(NOTE: An update to this article can be found on the Equipped.org Blog.)
SPOT Inc., a subsidiary of Globalstar, the satellite phone system provider, introduced its subscription-based SPOT Satellite Messenger at Outdoor Retailer Summer Market in Salt Lake City (read the full ETS O.R. Summer 2007 Report). SPOT is being promoted as a multi-purpose tool that can used as a distress beacon as well as providing options to request help without a full blown Search and Rescue (SAR) response. It can also be used to notify friends, family or associates that you are okay and as a means to track your location (but only if you initiate the tracking).
SPOT was conceived by a group at Globalstar last November. The well-publicized stories about the Kim family tragedy in Oregon and the climbers lost on Mt. Hood served to confirm the direction and continued development of a consumer version of Globalstar's commercial satellite technology.
SPOT was originally an acronym for "Satellite Personal Tracker," the "O" being intended as a graphic representation of the world. As SPOT did research, they found that there was consumer confusion about tracking. As a result, they have de-emphasized the word "tracking" because some people believed that they would be tracked without their consent, which is virtually impossible with SPOT. Changing to "Satellite Messenger" emphasizes that SPOT does more than tracking, it has the ability to send several different messages for different purposes. (NOTE: The original logo and plastics mold for the samples shown at OR and photographed for this article were done earlier, before they re-named the product.)
SPOT utilizes a GPS receiver (accurate to within 20 ft. according to SPOT) and a Globalstar satellite transmitter. Like current 406 MHz Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs), all communication is one way, but SPOT offers a lot more flexibility in what and how you communicate. As such, it provides some obvious potential advantages over a PLB, being a multi-purpose communications tool. With regards its distress alerting capability, the jury is still out on that aspect. So, let's take a first look at the technology and see what the pros and cons are and how it compares, bearing in mind that we have yet to actually test the device and all we've seen are prototypes at OR.
Note: SPOT is not related to SPOT Image, the satellite imaging company.
First off, a word about SPOT's use of the Globalstar satellite network. Globalstar's satellite phone system has gotten a lot of bad press of late and is losing subscribers like rats from a sinking ship due to the degradation of their satellite network. I receive emails weekly from Globalstar sat phone owners very upset about their inability to use their expensive sat phones. You can read more about the problem here.
The good news is that this isn't the same system. It's the same low earth orbiting satellites, but the problems are occurring on the duplex (two way) side of the system. The simplex (one way) portion of the satellite is claimed to be working fine, being used for commercial operations such as tracking shipping containers and the like, with 6 million messages being sent monthly with reported 99.4% reliability according to SPOT and Globalstar.
We asked them about that reliability number and they explained that their testing shows that the primary reason they don't receive some messages is that the transmitter does not have a clear view of the sky - for example, if a shipping container were located inside a warehouse, they would not receive any messages from that satellite modem. They did not provide any independent source or otherwise substantiate the claim.
SPOT only uses the simplex side. So, it would appear that pretty much all the bad news you may have read about Globalstar does not relate to this new device, except for the adverse financial situation in which their sat phone related problems place the company. I'm not really in a position to have an opinion about that, but must note that it is a matter of concern to some who question the long-term economic viability of the company.
Being as SPOT is dependent upon the Globalstar satellite system, SPOT is not useable worldwide like a PLB. In addition, the simplex side doesn't offer even the somewhat restricted semi-global coverage that the duplex (sat phone) side does (or did before the problems). For users in and around the continental U.S. that's not an issue. But, for example, forget SPOT if you're in Hawaii.
Click here for a look at the current Globalstar simplex coverage map.
SPOT cautioned that they are still testing to see what the actual coverage limits for SPOT will be, which they say may be somewhat different than shown. If you are considering using SPOT in areas on this map not shown as covered, or only marginally, you probably want to wait until SPOT publishes their own coverage map.
SPOT transmits at 400 milliwatts power in Globalstar's portion of the L-band spectrum (1600 MHz range), but SPOT declined to tell us if this was actual effective radiated power (ERP) which includes system and antenna losses, or the power inputted into the antenna. SPOT says that the actual transmit power is comparable to the Globalstar sat phones, but that SPOT uses twice the spectrum, using spread-spectrum technology, for better performance. PLBs transmit at a nominal 5 watts power, actual ERP is less and varies by manufacturer.
The device itself is contained in an orange GE Cycoloy C6600-111 engineered plastic case that is approximately 4.38 x 2.75 x 1.5 inches. Its weight is given to be 7.37 ounces by SPOT. There are black rubberized gripping areas on both sides with raised ridges. I found it fit comfortably and securely in my hand. The natural gripping position tends to keep your hand away from the combination GPS receiving and transmitting antenna located under the SPOT logo.
There's a slot for a lanyard to be attached on the back at the top of the case, but none is provided. It's not a very big slot, so you'll have to be careful selecting the right line to use.
Power is supplied by two lithium AA-cells which are accessed via a removable battery cover on the back side. This is held by two captured screws with slotted heads and a bail, which makes for easy removal. There's also a belt clip back there that must be swung out of the way by loosening the same style screw (it can also be removed completely). The battery compartment is sealed by a rubber seal in a slot.
SPOT floats, but I was told that it does not reliably float with the antenna toward the sky, as was originally intended. As a result, a caution was added to the manual. In other words, in the water it won't sink, but you probably have to hold it with the SPOT logo facing the sky. That's similar to most PLBs. Realistically, given how the GPS signal is so adversely affected by water and how low the freeboard on the device would be, unless it was very calm conditions, it probably wouldn't get a GPS fix just floating anyway, so no real loss.
We asked about abuse testing and they provided some information that suggests that they have addressed the most common types of issues you'd want them to investigate. Among these results, they report that SPOT survived being dropped twice on all six sides from one meter onto hard surface. What they couldn't tell us was if that was at the coldest operating temperature (-40 F), which would be a much tougher test than at room temperature. Its maximum operating temperature is 185 F.
The device is rated as waterproof to one meter for 30 minutes. Since it is promoted as being useable for water borne activities, I asked what happens if someone jumps off a boat and plunges a couple meters into the water before surfacing. SPOT assured me the unit would survive that.
My experience with waterproof ratings is that it isn't unusual for the certification tested item to perform a lot better than production versions. I'd prefer it was rated to a higher waterproof standard which provides more margin, but this is an acceptable minimum. Without a higher rating, I'd personally not be inclined to depend upon it in a large or rough water environment (on the ocean or river rapid running, for example) when more robust products are available. The latest PLB from ACR, for example, is rated waterproof to 10 meters for an hour, which gives me much more confidence in that sort of environment.
The GPS receiver uses a Nemerix chipset. The software does not use WAAS. SPOT told me that "a version of software is available which uses WAAS; however it's Nemerix's position that WAAS does not significantly improve the performance of the GPS receiver. They recommend the version we are currently using which replaces the WAAS code with alternative algorithms which offer better performance enhancements."
Click here for more information on the Nemerix chipset.
They claim that the GPS receiver's time to first fix from a cold start is 46 seconds, which is quite respectable. Unlike a PLB, the GPS chip does not always cold start, which makes sense since it uses the GPS for all the multiple functions of the device. It retains the last information it has downloaded, so the first acquisition afterwards will be much quicker, except it may take longer under some circumstances. Anyone who uses GPS in a variety of widely scattered locations understands how this can adversely affect initial acquisition time. In recognition of this, they have added a caution to the User Guide to advise owners of this and to recommend that the user send and verify an OK/Check message the first time they use SPOT, or if they move more than 600 miles between uses. Good advice.
SPOT uses a single antenna for both GPS reception and transmission to the Globalstar satellites. Normally, when a single antenna is used for dual frequencies like this it is optimized for one or the other, though I suppose they could both be less than optimum as a compromise solution. It normally can't be optimized for both. We asked SPOT about this and they were unable to provide an answer by deadline, and weren't quite sure they wanted to reveal that information, which would be understandable. I wouldn't hold that against them, I am just curious. Ultimately, what really matters is the actual performance, which we'll eventually determine in field evaluations, but I was just looking for some indication of what priorities drove the design.
The device is equipped with four buttons and four indicating LEDs that together provide four distinct capabilities. They are:
One of the most important things you need to know is that these are all subscription based services. Current price is $99 per year for standard service and an extra $49 per year for the SPOTcasting tracking service. After you purchase the SPOT Satellite Messenger, you then have to go online and purchase the subscription, registering the device with SPOT. It's two separate transactions.
We asked if this was an introductory price or guaranteed for a period of time and they responded, "while we reserve the right to change pricing for future subscriptions at any time, we think we've found a sweet spot with $99/49, and plan on offering it for the foreseeable future." SPOT also plan to eventually introduce monthly payment plans as well as a lifetime subscription. PLBs don't require a subscription, the service is free courtesy of your tax dollars.
SPOT representatives told us that they are selling the SPOT Satellite Messenger at very little profit margin to keep the price affordable, so they make their money on the subscriptions. That's been a viable business model in many areas, from razors to cell phones.
However, I have a deep philosophical issue with SPOT's policy of not accepting a 9-1-1 alert if the user hasn't got a paid up subscription. There is a reason that the FCC mandates that wireless carriers pass 9-1-1 cell calls even if there is no current subscription for the phone. The conundrum for SPOT is if they did pass through 9-1-1 alerts and all you want to use SPOT for is as a less expesnive distress beacon, then you'd have little incentive to sign up for their subscription program. On the other hand, perhaps that's not such a bad thing. They do sell the device, it's not free, and odds are in their favor that they'll never have to provide any 9-1-1 service to these folks. If they do provide a non-suscriber with 9-1-1 service, they are a hero with all the attendant free publicity. Not such a bad deal; methinks. Perhaps if they sell the device with the first year's subscription (use a coupon inside to go online and register), that would be a reasonable compromise.
In any case, SPOT seem convinced and emphasized to me that nobody is going to ever find themselves without a subscription because their plans self-renew once you sign up. If your credit card has lapsed or the charge is declined for any reason, their billing people will contact you to get it updated. However, as many who have had such automatic payment plans in place know, sometimes computers screw up. Heck, how many folks won't ever sign up in the first place? Don't even try to tell me that won't ever happen. Their lifetime subscription would address the payment issue to a great extent, but we haven't seen what that will cost, so it's hard to have an opinion on whether that will make any sense.
In addition, beyond computer foul-ups, for any of many reasons someone may decide to cancel their subscription. If the SPOT unit self-destructed at that point, it wouldn't create a problem. However, it's still around, it still appears fully functional and sooner or later someone may come into possession of it who doesn't know or understand that it requires a subscription to use and then try to use it in a distress situation. If SPOT ignores that alert, they might die. It is easy enough to imagine other scenarios where this sort of thing could happen.
At an absolute minimum, in my opinion, SPOT needs to conspicuously label the device with a warning that a current subscription is required to use the device. What I'd really prefer to see is for SPOT to figure out a way to deal with a non-subscriber 911 alert. If they are going to market a distress signaling device, it just seems to me that part of their obligation is to ensure that they make saving lives a priority.
Simply pressing the ON/OFF button turns SPOT on. A green LED will flash once every three seconds. Once turned on, there is a two-second delay before you can activate any other function. To turn the device off, hold the button down for three seconds.
I'm not sure I like it being so easy to turn on, but given the long battery life when it's simply in ON mode, approximately a year, and the flashing LED to warn you, perhaps this isn't a major concern. Every time SPOT is turned on, the unit runs a complete self-diagnostic (self-test), and the OK/Check LED will flash red to indicate any problems. The OK/Check button also functions as a self-test button with the added advantage that it tests the system end-to-end since it actually transmits a location so that you can check to confirm it works. That end-to-end system check is a great confidence building capability that doesn't yet exist for PLBs. A PLB does transmit when running a self-test, but there's no practical way for a user to check on it. SPOT does not mention this end-to-end self-test explicitly in their manual, but they should.
To use the distress alerting capability, what they refer to as "Alert 9-1-1," the power must be on, then you have to press the "911" button for at least two seconds. Your distress alert with a GPS derived location is sent to the "GEOS Global Command and Control Center" in Houston, Texas, operated by SPOT's partner, GEOS Alliance Travel Safety Group. The green LED flashes every three seconds while in Alert 9-1-1 mode and turns solid green for five seconds every time an alert message is transmitted (at five minute intervals).
The GEOS response center will contact the appropriate agency or organization to respond to the distress alert, depending upon where you are. This is essentially what happens with a PLB alert, but via government run non-commercial rescue coordination centers run by the Air Force and the Coast Guard.
Like with a PLB, GEOS will try to contact you at the contact numbers provided when you signed up, or check with your emergency contacts, to determine if it is a real or false alert. If they cannot make contact or there is no mitigating information, they act on the alert as real.
GEOS provides these services to a number of clients using a variety of devices such as cellular based emergency notification devices, cell phones and GPS equipped satellite phones. It is their basic tracking and messaging software that is being massaged and integrated into the SPOT web site.
SPOT also offers a $7.95 per year option for a GEOS Search and Rescue Benefit ($100,000 worth of benefits) that is essentially insurance to cover rescue in less capable areas of the world. One of GEOS' primary businesses is as a corporate emergency services and travel consultant and supplier and this capability is what is activated and covered by this insurance if necessary. They will arrange rescue via private contractor if necessary.
A 9-1-1 alert can be canceled by holding down the button for 3 seconds. It then flashes a red LED which turns solid on for five seconds when the cancel message is sent.
I do have some concerns about the ease with which the 991 alert can be sent. There are no covers over the buttons, so it seems it might be possible for a false alert to be somewhat easily sent, especialy if the SPOT was carried in a pack, for example, without much thought given to the possibility. There may be some internal software that reduces this possibility, but we didn't get into that prior to deadline.
"Ask for Help" is designed for non-life-threatening situations. Say your vehicle broke down and you needed someone to come get you. When you press and hold the Help button for two seconds it uses email or text messaging with a link to Google Maps to provide your location to your SPOTteam. The message is pre-programmed, so its usefulness beyond just notification is limited. You can have up to four contacts on your SPOTteam, which you set up via a web page. It sends your message and location every five minutes for an hour.
In the OK/Check mode, SPOT actually sends 3 identical messages for redundancy. Only one of these is transmitted to the user's contacts.
You can notify both the call center and your SPOTteam simultaneously by using both the 911 and Help buttons. I could image situations wherte that could create some serious confusion and problems, however. I'm not sure that's a good idea.
Check In, what SPOT call "SPOTchecking" is a variation on the Ask for Help mode. It sends a SPOTcheck message, essentially saying that you're OK, and location via Google Maps, to your SPOTteam members. These locations are saved, so they could be referenced as waypoints at a later date.
SPOTcasting is a tracking service. As noted, it is an extra cost service, $49 per year. Once activated by pressing and holding the OK button for 5 seconds, it transmits your location every 10 minutes for 24 hours. SPOTteam members can go online and track your progress which is superimposed on Google Maps. SPOTcasting must be re-initiated every 24 hours if you want to have continuous coverage of multi-day travels. These locations are saved, so they could be referenced at a later date.
These latter two modes would be a great benefit for many backpackers and other outdoor backcountry sports enthusiasts, as well as other travelers out of reach of cell service.
Battery life is variable, depending upon what you are using it for. The lithium AA batteries should be good for up to 10 years in storage. This is about the same as typical PLB batteries, which have a conservative replacement interval of approximately half that. I'd be inclined to suggest that would be a reasonable strategy if you own a SPOT and use it strictly for distress signaling.
SPOT claims fully charged new batteries should last:
- Power ON: approximately 1 year.
- 9-1-1 Alert mode: approximately 7 days (every 5 minutes)
- SPOTcasting tracking mode: approximately 14 days (every 10 minutes)
- SPOTcheck mode: approximately 1900 messages (adjusted for the triple message format)
These figures are at room temperature. PLB drop battery life tests are done at -20 or -40C. While lithium batteries perform much better than alkaline batteries at cold temperatures, they still have a significant reduction in capacity compared to room temperature, based on my experience. But, even if you reduce their numbers by 50% at the minimum operating temperature of -40F, that's still a lot of signaling time.
SPOT recommends that you replace the batteries before a trip if you are uncertain about their state of charge, which is good advice. When the ON/OFF indicator LED flashes red at one second intervals, the batteries are down to approximately 30% of their remaining life. That figure is not in the manual; it simply says to replace the batteries when the red LED flashes. I think its something a user could possibly make use of, what that flashing red light really means.
It will also flash red if you put in alkaline batteries instead of lithium. Alkaline batteries will work, according to SPOT, "but for such a short time that (they) do not recommend their use." Because they "do not recommend them, (they) don't provide specifications that describe how long they might work." Given that alkaline AAs, which are ubiquitous, may be all someone might have available in an emergency, I'm not sure I understand why they wouldn't at least let the user know what they might expect for battery life if that's their only choice.
If you have left the unit on for months, or used up a few days in SPOTcasting mode, you will have less time left if you activate the 9-1-1 alert. It's only at the margins that this would become an issue, but especially if you are planning to use the SPOTcasting feature, I'd suggest you carry a spare pair of lithium batteries in a readily and reliably accessible location. Not a bad idea in any case. If it works as advertised, unless you are moving (on water for example) once you get a message with your location through to the call center, after that the rest is gravy. At least, that's how it works in theory. And, generally, that's how it works with PLBs.
On the water it's a different story since you rarely stay in one place on the water. In some circumstances you can be miles away from where the first alert was sent by the time rescue arrives, so updated location information can be critical. Without a homing beacon, like a PLB has, the location is all Search and Rescue has to work with, so it becomes even more important under such circumstances.
Problems would arise if you cannot get a GPS fix, in which case SPOT won't transmit to the satellite. You will know it hasn't obtained a GPS fix because the ON/OFF and selected function LEDs blink out of unison. Their suggestion in the manual is to "move the SPOT messenger to an area with a clearer view of the sky." Of course, that's not always possible, your inability to move may well be why you sent out that distress call. This potentially problematic limitation is not explicitly mentioned anywhere in the User Manual. That is critical information that needs to be addressed before they go into production.
Having said that, I have a real problem with SPOT's policy not to transmit anything without a GPS location, particularly as regards the distress alert, but this is also applicable to the HELP and Check In features. This makes an assumption that there is no benefit to an alert with no location information. In many cases that is simply wrong, and it could be dead wrong in the case of a distress alert.
If you're just tracking shipping containers, perhaps it doesn't matter; but with lives at stake, I believe that's a very poor strategy and a policy that suggests that SPOT doesn't really comprehend fully what's at stake. Can you imagine being in a survival situation, staring at the SPOT's LEDs not flashing in unison, knowing that your alert wasn't sent out, unable to do anything about it and knowing nobody is making any effort to help you because they don't know you need rescuing? For many folks, that certainly wouldn't help with the positive mental attitude that's so critical to survival.
The first stage of distress alerting is letting someone know you are in trouble. Having the ability to provide a location is the second step. It isn't difficult to conceive of a situation where a GPS location isn't available, including a GPS malfunction, but the 9-1-1 signal might get through to the satellite. If the general or even specific location of the person sending that 9-1-1 alert is known, that's a whole lot better than no alert at all. Sometimes all it takes is a phone call to the emergency contacts to discover where rescue resources need to be sent, no absolute need for the beacon to provide the location.
This is exactly the capability that PLBs provide though the Geostationary satellites if there's no GPS location. In that case it gives SAR a head start on the process; within 90 minutes maximum they will get a LEO satellite alert and Doppler location. SPOT has no such "backup."
Another potential problem is that in our experience sat phones don't work very well with overhead cover (think: forest or jungle) or in adverse weather or even under a heavy layer of smoke (say from a forest fire). The SPOT VP of Development, Robert Bennett, claims that because it uses such little bandwidth in simplex mode with the brief 1 to 2-second transmission, that this signal is much more reliable under these circumstances than we have experienced with a sat phone. We'll just have to see how things go in testing; for now I'm skeptical (it's a professional requirement).
One very convenient difference between SPOT and a PLB is that testing SPOT is a piece of cake in comparison. No need for all the expensive and time consuming coordination and special arrangements with manufacturers and government agencies and then having to wade through loads of raw data which must be converted and analyzed. Simply using Check In or SPOTcasting gives you immediate indication if SPOT is working effectively or not. Ironically, we'll likely have to use an Iridium sat phone to communicate back to base in remote locations in order to get that immediate feedback, since the duplex sat phone side of Globalstar is so unreliable up at this time.
With the exception of a warning next to the battery compartment to use only lithium batteries, there are no instructions or warnings on the device, at least on the samples shown. There doesn't appear to have been any consideration for operation by someone unfamiliar with how to use the device. Any device meant to be used in an emergency is best designed for use by someone not familiar with the device. Sometimes that's the only person available.
While it may seem entirely self-evident sitting here that you press a button to turn it on and then press the 911 button to send out a distress alert, that doesn't mean that someone under stress and not thinking clearly will figure that out. Especially considering that you have to know to hold down the buttons for the correct length of time and not shield the antenna from the sky and... Well, you get the idea.
While the design and marketing folks may like the clean look with the big SPOT logo, when lives depend on using the device, this really has to take a back seat to the practical issue of making sure it's functional for those whose lives may depend upon it. Clear and legible instructions for emergency use should be on the front, along with a clear warning of the location of the antenna and to not block the antenna. The SPOT folks could take some lessons from the current generation of PLBs and the new standards under development by RTCM that more clearly spell out what and how to communicate to the user about operating the device.
And, that, if I might take a few paragraphs to vent, is an area that is a concern to me for all the new devices such as this, and this is only the first of many you can expect to see in the next 12-18 months. I welcome the innovation, but I am concerned that these are designed with relatively few applicable minimum performance standards and no independent testing and oversight to speak of.
There are two problems with this. One, if a company is less than responsible or is not steeped in a culture of saving lives and what that means, this leaves lots of opportunity for quality and performance problems that could cost someone their life. I am not suggesting in the least that this is an issue for SPOT, don't get me wrong. There's no way for the consumer to be protected on the front end, even a little bit. In some areas, the capitalist system and slow judicial process doesn't do a very good job of protecting the public. That's one reason we have standards and approval bodies, which brings up my second point.
These products are designed and built without any basis for what is acceptable design criteria. And, even if the company has developed their own, there's no assurance it is static, they can change it as they like, or that the device is even built to whatever standards they set. Again, I'm not implying this is an issue with SPOT. I'm just venting. One advantage of standards is that they help to better ensure that the products built to that standard will perform as expected and that issues that the community have identified as critical have been addressed. Not that standards are perfect, mind you, but they seem less imperfect to me than other means of accomplishing these ends and they generally improve over time.
There's no consensus standards here, as there are for PLBs for example, which standards are often developed and improved as the result of hard lessons learned by many of the various industry, government and user representatives that are involved, and which are too often writ in the blood of tragedy. Without all these groups involved, there's no balance and nobody is looking over anyone's shoulder. It's not that you cannot end up with a good product, it's just that you have little way to assure yourself that you will.
We will endeavor to fill those shoes as best we can with limited resources, but it remains an issue I am concerned about.
The SPOT Satellite Messenger comes with a 12 month warranty
from the manufacturer, Axonn, LLC, not SPOT. We haven't seen the warranty and have no experience with Axonn, so we cannot comment on its value. Axxon's experience appears to be with commercial gear used in less than prisitine conditions, the customers for which are not very understanding of poor reliability, so that is promising. However, I'm
a bit disappointed in a 12-month warranty for a life saving device that has a
practical useable life of many years. This isn't something that if it doesn't
work, it's just an annoyance and you can just get it repaired. If it doesn't
work, you could die. PLBs typically have come with a 5-year warranty. If they don't have enough confidence to provide a
multi-year warranty, should you trust your life to it?
I tend to be somewhat conservative when it comes to lifesaving devices. So, first off, until we get a unit in hand to test, I'm not about to endorse SPOT. I also want to test a production version when they become available, just to confirm whatever results we initially obtain.
If SPOT performs as promised and it proves reliable and robustly constructed, I think it might provide a viable alternative to a more expensive PLB for many users. Over the short term it will save some money, but whether it's a good long term investment is another issue. However, the lower initial outlay will definitely encourage more folks to buy and carry one of these on their adventures and all other things being equal the statistics suggest that will save lives—if it works, etc., etc.
As far as cost goes, this is how it seems to stack up with regards to basic distress alerting capability. You have a $150 initial investment, then a minimum of $99 a year for service. This may be less on a multi-year or lifetime subscription option, but we've not got any such numbers. If you keep the SPOT five years, that is essentially $650, or pretty much the same as a current generation PLB with no annual subscription required. Available previous generation PLBs are hundreds less.
PLBs weigh more than SPOT, less than 3 ounces more for the current generation, 4-6 ounces for available previous generation PLBs. Mind you, the cost, weight and size advantage of SPOT over a PLB will be eroded over the next couple years as new PLBs become available. Response to PLB alerts will continue to be free, no subscription required. Another thing that isn't going to change in the foreseeable future is that a PLB is a one-trick pony, simply a distress beacon, nothing more.
With the HELP button and other capabilities, SPOT provides a potentially useful alternative to the all or nothing approach that is the essence of how a PLB works. This will appeal to many and isn't part of the pure distress alerting cost comparison. Only time will tell if the HELP alternative will prove useful to avoid distress alerts, or just to make things easier on the person in the field. PLBs are supposed to be reserved for siutations of "grave and imminent danger," essentially where there is a threat to life or limb.
Having said all that, based on what I've been told about the device and its capabilities, and knowing what I know about GPS technology, it's my current opinion that SPOT likely doesn't provide the equivalent reliability and robustness of a PLB for distress alerting in more difficult environments and extreme conditions. I'd wouldn't mind being proved wrong. Only thorough testing will determine where to draw that line.
One critical question is how effective the satellite transmission will be in challenging environments? We don't know if it, indeed, works better than the sat phones, whose reliability and performance under less than optimum conditions we have never been impressed with. At this point we don't have the data to make that determination. Performance on shipping containers is not the same as in the wilderness, in a slot canyon or under heavy canopy.
For a PLB, the GPS receiver provides added capability to the standard Doppler locating, but with SPOT the GPS is essential to provide a location, there's no alternative locating method available. While GPS receivers have improved significantly in the past few years, even at its best GPS does have operating limitations. Anyone who has been using GPS receivers under difficult circusmtances understands this. Moreover, at this point we have no idea just how sensitive this GPS receiver is; how well it performs under less than optimum conditions.
If SPOT doesn't change its position with regards not transmitting an alert if there's no GPS location, I would have serious reservations recommending it under any circumstances. That just seems to me to be very poor operational policy that could have grave consequences.
SPOT also need to address the no-alert-with-no-subscription issue, in some manner or other, and both the instructions on the beacon and the owner's manual need some work, in my opinion.
All distress alerting devices have limitations, including PLBs. Eventually one hopes we will have solid data from which we can draw conclusions about what the limitations are for the SPOT Satellite Messenger and how robust and reliable it will be in real world distress situations. We'll be taking an initial stab at that once we get our test unit, promised in the next 30-60 days. Only then can we really decide where it fits in the pantheon of available of distress signaling devices.
Then, as long as the consumer is aware of the tradeoffs, no problem. Whether the average minimally knowledgeable consumer can make an informed decision is another question entirely. Heck, at least one usually knowledgable outdoors journalist has already referred to SPOT as a PLB in a published OR report. As the choices multiply, I do have concerns that consumers will be confused and not necessarily make the best choice, based on actual capability vis-a-vis their area of operations, but that is the nature of a competitive advanced technology marketplace.
For now, I'm taking a conservative, and prudent I believe, wait and see attitude until we can do some field testing and we also see what, if any, changes SPOT makes as it moves into production. Conceptually, it is an interesting development with some practical features that could prove valuable for many potential users. Still, for all the cool features it offers, the bottom line question we need to answer is whether or not it's worth betting your life on?
I certainly don't recommend being an early adopter of SPOT if distress signaling is going to be your primary use until we answer that question. If it isn't, if the other features are what's of interest to you or your possible use is not likely going to be in a very challenging environment, that may be a different story.
SPOT plans to initiate sales and start signing up subscribers on November 1, 2007.
Updates to this article can be found at:
SPOT Satellite Messenger Update
Should You Get SPOT Now?
|SELECT AND USE OUTDOORS AND SURVIVAL EQUIPMENT, SUPPLIES AND TECHNIQUES AT YOUR OWN RISK. Please review the full WARNING & DISCLAIMER about information on this site.|
Publisher and Editor: Doug Ritter
Email: Doug Ritter
First Published: August 18, 2007
Revision: 02 September 10, 2007
© 2007 Douglas S. Ritter & Equipped To Survive Foundation, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Check our Copyright Information page for additional information.
Read the ETS