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January 23, 2013

ACR vs DME SATRO PLB: DME Loses

Filed in Musings

Final judgment is in on ACR’s lawsuit against DME and its design consultants alleging that they misappropriated ACR trade secrets and documents and incorporated them into DME’s SATRO PLB. In a Stipulated Judgment and Permanent Injunction issued on January 15, 2013, DME lost big time.

For background:

Click Here for the original article about the DME SATRO PLB from December 9, 2011: They Keep Shrinking: Smaller & Lighter PLB From DME

Click Here for the intial article detailing the filing of the lawsuit with supporting documents from October 15, 2012: What Happened to the SATRO PLB from DME?

The Stipulated Judgment and Permanent Injunction represents a negotiated agreement between the parties that has been agrreed to and been signed off by the judge in the case. This came about after DME lost the critical first round when the judge issued a preliminary injunction against DME back in October 2012.

Click Here to read that Order Granting Plaintiff’s Motion for a Preliminary Injunction, which includes the judge’s findings of fact which virtually all fell in favor of ACR.

In the end, not only was DME forced to pull the SATRO PLB from the market, which it had already essentially done, and agree not to use ACR’s trade secrets, they also agreed that for a period of four years they would not market ANY PLB and for two years would not market ANY EPIRB. Essentially, for the agreed periods of time, DME is out of the PLB and EPIRB business.

Moreover, the other defendants, the design consultants who formerly worked for ACR, agreed that for a period of five years they cannot work or contribut in any way to the design, development. marketing or sales of PLBs, EPIRBs, or ELTs.

There’s more details, but those represent the bottom line results, a big win by ACR. Click here to read the entire Stipulated Judgment and Permanent Injunction.

October 22, 2012

Post Election Rioting: Alarmist or Just Being Prepared?

RiotingThe past few weeks have seen a significant uptick in emails to me expressing concern about possible rioting as a result of the upcoming election, asking what the writer should do to protect themselves (a subject also being discussed on a number of online forums). If anything is a sad commentary on the current political situation, this certainly is.

Having said that, we don’t have a history of riots after elections in the U.S., even when we have had hotly contested results (Bush-Gore), but I do think the upcoming election has at least some potential for stimulating rioting due to a confluence of factors; unrealistic expectations, adverse media influence by way of so many rioting scenes from overseas (and feeding of unrealistic expectations) and provocateurs, domestic and foreign, who might seize on the opportunity, combined with the rise in social media and its influence which can be abused to inflame situations. The past is not always a predictor of the future, particularly when key elements have changed.

“Potential” certainly isn’t the same as “likely,” but like all prospective emergency situations, it pays to consider the possibilities and be prepared if your assessment is that it is a concern. You asked, and that’s my job.

Riots generally have relatively limited geographic impact in the U.S. Avoiding likely areas is your best defense. That is sometimes easier said than done, but should be possible for most folks for the short term of any likely trouble to arise.

By and large, riots don’t occur in affluent neighborhoods, bedroom communities, small towns or rural areas. Riots have historically been centered in densely populated urban areas in poorer neighborhoods. Adverse impacts such as fire may spread some beyond these areas, but it is rare.

It is the perverse nature of such things that rioters generally tend to make a mess of their own space to their own detriment, but there’s nothing rational about a riot, nor is that always the case. Get caught in the event and it matters not that you were just a passersby; you could become a victim.

It appears that some urban law-enforcement agencies may be taking the possibility of rioting after this election seriously, but it doesn’t appear to be a widespread concern. In such instances you might expect a strong presence on the street and very rapid and strong reaction should anything start up.

On the other hand, don’t assume law enforcement will be taking extra precautions or any at all; there are always those in leadership positions who either won’t consider potentially adverse situations or somehow think preparing for such a possibility will, itself, cause them too much political grief. Virtually all such organizations have plans for civil disturbances, but the key is how quickly they can implement them in an emergency.

Minutes, hours or days will make a huge difference in outcome. If you live or have a business in an area where the potential exists, meet with law enforcement ahead of time and ascertain if they are prepared and to what degree. Your response may key off what you find out, but I would not necessarily suggest sharing your response with them.

So, what to do if you are concerned and want to be prepared yourself? As noted above, avoid such areas if you can. If you work in such an area, I think I might consider taking a few days off starting November 6th.

If you have property in such an area you have two stark choices, beyond deciding that this is just paranoia. Flee or prepare to defend it.

As the Korean-Americans in the Rodney King Riots demonstrated, a strong armed presence and willingness to fight may dissuade rioters from attacking your property or, worst case, protect it from assault. This is, ideally, not something that should be thrown together at the last minute without significant preparation and planning, as was done in that instance.

First off, armed protection against a mob is much more effective if you have a group of defenders. A single person, or small family group, doesn’t stand much chance against a mob, even if armed. Remember, they may be armed as well, and as we saw in the Rodney King Riots, they may be perfectly willing to use their weapons. And, nothing much will protect you against a fire spreading.

Let me stress that as those Korean-Americans found out, just having a firearm won’t necessarily deter the mob. You may well have to use it. If you have no stomach for shooting someone to protect your property and self, don’t even try. And, be prepared to deal with the political and legal aftermath, which may not be pleasant.

If you decide to defend your property, be smart about it. Send the kids and anyone who would be a liability away to someplace safe. Either have defensive barricades and such in place or the ability to set them up very quickly. Be prepared to be self-sufficient for at least a few days and be prepared for dealing with traumatic injuries. Have alternate means of communications because wired and cell phones may not function.

This is, at best, just an overview of key issues. Work with your fellow property owners and develop a strategy. Always assume worst case and have tactics for dealing with those, including a tactical retreat. Your property is not worth dying over. It may not be worth killing over. Think hard about this. This won’t necessarily end like a Hollywood movie where only bad guys, and others you don’t care about, get hurt.

Again, this is not something to take lightly or without significant preparations. If you cannot do it right, if you are not prepared mentally to deal with the significant issues, or you decide the risk is not worth it (which is where I think many would find themselves after due consideration), then make sure your insurance is in good shape (check that it covers a riot) and get the hell out of there ahead of time with any irreplaceable belongings and records.

Then, if things go seriously bad, call your insurance company and tell them what happened to their property.

Hopefully, all this is an exercise in abundant caution. But, that’s how you end up not surprised by events.

October 15, 2012

What Happened to the SATRO PLB from DME?

Filed in Gear , News

NOTE: DME has withdrawn the SATRO PLB from the market. Click here for the final judgement in this lawsuit.

SARTO PLB-110I have been getting a number of inquires about Astronics DME Corporation’s SATRO PLB-110 “world’s smallest and lightest” PLB that we first wrote about back in December of last year (2011). Besides being small, one of the unique features of the PLB was a form factor that mimicked a modern smart phone, making it flatter and more pocketable than existing designs. It was also buoyant, despite the small size, another unique feature at the time. There’s been a lot of interest and DME was saying that they expected to reach market in the Spring of 2012, though Spring came and went without the PLB being available.

Since it isn’t unusual for a distress beacon manufacturer to blow their expected introduction date, in my experience, I wasn’t all that concerned or surprised. In any case, we are now in the Fall of 2012, and after more emails to me asking what was happening, I decided to check up on what was going on.

I was able to ascertain that both COSPAS-SARSAT and FCC approvals were gained in March and May, 2012, respectively, but, I found that the SATRO PLB has disappeared from the DME web site.

When I tried to talk to DME about the SATRO, I got nowhere, zip, nada, nothing! Think “black hole.” Clearly, something was awry and when a company clams up that tight, my first suspicion is some sort of legal issue is involved. After some further sleuthing around the Internet, seems my instincts were correct.

ACR ResQLink PLB-375Turns out that just days before I published my initial report on the SATRO, ACR Electronics filed a Federal lawsuit against DME and its design consultants, former ACR design engineers and employees. These former ACR employees left ACR and formed their own electronics design consultancy, gaining DME as a client. ACR claims, among other things, that they had misappropriated ACR trade secrets and documents and incorporated them into the new SATRO PLB. ACR also asked for a Preliminary Injunction to prevent DME from selling the SATRO PLB, which has not, to date, been granted. You can see all the allegations in the filing here:

ACR’s 1st Amended Complaint

Also, I have posted some motions from ACR and DME:

ACR Motion for Preliminary Injunction
DME’s Proposed Findings of Fact
ACR’s Proposed Findings of Fact

These all make for interesting reading, but, they only tell part of the story. There have been dozens of filings in this case (as of this article, 166 items on the docket). Some of the filings have been sealed at ACR request and there’s hundreds of pages of declarations and additional motions (costs money to get these, so we just got a few of what seemed like the most critical). Whatever else happens, the lawyers involved must be making a mint.

This lawsuit certainly could explain why DME decided against selling the SATRO, at least at this juncture. If they were deemed in the end to be liable, any damages would be significantly lessened if they didn’t sell any of the beacons. And, the motion for preliminary injunction is pretty much moot if they aren’t selling the PLB. On the other hand, there is no certainty that ACR will prevail in court.

Also, along the way, DME filed a counterclaim against the consultants, a normal strategy in such a complicated lawsuit, covering their butt somewhat in case the consultants actually did do what ACR alleges.

If ACR’s claims are true, they have every right to sue and stop the theft of their property. A cynic might note that as long as DME isn’t selling the SATRO, ACR benefits by not having to compete with a PLB that could offer consumers some significant perceived advantages over the existing ACR PLBs.

No surprise, DME and the design consultants counter in their filings that they did nothing wrong and that ACR is way off base. Mostly they say that whatever similarities that exist between the SATRO and the ACR PLBs are the result of common design solutions to electronics required by dint of the regulatory specifications in any PLB and/or expertise and procedures these particular engineers already had prior to be hired by ACR and/or existing technology freely available or not really a trade secret of ACR.

I won’t bore you with the myriad convoluted details, claims and counterclaims, allegations and rebuttals, you can read the filings above if you need help falling asleep one night, but only time will tell how this ends up. As of the end of last month, the court docket shows that the parties had agreed to a mediator, a standard procedure in such cases, and perhaps that means that a settlement can be reached…or not. Another option might be that DME will redesign the SATRO to avoid any possible issues with the claimed stolen ACR tech, or it may be that one or the other may eventually prevail in court.

Without access to all the court filings, it is impossible for me to render an opinion as to who is in the right in this fight. The only thing that is certain at this point is that it is a nasty fight that is costing all involved lots and lots of money and consumer availability of this smaller and lighter PLB is uncertain at this point, so don’t be holding your breath. If you need a PLB today, just get one before you find yourself wishing you had.

Not surprising given the ongoing litigation, neither ACR or DME would comment for this article.

Stay tuned!

NOTE: DME has withdrawn the SATRO PLB from the market. Click here for the final judgement in this lawsuit.

September 6, 2012

BriarTek Patent Claims Pressure Popular 2-Way Distress Beacon Manufacturers

Filed in News

Updated December 17, 2012: At the RTCM Board of Directors meeting last week, BriarTek delivered a letter stating that their patent was “not essential” and that it was possible to build a two-way SEND to the SC-128 standard without violating their patent. Discussion ensued and it was noted that in the opinion of at least one manufacturer present (and I concur), such a SEND would not be commercially viable since there would be little communication afforded without text, which is the essential part of the patent and essential to a commercially viable two-way SEND.

The conclusion was that while BriarTek was technically correct about it being “not essential,” in reality they were splitting very fine hairs. When I asked if they had amended their patent or planned to do so to encompass those alternative means, we were told by BriarTek’s representative at the meeting, Chuck Collins, that they had not done so and he couldn’t tell us if they planned to do so. BriarTek’s Intellectual Property attorney, John Fuisz, also attended.

In the end the Board determined that BriarTek had not violated the specific elements of RTCM’s Intellectual Property Policy, even if the general sentiment was that they had violated the spirit of the policy, and they decided not to invalidate and pull the SC-128 standard. Rather, they will revise the standard to incorporate a notice of BriarTek’s “not essential” patent.

This situation clearly exposed loopholes in the RTCM Intellectual Property Policy that was intended to prevent exactly this type of situation, where a party to the development of a standard could benefit financially from holding a patent essential to building devices that meet the standard. The Board took action to begin revising their Intellectual Property Policy to attempt to prevent the occurrence of such a situation again in the future.

With regards to the ITC complaint, I understand that Yellowbrick have capitulated and signed a licensing agreement with BriarTek. Given their very small market share and even smaller sales in the U.S. , that probably made sense from a purely financial perspective. I should note that doesn’t have any bearing on the validity of the patent.

I spoke to Delorme President Mike Heffron, who told me they had no intention of backing down. In an interesting turn of events, he told me that in a move initiated prior to the ITC complaint being filed, they will begin production in the U.S. very early in 2013. That would essentially nullify the ITC complaint, since the ITC ’s powers are limited to importation issues. At that juncture the ball is back in BriarTek’s court; they would need to file a lawsuit in Federal Court to continue their effort to enforce their patent.

Stay tuned. I somehow doubt this is the end of this story.


Updated October 10, 2012: BriarTek contacted me after this article was published and advised that they did have distribution and provided a list of 12 distributors for their Cerberus SEND. I requested that they provide links to the companies’ web sites, but they never responded to that request. With their help I was able to locate the product on REI’s web site and I independently located it on the SatPhoneCity USA web site, another of the listed distributors. The other distributors listed, most of which I was unable to locate with Google, appear to be strictly industry oriented operations, many of which are not located in the U.S., and clearly not consumer oriented U.S. businesses. That was the issue at hand in the article (below) regarding the claim that there was lack of distribution in the U.S. sufficient to replace, somehow, the existing widespread distribution of the targeted Delorme inReach, which if barred from sale would have an adverse effect on consumers.

I had hoped to visit BriarTek while I was in the D.C. area the week following publication of the article, at Joe Landa’s invitation, but was unable to do so due to unanticipated conflicts.

At the RTCM Board of Directors meeting in Orlando, there was considerable discussion of this issue. I arrived a few minutes late and then participated in that discussion. A Delorme representative attended the meeting. Joe Landa attended via conference call. BriarTek had indicated to the Board that in their opinion, their patent is not an “essential” patent. If this is the case then devices could be produced that meet the standard without infringing the Briartek patent. However, it could be that such devices would be far less commercially viable. RTCM requires any patents related to the standard to be declared. The difference between an “essential” patent and a “non-essential” patent is that RTCM does not publish standards that rely upon an essential patent. If the BriarTek patent is deemed “essential,” then it is possible the RTCM SC128 standard for SENDs might be withdrawn, which could create all sorts of problems.

The Board requested that BriarTek provide a letter that clearly stated whether they considered their patent to be essential or not, and why, and that they also include their proposed licensing requirements. Landa agreed to do so in a timely manner. The issue was then tabled until the next Board meeting in December, pending receipt of that letter. It was clear that not everyone on the Board agreed with the BriarTek position that their patent was non-essential.


September 6, 2012: On August 17, 2012, BriarTek IP, Inc. of Alexandria, Virginia, filed a complaint with the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) that alleges that Delorme’s and Yellowbrick’s 2-way Satellite Emergency Notification Devices (SENDs) infringe upon a BriarTek patent (U.S. Patent No. 7,991,380) and should be barred from importation. If their petition is granted, that would shut out Delorme’s popular inReach from U.S. consumers. Yellowbrick so far has only limited distribution, mostly in Europe, so that has limited direct impact on U.S. consumers.

BriarTek, Inc., a related company, licenses the BriarTek IP patent and manufactures and markets its Cerberus SEND and related smart phone applications and computer software.

By way of background, BriarTek filed a provisional patent application in March, 2006, for a “Global Bidirectional Locator Beacon and Emergency Communications System.” The patent was granted in August 2, 2011. It must be noted that grant of a patent doesn’t mean a patent is actually valid or enforceable, as many patents are later found to be invalid. The BriarTek patent is very broad in scope. It essentially claims invention of the entire concept of using satellites for 2-way text messaging distress beacons.

According to BriarTek President Joe Landa, BriarTek is simply interested in protecting its intellectual property and the investment it has made. He claims that he “doesn’t want to slow down release of any products into the market.” He explained that they had approached Delorme about licensing the patent prior to the filing and that is still BriarTek’s aim. He told me that he had extensive discussions with Delorme at the highest levels. “I offered Delorme a very reasonable license,” be said, but no agreement was reached. Yellowbrick was given 24-hour notice of the ITC filing. He explained that he “has long been a big proponent of getting these devices in the hands of the public,” and would “prefer to see more of them in use. ” Landa said in closing that he “cannot comment about any discussions either in the past or ongoing at this time that relate to the case or any potential settlements… We worked hard, we were awarded a patent, we hope others will respect our legal rights.”

This ITC complaint notice caught many in the industry by surprise. More on that later. Because of the very short eight-day timeframe provided for initial public comments on the complaint, only Delorme and Iridium filed comments (responses) opposing the complaint. (Click to read: Delorme Comments and Iridium Comments)

The ITC process is expedited compared to normal court proceedings. About 30 days after initial filing of the complaint, or in about one week, the ITC will institute the case (assuming all the legal requirements are met) and assign an administrative law judge (ALJ) to the case. The ALJ will set a target dates for the expedited process, which typically lasts from 9-18 months, but which can be extended. After motions and the like, the next big step will be an evidentiary hearing which is very similar to a federal trial. There is no option for a jury, the ALJ hears the case in accordance with administrative hearing rules.

After conclusion of the evidentiary hearing, the ALJ will issue an initial determination that is subject to review by the full Commission. At the stage they will publish a notice in the Federal Register seeking public comment on public interest issues and ALJ recommendations. That comment period is 30 days. Sixty days after notice is published the Commission will announce whether they will review the decision or not. At this juncture there’s another opportunity for the public to comment on public interest issues and ALJ recommendations If they chose not to review, the ALJ’s ruling becomes final. If reviewed, then they can reject the ALJ’s determination or modify it as they see fit. You can find an explanation for the ITC’s public interest accommodations here: http://usitc.gov/press_room/documents/featured_news/publicinterest_article.htm

Intellectual property is a key element in industrial development, but like anything given government sanction, patents can be abused. It is not uncommon for patent holders to demand licensing fees from existing commercial product manufacturers on patents. Then the issue becomes, is the patent is valid? The cost of challenging the patent must be weighed against the cost of litigation or paying a licensing fee. Certainly, those holding valid patents should expect to benefit from their efforts. If BriarTek’s patent claims are valid, it has every right to earn financial compensation for use of that patent.

If the patent is unquestionably valid, this is usually a fairly straightforward issue. After negotiations, the parties sign some form of licensing agreement and, typically, a royalty is paid to the patent holder. If there are issues with patent validity or if the demands for fees are outrageous, then the next step is typically either a request to re-evaluate the patent on the part of those accused of infringement , more on that later, or a lawsuit is filed by the patent holder where a judge or jury will eventually determine patent validity, damages and the like. Depending on how things are proceeding, a settlement may reached that resolves the issue, one way or another, prior to either effort coming to a conclusion.

When the alleged infringing product is imported, as is the case here, then the ITC can become another venue for the patent holder to assert pressure. Landa is quite clear that this is their goal, to pressure the parties to compensate them for use of their patent. And, he claims, “this is a less onerous process because it cannot reach back for damages and other claims.”

Anyone reading headlines about the patent battles occurring in the cell phone/smart phone/tablet wars will have some understanding of the stakes and the costs involved in protecting intellectual property.

Reading the Delorme Comments and Iridium Comments, they make the case that this ITC complaint should be rejected by the ITC due to the public interest issues alone, which are a significant area of concern for the ITC, as noted above. In their comments they assert that many of BrairTek’s claims of injury don’t hold water and that there is little question that consumers would be the losers.

A few weeks ago at Outdoor Retailer Summer Market, I spoke with Landa about the Cerberus SEND and he specifically said their primary emphasis was on government and corporate markets. Given the relatively high cost of their Cerberus SEND, up to three times more than the inReach, that made a lot of sense. Their primary existing product line is comprised of Man Overboard Beacons and systems that are, likewise, primarily sold direct to the military and commercial/industrial market. They currently have no significant presence in the consumer marketplace. Cerberus is only available online from their own web site.

As Delorme points out in their filing, there appears little likelihood that BriarTek could fill the existing consumer market niche, and certainly not in a reasonable timeframe, due to their much higher price and limited manufacturing capacity as well as virtually no presence in the consumer marketplace. There is also little evidence that these other 2-way SENDs are actually harming BriarTek. Most critically, they claim that a decision in BrairTek’s favor could put lives at stake.

If the ITC decides on BriarTek’s behalf, it is certainly possible that, absent some licensing or other scheme being implemented, consumers will take a hit and a growing market in advanced 2-way SENDs will be nipped in the bud until it sorts itself out. That could take considerable time, perhaps years if Delorme decides to fight rather than come to some sort of financial agreement with BriarTek.

These 2-way SENDS offer significant advantages to someone in an emergency situation and the Search and Rescue community, alike, compared to traditional 1-way alerting, albeit this comes at a cost increase. So, it’s not for everyone. Having said that, this same communications capability in non-distress situations can make them much more appealing than a more simplistic distress beacon or SEND. That helps to drive sales.

Text communications are inherently less costly and more compact compared to voice communications capability. As such, the uptake by consumers will be far greater for a 2-way text device compared to a satellite phone. The more competition there is in this market, the better it is for consumers and the SAR community as more of these devices will end up in the hands of those in need. That will result in more lives saved and fewer SAR responders put at risk.

BriarTek has certainly got Iridium’s attention, evidenced by their comments. Iridium has worked hard the past few years promoting 2-way SENDs and encouraging companies to enter the market. I am aware of numerous such devices in the works. Iridium sells modems and satellite data plans, so the more SENDs, the better from their viewpoint. Iridium is the 800-pound gorilla in the room. Without the Iridium satellite system, BriarTek is pretty much out of business. While it may not be able to cut BriarTek off “for cause” over this effort to monetize their patent, Iridium can certainly make their life difficult and could easily choose not to renew their agreement when the time comes.

Neither Delorme nor Iridium were willing to comment further due to the pending legal action, for the time being letting their public interest comments on the complaint stand on their own. Other companies with 2-way SEND devices in the works declined to go on the record. I can characterize their off-the-record comments as disdainful of BriarTek’s patent claims.

Beyond SENDs, if the patent was held to be valid, this could potentially impact the Next Generation COSPAS-SARSAT (MEOSAR) system which is currently in development with satellites and systems already being tested. That internationally supported distress alerting system allows for optional 2-way messaging incorporated into next generation 406 MHz EPIRBs, ELTs and PLBs.

There is also another issue, which may or may not bear on the legal side, but needs disclosure since this potentially affects many new SENDs in the pipeline and these devices are all about saving lives. The more SENDs out there, the more lives saved.

BriarTek, in its manufacturer guise, is a member of RTCM (Radio Technical Committee for Maritime) http://www.rtcm.org/ and Joe Landa was an active participant in the RTCM SC128 Special Committee that developed the SEND standard. That effort started in December, 2008, with the new standard being voted on in March, 2011, passing in May, http://www.equipped.org/blog/?p=331 and it was formally adopted on August 1, 2011. The FCC is a participant in RTCM committees and this SC128 standard has been forwarded to the FCC to be incorporated into FCC regulations. Delorme, as manufacturer of the inReach that was not yet released at the time that SC128 started work, was also a participant in the SC128 committee. Delorme’s current Vice President and General Manager, Patrick Shay, was employed by Iridium during that time period and was Iridium’s representative on the SC128 committee. He was also active in promoting 2-way SENDs via the ProTECTS Alliance (standing for Promotion of Two-way Emergency Communication and Tracking Systems) that Iridium initiated.

While the primary motivation for developing the SC128 standard was to protect consumers and ensure these devices work in emergency situations by setting a minimum level of performance, similar to the SC110 PLB standard, there’s no question that the SEND standard provided financial benefits to manufacturers. It essentially makes their conforming products more marketable and valuable.

RTCM has a long established policy that it “develop standards that do not require the use of patented technologies as the only means to comply with a standard (essential patents)” and that “Members of RTCM Special Committees and members of the RTCM Board of Directors should identify patented elements they are aware of which are included in any standard in preparation or revision.” In addition, “The ballot to approve every RTCM standard shall ask the member to identify any applicable patents they are aware of which are not identified in the standard.”

Having participated in SC128 meetings from the start, I can testify that I do not recall Landa ever once mention BriarTek’s pending patent, which would clearly be deemed an “essential patent” for any 2-way SEND. Checking with other SC128 members, nobody else that I spoke with recalls any such disclosure. Having said that, Landa claims that he recalls advising SC128 “that we had pending patents in this area. In general I do not comment on specific patents that are pending. I had no way at that time of knowing what claims would or would not be allowed or even if the patent would ever be awarded.”

Also, RTCM confirms that Landa did not vote on the standard, which may have required he disclose the patent on his ballot. I say “may,” because the patent at that time was still pending and the plain wording of the RTCM policy applies to issued patents. The consensus of those SC128 members I spoke with, who declined to be quoted on the record, is that Landa chose to not disclose a pending patent that could potentially affect many SEND manufacturers while he participated in developing a standard with many of those same manufacturers that could thereby enrich his company if he was awarded the patent and the patent is found to be valid.

It must be noted that while it appears that nobody else in the room was aware of the pending patent except Landa, at least those I spoke with, the patent application process is not confidential and patent applications are publicly available, with this patent application published October 7, 2007. Whether the other manufacturers at the table ought to have done a better job of keeping an eye on patent applications relating to their existing or potential products is another issue altogether.

The RTCM Board of Directors will take up this issue at their meeting the last week in September.

Consistent with Landa’s remarks to me, the assumption on the part of most I spoke with in the industry is that BriarTek’s ultimate goal is to license the patent or achieve some other form of financial settlement, which would give it a steady income stream from every 2-way SEND sold or a lump sum payment or something along those lines. The ITC action then is viewed as a way to assert pressure towards such an agreement. If a major player like Delorme signs, others would typically follow. That could take the validity of the patent out of play. The validity of the patent is the crux of the matter.

At this point, beyond dealing with the pending ITC complaint or acceding to BriarTek’s demands, Delorme certainly has the option of either requesting a re-examination of the patent due to documented prior art (meaning documentation that this capability covered by the patent existed or was discussed in some public forum prior to the patent application date) or filing a court challenge against BriarTek over the infringement claim that is contained in the ITC complaint. On balance, the expedited ITC process is likely its best choice. Note, however, that even if the ITC rules against BriarTek, including if it finds the patent to be invalid, that decision does not actually invalidate the patent and BriarTek could still file a lawsuit in Federal District Court. Not typically an effective strategy according to my sources, but…

With regards to the validity of that patent, ETS Foundation Board of Directors member, Scott Weide, an intellectual property attorney, provided this considerably simplified explanation of the issues:

The BriarTek patent claims some fairly broad concepts. For example, Claim 1 is generally directed to an emergency monitoring system which includes a user satellite communication device which communicates with a monitoring system via a satellite network, incorporates a GPS device, and where the user device includes a text entry device which is adapted to receive textual data entered by the user. During review of the patent, BriarTek argued that the feature of the user device having a text entry device adapted to receive textual data rendered the system unique over the prior art. The breadth of this claim certainly makes it subject to an invalidity attack.

While the U.S. Patent Office did not locate any prior art specifically disclosing a satellite communication system which allowed a user to input text, such prior art may still exist (in other literature or use not located by the Patent Office) such that the invention claimed in Claim 1 is not novel under U.S. patent laws (as we note below, it appears that could be the case – DR).

In addition, the claims of the BriarTek patent may be invalid based upon obviousness. Under Section 103 of the U.S. patent laws, a claimed invention is obvious, and thus not patentable, if the differences between the claimed subject matter and the prior art are such that the subject matter as a whole would have been obvious at the time the invention was made to a person having ordinary skill in the art to which said subject matter pertains (in other words, if someone knowledgeable regarding the subject would consider the invention an obvious next step, it isn’t patentable – DR).

BriarTek admits that satellite distress communication systems incorporating GPS which did not have text input/transmission functionality existed at the time of the invention. At the same time, user communication devices with text entry features and the ability to transmit textual data over a communication system were well known in other communications systems (beepers, cellular phones, etc.). Thus, although satellite distress communications systems may not have been implemented specifically with text transmission capabilities, it doesn’t appear to be because the feature wasn’t within the knowledge of one of ordinary skill in the art. In fact, it would be obvious to just about anyone that it was just a matter of time before that capability would be implemented via satellite.

One example of prior art may be found in the Distress Alerting Satellite System (DASS) which was seen as the next generation of distress system, building on the first generation COSPAS-SARSAT 406 MHz system. Many of the DASS concepts have evolved into the COSPAS-SARSAT Next Generation (MEOSAR) System. DASS originated back in 1998 and in February 2003, NASA, NOAA, the USAF, the USCG, and the DOE signed a Memorandum of Agreement regarding DASS development and demonstration. From the start, 2-way messaging was a key element of DASS. A published DASS document notes “the system also has the potential of providing additional one-way or two-way, non-vocal digital messaging.” Clearly, this predates the BriarTek patent submission.

Another example of a system that appears to have incorporated all the elements of the patent claims in prior art is the Volvo SeaKey system, first deployed in the early 2000’s. This maritime system uses the Orbcomm satellite system to provide tracking and distress alerting and response via text.

At this point there are a lot of accusations being flung around, often contradictory. Ultimately, I think this will resolve itself, either because the patent is invalidated or a settlement is reached on licensing terms if the patent looks to held up as valid.

Speaking to industry members, who spoke to me on condition of confidentiality, it seems clear that BriarTek’s patent will be challenged with support from at least most of those potentially affected. The cost to both parties, BriarTek and those opposed to this action and the validity of the patent, will be high, no matter the outcome. That will inevitably be reflected in the price of these SENDs.

Stay tuned for further developments.

July 28, 2012

After 13 Years Life Raft Aerospace Standard AS1356 Published!

Filed in Musings

Call me persistent, call me stubborn, call me crazy–what started as a small test and evaluation of aviation life rafts nearly 20 years ago for The Aviation Consumer has finally resulted in a new and vastly improved SAE Aerospace Standard for aviation life rafts, AS1356. This new standard addresses many of the serious deficiencies that I uncovered in a series of three groundbreaking life raft evaluations, as well as subsequent tests.

Over a decade and a half ago I first got involved in the SAE International Aerospace Council, Aircraft Division, S9 Cabin Safety Provisions Committee and S9A Safety Equipment and Survival Systems Sub-Committee. These committees develop standards, procedures and recommended practices for related systems on transport category aircraft, some of which, such as this life raft standard, are also applicable to General Aviation. The SAE aerospace documents generated by these committees form the basis for many new, revised and updated TSOs (Technical Standard Orders), ACs (Advisory Circulars), and FARs (Federal Air Regulations) issued by the FAA. I am the only consumer and General Aviation advocate that sits on these committees.

One of my prime motivations to joining these committees was those disappointing early evaluations of aviation life rafts. Since the FAA was already moving towards using SAE standards to develop new and updated TSOs (the standards to which aviation devices must be certified), it seemed like a unique opportunity to help change things for the better. The then Aerospace Recommended Practice ARP1356 for Life Rafts came up for review in 1999 and at the request of the FAA, S9 undertook the task of converting it to an Aerospace Standard that the FAA could use as the basis to update TSO C70a, the existing life raft TSO.

Thirteen years later, AS1356 – Life Rafts has finally been published. It is not a record for time taken to update a standard, but it is up near there. I’d love to tell you we are now done, but this is only the first step. Next the FAA has to review the AS and write a revised TSO C70b that incorporates this AS. That process is itself fraught with potholes. The FAA can simply accept AS1356 as written, or it can add requirements that may go beyond those in the AS and/or it can roll back some of the advances we have incorporated. It is likely that the new TSO will only apply to new life raft certifications and old designs will continue to be manufactured in accordance with prior, less stringent approvals.

Then, once the FAA has initially developed the revised TSO, they will publish a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) giving everyone, including the public, a crack at the proposal (more on that later, as well). Submitted comments, pro and con, will then need to be dealt with by the FAA and may result in further revision to the TSO before the final version is published. On rare occasions a further NPRM is published, if the changes are significant. This process could take anywhere from a year or more. I wouldn’t bet on an easy and quick rulemaking process.

AS1356 was developed through a collaborative process that is typical of standards development by the many standard setting organizations that exist. Ideally, all the interested parties from industry, government and, in this case, end users, work together to arrive at a consensus, which generally means that everyone has to compromise to some degree. The end result is equal parts liked and disliked, but all have bought into the final version.

The original draft of AS1356 by myself and Tom Anderson of Goodrich, those many years ago, was a compilation of the lessons learned from the groundbreaking Equipped To Survive life raft tests and evaluations and Tom’s decades of experience in the life raft business and as an FAA Designated Engineering Representative at Goodrich. We’d seen the good, the bad and the ugly, and this was a unique opportunity to aim towards the best. In the end, I think the result is pretty damn good, if not the very best it might have been, but that it the nature of this process and by and large it works.

While AS1356 doesn’t go as far as I would have liked in some respects, this new standard is a huge step forward compared to the existing inadequate TSO C70a, which is hopelessly outdated. Using TSO C70a and ARP1356 as a start, no section was left untouched and all were improved, many dramatically.

With only a few problematic exceptions, the new requirements are now performance based, meaning that how the designers and engineers attain the required performance is not mandated, just the end result. Performance based standards don’t tell you what to build or how to build it, they just lay out what level of performance, in terms of a testable goal, needs to be met. This allows for more innovation as new technologies are developed and we are no longer saddled with decades-old mandated technology. Not every single part of the standard could be so specified, there are still a few areas where testing would be so difficult or expensive that mandates are still included, but the vast majority are performance based.

We also strove to ensure a level playing field for all manufacturers and to protect end users by closing obvious loopholes and spelling out previously vague or ill-defined requirements. These flaws allowed life rafts to be approved in the past that really did not meet the existing TSO without straining credulity and some gave a particular manufacturer an advantage over others. It has to be understood that the FAA does not have much, if any, technical expertise in life raft design and manufacturing. So, when approving a TSO, in the past it has been relatively easy for a persuasive sales engineer to convince the FAA representative(s) involved that a particularly inventive interpretation was valid. Some other manufacturer may not be so “lucky.” Hopefully, there will be far fewer opportunities for that to occur with AS1356. This helps ensure that the end user who is depending upon this life raft to save their life is really getting the minimum level of lifesaving performance they should expect and nobody is penalized in the market.

In a number of instances we compromised by adopting somewhat less stringent standards for large life rafts used in transport category aircraft compared to smaller life rafts used in General Aviation aircraft. This was rationalized by the fact that these smaller life rafts are subject to potentially more adverse conditions for longer periods of time due to the diverse nature of General Aviation flying and because the larger life rafts used in transport category aircraft generally have trained crews and their size alone compensates for some otherwise more problematic issues. I didn’t always agree with some of these compromises, but as indicated, that is often the price paid for moving things forward and we worked hard to hold the line where it counted the most. Generally, I believe that we succeeded. This standard is somewhat unique in that it covers life rafts ranging from one- and two-persons to over 50 persons. There are, indeed, some practical differences between the aircraft on which they are carried and the likely circumstances of use in an emergency.

You’re probably wondering where the link is to the new AS1356. Well, that is another ongoing frustration. If you want to review it, which you ought to be able to do freely in order to understand and comment upon it, as is your right, you have to pay SAE $66. SAE does make its standards available for you to review at a very few selected libraries and document repositories, but it does not generally make them easily and readily accessible to the public, absent some extraordinary action.

In any case, as the NPRM process moves forward I will be publishing my extensive comments submitted to FAA so that anyone interested will be better able to understand the document and why these changes are critical of improving aviation safety.

Thirteen years is a damn long time and a lot of travel to committee meetings held all over the U.S. I estimate that it has taken somewhere around $30,000 to fund my participation in S9 over these past 13 years! While this standard was not the sole reason I participate in SAE S9, it has been one of the driving forces. ETS doesn’t get financial support from industry or the government for these activities. I am the only advocate representing you, the GA pilot or airline passenger, at these meetings. Please consider making a contribution to support my work on your behalf.

December 10, 2011

GGGH = Great Gear Gifts for the Holidays

Filed in Musings

I don’t care if you have been naughty or nice, ‘tis the season for me to make a list of everything from stocking stuffers to ultimate gifts that would make anyone who enjoys the outdoors smile.

I know, you are thinking this is just about me and my Doug Ritter Gear, but read on; there is more than just my gear, these are just great gifts for your favorite outdoor enthusiast, hunter, pilot, hiker or someone who loves “great gear.” This is gear that I would “bet my life on.” Much of this follows my mantra of “if it isn’t with you, it can’t save you™.” Any of it will earn you big smiles.

Stocking Stuffers

There’s no excuse not to always have a flashlight with you with the proliferation of compact LED flashlights. My Doug Ritter Special Edition Photon Freedom Micro-Light is available again and at a reduced price, only $15.95. It has a great feature set and will hardly be noticeable on a key chain, so it will always be there when you need it.

I am also a big fan of headlamps because they allow you to have both hands free to do whatever needs doing. There is no shortage of good headlamps out there, but Princeton Tec has a unique and fun offering that may be worth taking a look at. Over at Princeton Tec’s Spectrum program you can customize a Fuel headlamp with your choice of body colors. When they introduced this service to journalists earlier this year, I did up one with a bright yellow body and red end caps. The Fuel is a nice mid-range headlamp that runs on AAA batteries. Their Remix (not customizable at this time) is a similar design that adds a high output 100 lumen LED.

For a compact survival headlamp, having a switch that cannot readily be inadvertently switched on in storage, the Petzl e+Lite is a great choice with multiple light output options, plus a red LED, and the eGear EQ2 is a minimalist single LED design that is ultralight and compact, if more basic (and less expensive).

The original best-selling Pocket Survival Pak™ I designed is still going strong and is still a perfect gift for anyone who is active in the outdoors. All the essentials in a compact waterproof pouch that weighs under 4 oz., truly does fit in a pocket and really could save yourself, a loved one or friend’s life. This is the epitome of “if it isn’t with you, it can’t save you™” gear and this kit is sized right to always be with you.

Add an Adventure Medical Kits Two Person SOL Survival Blanket (which is really sized just right for one-person), and you’ve got a perfect pocket-sized shelter companion to the PSP. The polyethylene material is far superior to old-style Mylar emergency blankets.

I always carry at least two, and usually three, means to start a fire. It is really that important. Besides a compact lighter, reliable matches are a good choice. For many years I have recommended REI’s Stormproof wind- and waterproof matches. Now these same reliable matches are available more widely under the UCO brand and, even better, they are now also available pre-packaged in a waterproof vial, so that you can be confident that the striker strip, which is not waterproof itself, will be dry as well. These are the matches I include in my Ultimate Survival Pak™.

Last year we introduced the Pocket Survival Pak™ PLUS, which adds a number of other useful items (compact RSK® Mk5 knife, LED flashlight, water purification and water bag), to the PSP to further enhance a survivor’s prospects. The upgraded waterproof pouch is even tougher and it still fits in your pocket.

Sharp Stuff

This is a great time to get a Doug Ritter RSK® knife with virtually all models and variations in stock and KnifeWorks.com offering FREE GROUND SHIPPING in the USA on all the RSK® knives (except the Mk5)! You will also receive a FREE Maxpedition Waterproof Pocket Notebook ($5.50 value) with each order (while supplies last).

My acclaimed RSK® Mk1 and Mini-RSK® Mk1 Axis Lock folders are still going strong, more popular than ever, which is gratifying.

“Using this knife is a joy, and I can’t really find anything I dislike about it. It’s a tough choice now on whether to carry this, or much more expensive custom folders.” – T. Young – Simi Valley, CA

We just got in the first run of the orange-handled Mini-RSK® Mk1s, matching the orange RSK® Mk1 we’ve offered for a few years now. The Mini is now available in Black, Yellow, Orange and Pink. When you purchase a Pink Mini, 10% of the purchase price supports women’s cancer research.

The second run of my RSK® Mk2 Perseverance fixed blade with Variable Personal Balance™ is now available and is getting rave reviews. Here’s what Tactical Knives had to say:

“a well-balanced combination of Ritter’s thoughts on portability, balance and control, and (Ethan) Becker’s beliefs on power, strength and durability to withstand the abuse knives often suffer…” and “…the RSK Mk2 can give the user the edge needed to persevere and overcome even the harshest of environments.”

My RSK® Mk3 fixed blade is again available, now with an improved sheath. Its versatile drop point blade in CPM S30V and sculpted ergonomic G10 handles combine to make it a perfect choice for many, be they hunters or those looking for a quality and lightweight fixed blade for outdoor sports or survival.

“…more than strong enough to handle any requirement…handled very well and showed no sign of weakness in strength or materials…” – Terrill Hoffman in Tactical Knives. “Long story short, I love the knife! …G-10 scales, with S30V steel, full tang construction, stone washed finished without having to pay custom prices $$$$$…!” - TJ – Denver, CO

If a very compact knife to fit in a survival kit is what you are looking for, I suggest you consider my RSK® Mk5 skeletonized fixed blade. This diminutive knife will perform many a chore and was designed originally for my Pocket Survival Pak™ PLUS, but is now available from any CRKT dealer.

If you are looking for a slightly larger, but still compact skeletonized fixed blade, the Becker Knife & Tool BK-14 Eskabar, an Ethan Becker and ESSE Knives collaboration, is a great choice, or the ESEE IZULA is available in a multitude of colors including don’t-lose-me orange and Zombie venom green.

Get Rescued™ NOW!

Nobody goes out intending to end up needing rescue. By the same token, anyone who goes into the outdoors, on land or sea, or who flies by general aviation, and who expects that it can’t happen to them is simply in denial. Stuff happens that you cannot control, no matter how good or talented you may be. Once you get over the can’t-happen-to-me syndrome, the next question is what to do about this? The answer is simple, ensure that when it does happen you get rescued in the shortest possible time, because time is often your enemy. There is no excuse today for not carrying some means of signaling distress with your location.

For well under $300 you can get a 406 MHz Personal locator Beacon (PLB) with integral GPS that is about the size of many cell phones, weighs less than 5 ounces and easily fits in your pocket. With a simple press of a button your distress alert is sent out through the international COSPAS-SARSAT distress satellites and help will be quickly on its way. There is no recurring charge or subscription and the battery has a replacement interval of 6 years (by which time it will be smaller and cheaper, so you won’t replace the battery anyway).

Essentially, with a PLB you can ensure that you will get rescued with minimal fuss, much less risk on the part of Search and Rescue and far less concern on the part of your loved ones. The PLB takes the “search” out of Search and Rescue. Anyone who ventures into the outdoors without a PLB or some means of communicating their distress (and a cell phone doesn’t count) is irresponsible and not the brightest bulb on the tree, in my opinion.

My current recommendation for a PLB, and the one that I carry, is the ACR ResQLink Model PLB 375. If you don’t have a PLB, or if yours is over three or four years old, just get one!

As an aside, carrying a PLB doesn’t mean you don’t have to carry essential survival equipment (see above). Weather and other issues can delay rescue. You still have to be prepared to survive at least overnight and perhaps longer in more extreme environments.

Saving the best for last, I offer up the Doug Ritter Ultimate Survival Pak™. Originally developed for pilots, this survival kit also become popular for those who want the very best while traveling, living in an earthquake zone or who reside where severe weather is a regular occurrence. The Ultimate Survival Pak™ is designed for two people and includes all essentials for 72 hours. Options are available to expand coverage to three or more persons. I build Doug Ritter Survival Paks like my life depended upon it…because your life might™.

“I wanted to very best for my family and that’s what I found in your Ultimate Survival Pak. It provides great peace of mind knowing that I’ve got everyone covered with the best I can possibly have onboard.” C. H., Long Island, NY

Remember, a portion of the proceeds from the sale of Doug Ritter Gear supports the non-profit Equipped To Survive Foundation and this web site.

Wishing you the very best for the holidays and the coming new year.

December 9, 2011

They Keep Shrinking: Smaller & Lighter PLB From DME

Filed in Gear , News

(Click images for higher resolution photos)

SARTO PLB-110

NOTE: DME has withdrawn this PLB from the market. Click here for the full story about why you cannot buy this PLB

A new entrant in the PLB wars is claiming to be the world’s smallest and lightest Personal Locator Beacon, eclipsing the current record holder in this regard, the ACR ResQLink which was just introduced earlier this year. Slated to be available in Spring of 2012, the new SATRO PLB-110 from Astronics DME Corporation certainly seems to have a good basis for that claim at just 4.09 x 2.39 x 0.92 inches (104 x 61 x 23 mm) and only 4.3 oz. (122 g).

While not a name familiar to most consumers, DME has been making aviation ELTs (Emergency Locator Transmitters) for 20 years with a reputation for quality and robust products. You will find many of their emergency products installed on most airliners. SATRO is a new brand name for their consumer oriented products, derived from the parent company’s NASDAQ symbol “ATRO,” of which the PLB-110 is the first.

Unlike the other pocket-sized PLBs introduced to date, McMurdo’s Fast Find Model 210 and ACR’s ResQLink, the SATRO PLB-110 is inherently buoyant. While not an essential feature in my opinion, you should always have the PLB tethered to you if flying over water, that’s a pretty neat trick in such a small package. No need for a “float coat” to slip on to provide flotation.

SARTO PLB-110I had the opportunity to handle a prototype and the flat form factor, clearly modeled on the iPhone, makes it very much more pocketable than its competition. The antenna wraps around the body, similar to the ACR designs.

It is equipped with a current generation 66-channel integral GPS, full GPS test function, and a flashing LED. The clear top case has a Fresnel lens molded over the LED to help spread that light wider. I’ll be interested in seeing exactly how effective that is in the real world.

The PLB-110 is rated to transmit at a minimum of 5 watts for the duration of its battery life, rated for 24 hours at -20C (-4F). Its depth rating is 10 meters (32.8 ft) for 5 minutes and 1 meter (3.28 ft) for an hour.

The MSRP is expected to be $299, so street price should be competitive with the McMurdo and ACR.

NOTE: This device has not been authorized as required by the Rules of the FCC. This device is not, and may not be offered for sale or lease, or sold or leased, until authorization is obtained.

NOTE: DME has withdrawn this PLB from the market. Click here for the full story about why you cannot buy this PLB

October 3, 2011

Goodrich Buys Winslow

Filed in Musings , News

Press Release below. I admit to having mixed feelings about this. Winslow (my top recommended life raft manufacturer) was going to be sold, that was never a question since it was bought by vulture capitalists, and a sale to someone has been in the works for some time now. The good news, in my opinion, is that Goodrich beat out a number of large foreign conglomerates that were also bidding. Based on what I have seen those companies do, I think Goodrich is probably a better fit. I certainly hope so.

Having said that, the big question is if Goodrich will muck it up as typically occurs when a huge corporate conglomerate takes over a niche company. They destroyed their own corporate aviation division because they had a big corporate mentality. Winslow has succeeded because they have been nimble, innovative and always went out of their way to put the customer first. That’s the reason I have for many years rated them number one in the life raft business and they have been my recommendation for many years.. So far, I have heard all the right lines from the parties, in particular that they are not going to mess up a good thing, but I am too much of a cynic to take that as gospel. I would love to be pleasantly surprised and see Winslow prosper under the new ownership and I wish them the best of luck going forward.

It should also be noted that Goodrich itself is being acquired by United Technologies, an even bigger conglomerate. Winslow is the guppy in all this…

Shark eating fish eating fish eating guppy

———————————-

Goodrich Corporation has acquired Winslow Marine Products Corporation (Winslow), a leading provider of life rafts to the corporate aviation, helicopter, and marine markets. The transaction closed on September 30, 2011. Terms of the acquisition were not disclosed.

Winslow, a privately-held company, employs approximately 70 people at its Lake Suzy, Fla. facility. Founded in 1941, Winslow has a long history of innovation in the aviation and marine life raft markets. Winslow products are used by the leading corporate and business aircraft manufacturers, and are custom-designed to fit in a variety of aircraft interior configurations. Winslow has also successfully applied its aviation life raft design capabilities to the commercial helicopter market.

“Winslow’s focus on customer satisfaction and delivery performance has created a leadership position in the market for corporate and business aircraft life rafts,” said Cindy Egnotovich, segment president, Nacelles and Interior Systems at Goodrich. “This acquisition complements Goodrich’s existing competencies in aviation safety products, fabric and technology and expands our broad aircraft interiors product portfolio.”

Additional information can be found at www.winslowliferaft.com .

Winslow will become part of Goodrich’s Interiors business.

Goodrich Corporation, a Fortune 500 company, is a global supplier of systems and services to aerospace, defense and homeland security markets. With one of the most strategically diversified portfolios of products in the industry, Goodrich serves a global customer base with significant worldwide manufacturing and service facilities. For more information visit http://www.goodrich.com .

Goodrich Corporation operates through its divisions and as a parent company for its subsidiaries, one or more of which may be referred to as “Goodrich Corporation” in this press release.

SOURCE Goodrich Corporation; GR – Nacelles and Interior Systems

June 7, 2011

Delorme Introduces inReach – First 2-Way Consumer SEND

Filed in Musings

inReachDelorme has announced their long-awaited two-way satellite messaging device, the inReach. Unlike Delorme’s first SEND, which was a SPOT product that utilizes the Globalstar satellite system one-way messaging capability, inReach works on the Iridium system that provides full two-way communication, with obvious benefits.

The interface with the device can be through a DeLorme Earthmate PN-60w GPS, as previously, or with any Android smartphone. TWo=way text capability means that in an emergency you will be able to communicate with the commercial emergency response coordination center (CERCC), which in this case is the same as used with the SPOT devices, GEOS. This has obvious advantages over one-way communications.

Pricing for the device and for the subscriptions is still not yet announced, though Delorme indicates that it does plan to offer three subscription levels: Safety, Recreation, and Pro, with prices starting at $9.95 per month for the safety plan and increasing to offer more in-plan message and tracking units.

Availability is expected this Fall. As soon as Delorme provides me a inReach to test, we will provide a hands-on review.

You can read more and see additional photos of the interface and such on Delorme’s blog.

May 18, 2011

SEND Standard Approved by RTCM – Is COSPAS-SARSAT On Endangered List?

Filed in News

RTCMThree years ago at the RTCM Annual Meeting I made a controversial presentation titled, “What Price Your Life? Distress Alerting as a Commercial Service” You can read about that and review the presentation at: http://www.equipped.org/blog/?p=82

This presentation resulted in an invitation to give the presentation at Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington, D.C. I was also invited to sit on a panel discussing these devices by Canada’s Search and Rescue Secretariat at their SARScene 2008 annual conference.

I called for development of a standard for what has since become known officially as Satellite Emergency Notification Devices (SENDs). Globalstar’s SPOT Satellite Messenger was first commercially viable consumer SEND, and the many issues that developed as a result of that device’s introduction into the consumer marketplace was impetus for that call to action. Without a standard in place regulating minimum performance, consumers might be enticed into buying a distress signaling device that might well not work under many circumstances.

Industry and the top level Search and Rescue community heeded that call and acting on a request from the U.S. Coast Guard, RTCM formed Special Committee 128 to develop a SEND standard in December 2008. Starting with the existing RTCM standard for PLBs, the SEND standard was developed with input from the major satellite system providers as well as all the stakeholders from Search and Rescue and manufacturers or potential manufacturers of SENDs. Yours truly was there, as usual, representing the end user, those who are trusting their lives to these devices.

At a meeting held in conjunction with the 2011 RTCM Annual Meeting on May 17, 2011, two and a half years after the inaugural SC128 meeting, the new SEND Standard was approved and will be published shortly. The U.S Coast Guard has graciously accepted responsibility for providing some manner of approval or certification authority pending incorporation of the new standard into FCC regulations, which could take years given the FCC’s glacial regulatory process. The details for that USCG process are being worked out, but this ensures that an independent authority will ensure that consumers can have confidence that SENDs built to the standard have, in fact, complied with the standard.

Another Piece of the Puzzle

NSARCThis new SEND standard is only the first step needed to ensure that consumers can have a reasonable expectation of being rescued when they initiate a distress call with a SEND. Concurrent with the development of the new SEND standard, the National Search and Rescue Committee (NSARC), the nation’s top level SAR authority, commissioned its own working group to address another part of the equation, the interface between commercial SEND manufacturers or their agents and the SAR forces that will have to actually go rescue those in distress.

The Commercial Emergency Notification and Location Devices (CENALD) working group (their concern is about more than just satellite-based devices) first effort was to develop an Interface Control Document (ICD) that defines the specific requirements for a commercial emergency call center to pass on the distress alert to the national SAR authorities. This document ensures that that critical information in these messages or phone calls is standardized in format and order so that there is much less opportunity for errors to occur and so that all parties involved know what is expected of them in the process.

The CENALD meetings were held in conjunction with SC128 meetings as most of the same parties were involved. This ICD was completed earlier this year and has been recently approved by NSARC. Upon publication of the minutes of that meeting, expected shortly, it will become official.

Next Steps

While this was going on, yet another group dealing with these devices had been formed, called ProTECTS Alliance and standing for Promotion of Two-way Emergency Communication and Tracking Systems, this was an industry group “created to foster the rapid and orderly adoption of two-way satellite personal location, alerting and messaging technologies.” Once again, you had many of the same players at the table, looking for ways to accelerate the adoption of this rapidly evolving technology into the SAR system and attempting to do so in a responsible manner. As with the CENALD working group, ProTECTS met concurrently with RTCM SC128 meetings. ProTECTS was initiated by Iridium, which made it somewhat difficult to be all-encompassing for other providers in the industry. Late last year ProTECTS became a working group under the umbrella of RTCM, making it independent from Iridium.

A key issue for ProTECTS is the other element necessary for SENDs to be accepted and reliable, the commercial emergency response coordination center (CERCC). It became clear that however well designed the SEND units themselves might be, what happens to that distress alert after it is sent out is critical to saving lives and the ultimate success of this new industry. Right now there are no standards for commercial emergency response coordination centers. Theoretically, someone could set up something in their basement and be perfectly legal, even if it did not provide the quality of service that a consumer would expect.

There evolved two major concerns. One was the actual CERCC itself and the second was the database of SAR contacts that would be notified by the CERCC to affect the rescue. This latter was an issue highlighted in the early days of SPOT when there were difficulties in that interface (since mostly overcome). It would clearly be a disadvantage, potentially fatal, if every new CERCC had to experience the same steep learning curve in developing their database of SAR contacts that GEO (SPOT’s CERCC) had to go through when they, essentially, developed the first ever CERCC.

With urging from myself and others, it was decided that ProTECTS needed to explore the best way to solve this problem, either by pooling industry resources and developing their own SAR contact database or by licensing an existing SAR contact database. It would be costly and time consuming to develop and maintain such a database, but with all of the industry participating, the cost could be shared and made affordable. On the other hand, it would seem like reinventing the wheel was certainly a waste of resources if it was possible to gain access to the GEOS database. I and the chairman of ProTects and a representative of the Coast Guard were tasked with exploring the possibility.

During the RTCM Annual Meeting an exploratory meeting was held with GEOS management, who have subsequently indicated they may be open to a licensing arrangement. Certainly, there are still many details to be worked out, but that would accelerate things significantly if an entirely new database didn’t need to be developed. I commend GEOS for being willing to approach this with an open mind, hopefully to the benefit of all parties.

That then leaves the last part of the puzzle, the CERCC itself. After much discussion, it seems settled that NSARC is probably the best organization to develop a standard for a CERCC. We have plenty of materials to draw from, including the standard for 911 call centers, the AFRCC and USCG RCCs op specs and the experience of GEOS who have indicated they are interested in participating. By developing a minimum standard of performance and training for CERCCs and then providing some ongoing certification to ensure they are operated in accordance with this standard, consumers can be assured that they stand a good chance of being rescued when they are in distress. This would close the loop in the SEND concept, providing consumers an effective and reliably consistent distress alerting alternative to the traditional COSPAS-SARSAT system.

Beginning of the End for COSPAS-SARSAT?

COSPAS-SARSATAnd, closing that loop is particularly important because of how I see the market moving. The new SENDs (devices) will be increasingly more sophisticated or less expensive or both. The value added by the tracking and messaging functions makes these devices increasingly appealing to consumers. Even with a not insubstantial annual subscription cost, consumers are turning to SENDs in droves.

And, that issue of an annual fee may well, over time, become irrelevant with regards to the distress alerting function of a SEND. I have long encouraged the SEND manufacturers and service providers to continue to provide just the emergency alerting function, even if a subscriber’s subscription has lapsed. I believe that sooner or later this will happen, either voluntarily for competitive reasons or by government fiat, just as all cell phone providers are required to pass through a 911 call, regardless of there being a current subscription or not.

The alerting advantages of 406 MHz COSPAS-SARSAT beacons are rapidly eroding with improved performance of SENDs. In terms of pure distress alerting, a 406 MHz beacon still has some advantages, but for many in the market they are not compelling advantages. Consumer uptake of these new SENDs will only continue to accelerate, for all these reasons. That poses a considerable threat to the established COSPAS-SARSAT organization, its structure and the manufacturers of the beacons that function within it. Some of these traditional COSPAS-SARSAT beacon manufacturers are already working on SENDs, seeing their future headed in that direction.

Given that COSPAS-SARSAT seems to be mired in bureaucratic morass that has gotten even worse in recent years, resulting in extraordinary bureaucratic delays in approvals and additional unnecessary expense, it is only a matter of time before they become irrelevant in the consumer world. There’s no indication that COSPAS-SARSAT management recognizes the problem, or that they might do anything about it if they did, given bureaucratic inertia.

Having said that, there just the tiniest glimmer of hope. COSPAS-SARSAT is getting a new chief and it might be that he has the vision and capability to turn around this ship before it is dashed upon the rocks. One can only hope this will occur, as it seems such a waste to see such an effective system descend into irrelevancy.

If that happens, then those bureaucrats are going to find themselves short on work, because if only those required by regulation to carry a 406 MHz beacon are buying, then the market is going to shrink significantly and innovation in 406 MHz beacons will dry up and some manufacturers may likely abandon it. Those who must buy a regulated product almost always go for low price, not performance or features.

Moreover, it is only a matter of time, in my opinion, before SENDs start being accepted as alternatives to 406 MHz beacons in regulated markets. The precedent already exists, no matter that it didn’t succeed for technical and marketing reasons years ago. The new technology is miles better, much cheaper and improving rapidly.

I will continue to work to ensure that consumers can depend upon whatever distress signaling device they settle on. You can help support this work with a contribution to the Equipped To Survive Foundation: www.equipped.org/donate.htm