25 in./31.75 mm thick) from the kitchen and laid it on a flat concrete slab, which made good solid contact. We packed the test Fast Find (wrapped in cloth to protect it) into a molded foam cooler overnight with a few blocks of dry ice and managed to get the temperature down to – 22 F, moved it outside and checked again and it was registering -15 F. Close enough given the 10 hours of cold soak.
We removed the PLB from the cooler and then immediately dropped the PLB from 1 meter on all six sides onto the block with no apparent damage, it functioned satisfactorily immediately afterwards. We then dropped it onto the concrete directly. While the PLB sustained no apparent damage and worked fine afterwards, the cover over the antenna and the "ON" button did pop off when dropped on that end onto the concrete.
The cover can be slipped back on easily enough to protect the ON button and there's enough friction rom the coiled antenna to hold it in place in some storage situations, though not all that securely. A better idea would be to tape it in place. However, the only way currently to properly fix that is to take or send the entire PLB into a McMurdo service center and pay for a new cover (we are told that cost of the cover is $9.59) and the labor to install it, plus shipping for many. That’s going to add up to a good deal of money and a pain in the posterior. We think that's not a very great arrangement.
At our request, McMurdo provided replacement covers and screws so that we could conduct a number of deployment tests using the same PLB and we had no problem replacing the cover ourselves using a simple Phillips screwdriver. It took me less than five minutes, so you'd hope the service charge would be minimal, but it seems like they are making it far less consumer friendly than it could be. Why not send a replacement cover, screw and instructions out for a nominal cost?
In our opinion the cover design with its frangible retention point, the piece of the cover that is held on by the screw breaks off to remove the cover, is not a particularly user-friendly design. While I don't think this will create problems for most purchasers, it isn't robust enough, in our opinion, to withstand abuse it might reasonably be expected to be exposed to. McMurdo uses this frangible retention means as their witness seal, but we think it’s a poor choice.
McMurdo did make a substantial improvement in their antenna design on the new PLB. Instead of automatically popping up when the cover is removed, which we didn't like at all in their first generation Fast Find, this one is held in place and must be separately deployed. It's a cinch to do; just slip the blade antenna up or grab the end that sticks out and pull it loose. If you want to re-stow the antenna, it's a cinch to do. The antenna also isn't retained in a well like the original Fast Find, which we found has the potential of reducing transmitting performance if it fills with water.
In a few instances there have been reported problems with the original Fast Find not passing the self-test because of water retained in the antenna well when it's been carried under circumstances where it was regularly drenched or immersed. That's not normally an issue, but it has cropped up. Since the cover on the new Fast Find isn't sealed and seems to drain quickly when we tested it, that seems like it shouldn’t be a problem. For the vast majority of users, it’s not likely even a possible problem in any case.
We were surprised to see listed in the specifications in the manual an altitude of 10,000 ft. Surprised because we don't normally see such a spec listed for most PLBs and because it seemed rather low. We checked with McMurdo and sure enough, that's a typo. It should read 15,000 ft., the altitude to which it was tested and functioned properly. It likely works fine at higher altitudes, but that's all McMurdo officially claim based on their actual testing. [UPDATE July 26, 2009: McMurdo announced that the Fast Find has now been independently tested for stowage and use at altitudes of up to 40,000 ft.]
So, how difficult is it to remove the cover to deploy and activate the Fast Find? First step is to flip up the pull tab for the cover. This is easily accomplished. Once you have this up where you can easily grasp it, you grab hold and pull off the cover. It definitely takes a notable effort to activate this PLB, much as it did in the first generation Fast Find, especially compared to the ease of doing so on other designs. It takes 18 lbs. (80 N) of force to pull loose (with a steady pull), according to McMurdo. We discovered that it’s much, much easier if you jerk or yank it loose, as opposed to pulling steadily (view video at right). That’s similar to inflating a life vest, where the instructions on the pull tab read "jerk to inflate," for similar reasons. The sharp increase in rate of pull results in much lower apparent force required compared to a steady pull. I have to wonder if a similar instruction might not be equally appropriate here.
It's possible that this might be a bit more difficult for a very young person or someone badly injured in an accident, but it isn't hard to accomplish by any measure. Having made my point that this isn’t my idea of the best possible deployment design, I was able to readily remove the cover a half dozen times via various means, even having sustained a serious back injury the day prior that left me unable to even stand up completely straight or lift much weight.
As with the first generation Fast Find, one-hand opening requires some assistance, it cannot be deployed with a single hand while holding the PLB without any other assistance, such as can be done with other PLBs. In this case, you have to secure the PLB somehow in order to pull the cover off. The red cover's pull tab is small enough to easily grip between your teeth and then you can pull the body of the PLB away, sort of like the classic hand grenade pin pull (view video at right). You can also grasp the body between knees or in an armpit, or step on it to restrain the body and pull the cap off.
While I’d prefer it not require that second holding point, I
think it's acceptable considering the other advantages the new PLB it provides,
if not ideal. Perhaps on the next generation they'll get the one-handed
deployment part right as well.
The new Fast Find incorporates a flashing white LED, visible through the translucent white top, to signal self-test, that it has been activated, the status of GPS location acquired, etc. This normally flashes once ever three seconds when it is active and at a rate of two flashes per second when the GPS is active trying to get a location. Once the PLB is activated, you can also trigger it to flash SOS in Morse code if you see someone you want to signal. It repeats SOS four times for each activation. The SOS flash is limited to 30 activations total. How useful the SOS might be is open to debate. Mostly, I view it as a cute parlor trick, so to speak.
That flashing LED has both good and bad points. While not particularly bright, like a strobe, the flashing LED may be useful for Search and Rescue trying to locate you in the dark, particularly if they are fitted with night vision equipment. It would be easily visible for a few miles with NVGs. On the other hand, it cannot be turned off and could get to be more than just a little annoying in an enclosed space. I’d prefer that you could switch it off or at least to a much slower rate. There are no audible indications; the PLB’s status is communicated only via that LED.
Personally, unless I wanted to use it for signaling purposes, I’d have a back-up plan to cover up the flashing LED with some duct tape I always have with me in my Pocket Survival PakTM. You might want to just wrap a short piece around the body of the PLB to keep it handy.
By and large the instructions on the PLB are adequate, meet all the regulatory and minimum practical requirements and they have been creative in finding places on the small beacon for them. Some are even printed on the antenna itself. In the package is a credit card sized "cheat sheet" with expanded illustrated instructions. No hole is provided, so you it isn’t attachable to the PLB or a lanyard without you making a hole yourself.
I’d have rather seen some of the considerable space dedicated to the words "Personal Location Beacon" covering the face of the PLB be, instead, used to provide more and larger, easier to read operating instructions.
Speaking of that "Personal Location Beacon" text, what’s with that? It’s a Personal Locator Beacon. And, we didn’t find a trademark symbol, so apparently they aren't making an effort to trademark it as something different (or they messed up bad if they were). We asked McMurdo and all they could tell us is that is was Marketing's doing. Regardless of the reason, we think it's ridiculous and potentially creates confusion about a term for which there's already plenty to go around.
The User Manual is well done, concise, but good instructions and well illustrated.
The compact size of the new Fast Find (FAST FIND weighs 5.3 oz (150 g) with dimensions of 1.34" (34 mm) x 1.85" (47 mm) x 4.17" (106 mm).) is definitely a huge advantage over prior generation beacons. The given dimensions are actually deceivingly larger, because the case tapers towards the bottom to approximately 1.03" (26 mm) x 1.56" (40 mm).
It is truly pocket-sized and compares favorably in size to some cell phones. The small size and light weight means more will be willing to carry it on their person, where it belongs, in the first place. It weighed in at 5.4 ounces on our scale, a tenth of an ounce heavier than the specifications give. That’s close enough for a gi'me and so much lighter than any other civilian PLBs that it isn’t even close.
There are molded rubber inserts on both sides and on the front (around the self-test button) which help provide a better grip in slippery conditions. The GPS antenna is up near the "top," clearly marked as required and the natural gripping location is the lower part of the case, which is good design.
A normal self-test is simple, just press the gray rubber button for a minimum of two seconds. The self-test indicator is the flashing LED which will indicate a fresh battery (3 flashes), medium battery usage (2 flashes), minimum battery remaining (1 flash) and fail if the LED doesn’t flash. The same button is used to turn off the PLB after activation, if required.
There is also a full GPS acquisition test which is restricted to 10 tests over the five year battery replacement interval. By the way, while the battery replacement interval is five years, the battery life is given at six years, allowing for shipping and stocking time before purchase. We think that’s a responsible way to approach it.
Fact is, in five years there will be a much smaller, lighter, cheaper PLB with more features and performance, so I suspect hardly anyone is likely to replace the battery. The batteries are lithium manganese chemistry and probably good for 10 years or more. The PLB standard requires them to be rated conservatively. A major reason this PLB is smaller is that they worked hard to reduce the power consumption using very low draw electronics so it would take less power and thereby could use a smaller battery pack.
Activation is easy enough after pulling off the protective cover. Release the antenna and press the ON button. The PLB is designed for the body to be horizontal with the antenna sticking up vertically.
This is a Class 2 PLB, meaning it is rated for use down to -20 C (-4 F). That rating is almost entirely a function of battery life which declines rapidly at lower temperatures. Since the battery has a major impact on size and small size sells, don’t look for many new Class 1 (-40 C/F) PLBs for the civilian market (ACR still has their Class 1 TerraFix available). Even at -40, it will likely run for hours, plenty long enough to get you rescued, but my suggestion if you’re likely to need to use it at lower temperatures is to carry a couple hand warmer packets and just tape one to the PLB when you turn it on to keep it warm and make sure you insulate it from the cold ground.
The new Fast Find doesn't float. I don't have a problem with that. You need to always make sure your PLB is tethered to you in circumstances where it could be lost in the water (or dropped down a mountain), because even if it floats, it can get away from you. However, McMurdo does offer a "Buoyancy Pack" with two neoprene foam "jackets," one each black and yellow ($19.99) that slip on. The Fast Find is also small enough to fit into some of the neoprene cell phone pouches available.
Speaking of tethers or lanyards, however, the tiny lanyard attachment hole is designed to accept one of those annoying thin string-sized looped lanyard ends that have become so popular with various electronic gadgets and small digital cameras. We think that's a really poor design choice for a piece of survival gear that you really don’t want to be separated from.. How hard would it have been to include a lanyard hole that would accept parachute cord or similar conventional sized cord? We tried to get a split ring to work, which we have used in similar situations, but the hole was deep enough that it wasn’t a very good solution in this case. No lanyard is included.
You can purchase an optional neck lanyard ($10.50), but we were not impressed. Any neck lanyard without a cord lock to prevent it from slipping off over your head when you bend over just provides a false sense of security, nor did it appear to be a safety lanyard. They either need to redesign the case with a decent size lanyard attachment point, our first choice (but unlikely in the short term), or they need to include a high quality robust multi-purpose lanyard/tether attachment.
Carrying this small PLB is going to be pretty easy for most people. I suspect most will simply stick it in a pocket, hopefully with a secure closure to prevent loss. If you’d rather clip it to your belt, we discovered that many cell-phone or digital camera belt cases and holsters will easily accommodate the Fast Find. McMurdo tells us they will offer a Belt Pouch, but we did not receive one to review. A pouch or holster would also provide some added measure of protection to the PLB. You will want to ensure any such belt carrier you select is secure. You wouldn’t want to lose the PLB in an accident because it slipped out of a case or the case slipped off the belt.Beyond the two accessories we were supplied and the belt pouch mentioned above, McMurdo also lists a Wrist Lanyard ($9.99) and a Dive Canister rated to 50 meters ($80.99).
MSRP is $299. We didn't find much discounted pricing in looking around thew Web. We found only one online source at less than $285 and they conveniently didn’t have any in stock. In the first place, demand is still outstripping supply at the moment. Beyond that, there’s just not nearly as much room to discount as there is with a PLB that lists for twice this. And, that’s really the significant point, even at MSRP this PLB costs about 40% - 50% less than everything else on the market.
The Fast Find is manufactured in the U.K and comes with a five year warranty.
Finally, a wee bit of annoyance I have to make note of. It would sure have been nice if they’d not named it identically to their prior generation PLBs. That gets confusing. How hard would it have been to append a numeral, such as Fast Find 2 or something similar to easily differentiate it?
Bearing in mind the limitations inherent in our tests we conducted as outlined above, bottom line is that this new McMurdo Fast Find represents a significant advance in performance in a much more compact package. It isn't perfect, the cap design and not quite single-hand deployment issues are a bit annoying, but they are not deal killers and the combination of the truly pocketable size, significantly improved GPS performance and low cost makes it a compelling distress signaling device. McMurdo have essentially leapfrogged the competition with this one. The new Fast Find is small enough and affordable enough to outfit your entire family in case someone gets separated from the group, falls overboard, etc.
Carry a Fast Find together with an effective pocket survival kit with essential survival and basic signaling gear and you’ve got most wilderness emergencies covered with just a pocket full of gear and not at a huge cost. These new Fast Finds are much more enticing due to their small size and low cost, hence more will carry them and more lives will be saved. Win, win, all the way around.
Generally, if it’s something you want to carry on your person, and you definitely want to do that with a PLB; then smaller is better, all other things being equal. In this case you save size and weight and get substantially better GPS performance, which combined with the low cost means it's quite a bit better than "all others being equal" and it’s not a difficult decision.
Then there’s the question of upgrading from prior generation PLBs. In my opinion, it’s probably a compelling time to upgrade. First off, the cost is nominal, relatively speaking. Obviously, if money is seriously tight because of the economic conditions, then this discussion is irrelevant. Otherwise, a $300 investment for the significant improvement in GPS performance alone could be well worth it in a life threatening emergency. Add in smaller and lighter and it’s a cinch upgrade.
Having said that, if you don’t ever expect to use your PLB under difficult GPS reception conditions, such as under heavy overhead cover, in deep canyons, or at sea in a raging storm, etc., then it may not be as compelling an upgrade if you have the PLB generation immediately prior (such as ACR MicrOFix/ResQFix or McMurdo MAX), which have adequate, if not stellar, GPS performance. If you have a first or second generation, large and bulky PLB with first generation integral GPS, or one without integral GPS, then run, do not walk, to go order your new Fast Find.
For most of us who cannot be assured we’ll be using a PLB under moderate GPS reception circumstances, it’s hard not to step up to the improved GPS performance, combined with a smaller and lighter package. Give your old PLB to a Boy Scout or Girl Scout troop, CAP or SAR group, take the tax deduction, and let Uncle Sam subsidize your new lighter, smaller, better performing PLB.
McMurdo has a separate Web site dedicated to the Fast Find: www.fastfindplb.com
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Publisher and Editor: Doug Ritter
Email: Doug Ritter
First Published: June 17, 2009
Revision: 03 July 26, 2009