Korpijaakko

– my personal views on all walks of outdoor life

Tag Archives: GPS

Satellite Communication: SPOT 2 – review and warning

SPOT is probably the most widely used satellite messaging device in recreational outdoor sports. It was the first of its kind and something the market needed. It has helped a lot of people during the years but one should know that it also has limitations and in my opinion, is unreliable.

Warning!

The SPOT is not reliable!

Be it SPOT, SPOT 2 or SPOT 3, the system of one-way communication thru satellite network with limited coverage is simply not reliable. In most places and for most people SPOT’s systems work just fine but the system is limited and this should be taken into account while considering using it. In addition to not being able to save yourself or someone else with the SPOT it can also cause a lot of anxiety and worry back home and maybe also initiate a needless search and rescue operations.

Be warned and use at your own risk.

Oh, In case you are wondering what is a SPOT or satellite messenger or are in the market for one, please take a look also on my earlier posts on Satellite Communication! and Satellite Communication: Follow-up 1.

The device – SPOT 2

The SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger, also known as the SPOT 2, is updated model of the original SPOT Personal Tracker (known simply as SPOT). The latest model in the line is SPOT Gen3 (I bet it’ll be called SPOT 3) and there is also smart phone compatible SPOT Connect,  boat security system SPOT HUG, and satellite phone SPOT Global phone. But anyway, lets concentrate on the SPOT 2 which is also close enough to the original SPOT and SPOT Gen 3 for this review and the following warnings to be useful.

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SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger – aka SPOT 2.

The SPOT 2 is a one-way tracking and messaging device that uses GPS to locate the device and Globalstar satellite network to transmit pre-defined messages with your location information.

The SPOT 2 is nice package: small and relatively simple to use. It measures 9,4 x 6,6 x 2,5 cm and weighs about 150g so it fits your hand or pocket easily and doesn’t really slow you down. In addition the device is rather rugged (waterproof according to IPx7 and resistant to humidity and vibration). The device should work in temps between -30C and +60C and up to altitude of 6500 meters. (Though I think SPOT units have been used on top of Mt Everest as well.) In my use the device has been robust enough and it’s taken all I’ve thrown at it.

The device runs on three lithium AAA batteries (and lithium batteries only!) and with fresh batteries you can expect to send up 700 messages or use the tracking function up to 7 days, in optimal conditions. I’ve found this to be true: using the tracking function while moving 6-10 hours per day one set of batteries lasts over a week even in freezing temperatures and sub-optimal conditions. The lid of the battery compartment is sealed with an o-ring and secured with two screws that can be opened and closed without tools.

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The backside of SPOT 2.

The RRP for SPOT 2 is $159 and in addition you need an annual subscription plan costing $99,99 – or 99 euros for us in Europe. The annual plan includes unlimited messaging and tracking which makes it very affordable in the satellite messenger market.

The features – Messaging, Tracking, SOS

As said above the SPOT 2 is used to send pre-defined messages with your location information or to track your progress. The device is capable of only sending messages, not receiving them which means one-way communication. (Keep this in mind!) All messaging options are activated by pressing a dedicated button and holding it until light starts to blink. The messaging options are:

Track Progress: Activated by pressing the button with foot track symbol. While tracking the device will send out your location every 10 minutes and also include two previous locations to add reliability (the system removes any doubles). The tracking function has to be re-activated every 24-hours. Your progress can then be followed over the internet on your own SPOT page (shared or private) or you can re-direct the data to the always awesome Social Hiking service.

Check-in/OK, Custom message and Help: These are all pre-defined messages sent to pre-defined contacts to their cell phone and/or e-mail. Each message can be sent up to 10 pre-set contacts. You need an internet connection to customize or change messaging settings so it’s not usually possible on the field. The Help message button has a cover to prevent accidental messaging. The Help is also sent once every 5 minutes for an hour while the other messages are just send three times within 20 minutes (the system again removes doubles).

SOS: This in an emergency assistance request that is transmitted every 5 minutes until the battery dies or it is cancelled. The message is directed to GEOS, a private emergency response center with good reputation operating from Houston, Texas. The SOS message has also a dedicated button with button cover. Unlike the other messages the SOS message will be sent also even if the device can’t locate itself via GPS, the rest of the messages require a GPS fix to be sent.

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Button covers open.

In addition to the message buttons there is a power button and two indicator leds: one to show the status of GPS fix and one to show that the device is done with the message sending protocol (Note! This doesn’t mean the message is delivered!).

The device is quite easy to use and each button has a blinking light to signal activation of the function. This is little problematic as the indicator light will be covered by your finger pressing the button. I can live with this but it’s been improved for the SPOT Gen3. The buttons are also inset which makes using them with thick gloves little challenging, this is again improved for SPOT 3.

There are two slot at the top on back of the device for adding lanyard but the SPOT 3 has, again, better attachment options with big slots on top and on the bottom.

Another minor improvement I’d like to see would be earlier “battery low” information (red light blinking in the power-button). Once on a ski expedition I activated the tracking in the morning just like any other day. There was no signal of low batteries at the end of the previous day (I put the power off once OK message from camp is sent) or in the morning. I put the device in my pocket and we started to ski towards and over steep edges of a down flowing glacier. During the day the weather was terrible and I didn’t check the device until in the camp in the evening and I noticed that batteries had died during the day. This had happened just at the bottom of the steep part and caused some unnecessary anxiety back home. So, battery level indicator with various levels and earlier warning signal would be good addition.

The use

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Not visible in the photo but SPOT 2 in use on expedition across the Vatnajökull glacier.

I’ve tested the SPOT 2 in Southern Finland and used it on one-week ski expeditions in Sarek in Northern Sweden (North of the Arctic Circle) and on two-week ski expedition across the Vatnajökull glacier in Iceland (South of the Arctic Circle). Altogether I’ve used it about 30 days. In addition I’ve participated on several expeditions using SPOT and SPOT 2 (around 20 days) and followed (somewhat live) several expedition and trips using the SPOT and SPOT 2 (hundreds of days combined). The device has proven to be robust and durable and works just fine most of the time. (Note! Most of the time!) To my surprise the device even worked reasonably in Svalbard which should be out of the coverage of the satellite network.

The limitations

The SPOT devices (1, 2 and 3) have two serious limitations that, in my opinion, make them unreliable and not fit for the job they are marketed to do.

First thing is that it’s only one-way device. You can only send data, not receive it.  (To be exact, it receives signal from the GPS to position yourself but you can’t get the co-ordinates from the device.) One-way messaging wouldn’t be much of a problem if you could trust your message (or location) being transmitted to the recipient every time but as there is no information coming back to the SPOT device you can’t tell if your message made it to the satellites or not. The only feedback the device will give to you is whether is has fixed the location with GPS and if it has gone thru the process of sending the message. The latter does not mean the message has been transmitted thru the system.

Analogy would be that you’re in the back country, you know your own position and from there shoot up a signal flare. You can see the flare yourself and know it worked but there is no way of knowing if anyone else saw it. The flare can’t tell. The SPOT 2 does exactly the same: it shouts out as loud as it can and then blinks a light to tell you it did what it was programmed to do, but there is no certainty of the outcome. In my opinion this is somewhat serious problem especially when combined with the second limitation.

Globalstar satellite network coverage in autumn 2013. Orange >99%, yellow >96%, grey = reduced or no coverage.

SPOT is a subsidiary of Globalstar and thus naturally uses Globalstar’s satellite network. Globalstar’s satellite constellation consists of satellite on low-Eart orbits with inclination of 52 degrees. This means it doesn’t cover the polar regions and coverage in the Arctic and Antarctic regions is limited. In addition the satellites act as simple “repeaters” transmitting the signal to ground stations but not from satellite to satellite. This also limits the coverage on areas where there are no ground stations nearby.

How the system works. It’s a one-way one-line system with no options or  shortcuts.

The structure of the network used means that the system itself is not very reliable. We could expand the above signal flare analogy so that even though you know there are people visiting the area were you shot the signal flare, you don’t know if anyone saw it. And if someone saw the flare you don’t know if they alerted the authorities or not. You just have to sit, wait and hope.

I have had occasional undelivered OK/Check-in messages and several missing tracking points, occasionally from periods of several hours. Problems seems to be more frequent the further North you are (Northern Scandinavia and further), when having limited visibility towards South (being on a Northern slope of a hill) and under dense vegetation (normal Finnish forest). As I think the failures in delivering messages are location related I think it’s very likely that the same results would apply for Help or SOS messages from the same locations. The programming of the SPOT gives priority to the distress messages sending then several times instead of the normal three but that doesn’t help if there’s no connection to the satellite network and to the ground stations. In case of no coverage waiting might help and moving to better position would definitely help, but you can’t tell if you need to move and in distress situation moving isn’t always an option.

To illustrate the problem here is a screen shot of my Social Hiking map of a ski expedition in Sarek Northern Sweden in March 2013. I’ve turned on all the markers (blue squares) showing positions from where data was sent and received. As the skiing speed is quite slow and consistent, it means that when the blue boxes are more scarce or missing the data was not received. The longest stretches of missing tracking data are several kilometers long and lasted several hours meaning dozens of messages sent from the SPOT during the time but not received. Most of the breaks in the tracking are from valleys with limited visibility to South but there is also missing tracking from the flat, open lake ice. It’s quite scary to think for example an avalanche burying part of the expedition in one of those narrow valleys or hiking there in summer and hurting yourself and loosing your pack in a river crossing gone wrong. No guarantees that the SPOT would help. Probably it wouldn’t.

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SPOT track from guiding a one-week ski expedition in Sarek.

Here is also a screen shot of my Social Hiking map of a ski expedition across the Vatnajökull glacier in Iceland in May 2013. The blue boxes tell similar story. The longest break in the tracking is from the dead batteries (explained above) but there are multiple shorter breaks lasting for several kilometer and hours. And all this on big, flat and open glacier with good views to the South (except for the Eastern most part of the track). Think of being hit by the famous storms of Iceland in one of those place and your tent being torn into a flapping mess of fabric with the gale force winds driving wet snow inside. No guarantees that the SPOT would help. Probably it wouldn’t. Or think about the tent holding up just fine and you waiting out the storm with hot drinks for couple of days sending OK/Check-in message to home-team every now and then. But none of the messages made it to the worried weather-forecast-checking home-team as there was no reception on the area.

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SPOT track from guiding a two-week ski expedition across Vatnajökull glacier.

In addition to the above mentioned elementary limitations I’ve occasionally had problems with getting OK/Check-in messages deliver to my contact’s cellphones. There have also been reports on the delivery of messages being delayed several days, spotty tracking data and other hiccups in the system (some of them can be found here). I believe these are mostly or solely due the limitations of the satellite network SPOT uses and not because of flawed individual devices. It seems to be a game of chance in places…

The Conclusions

I really wish the SPOT would work in a reliable manner. It would be perfect safety tool, way to tell your family your okay, track your progress, et cetera. It’s well-built device and easy to use (especially the latest SPOT Gen3 with the little improvements). It’s also relatively cheap to buy and even more so to use.

SPOT seems to work very well for most people on most areas. But not for all the people and on all the areas where it should work. This is especially true on mountainous and densely vegetated areas or areas far in the North or South. In my mind this means it’s not reliable enough to be considered as a safety tool. It’s also not reliable enough to be used to comfort your family or inform interest groups of your situation. What it is good for, in my opinion, is for non-crucial tracking and adding a social dimension to your hiking.

If you need a real safety device in case of an emergency, get a PLB. They are reliable. If you want to stay in touch with people outside the cellphone coverage, get a satellite phone or a better messaging device, preferably something that uses Iridium network. Two-way communication is a lot better than one-way messaging and a reliable network better than an unreliable one.

And if you’d prefer getting a SPOT device (cheaper, smaller, lighter and easily available), first do research on how SPOT performs in the area you intent to use it. SPOT devices are starting to be so common they are used in most places people go out to do recreational outdoors stuff. And if you end up getting a SPOT device , keep in mind the limitations of the system and also make your family or other contacts understand the limitations: i.e. a message from you means what it says but no message from you doesn’t mean anything at all.

Despite it’s shortcomings I will keep using SPOT devices occasionally. I will be using them as fun gadgets that enable home-teams to follow the progress. But I’ll keep the limitations in mind and do not consider a SPOT device as an safety device or as a way to inform interests groups of my situation.

If you’d like to have a safety device and a way to communicate with other people outside cellphone reception, I’d recommend the Yellowbrick YB v3. It can do all SPOT should be able to do and does it damn reliably. In addition it can do a plethora of other things which are nice and useful as well. The downside is that it’s more expensive and heavier. I’ve been testing the Yellowbrick YB v3 also in various locations and it has performed marvellously. A review of it is to come later.

What other’s say?

I’ve been thinking of writing this post for quite some time and writing it was finally sparked by Brian Green’s disappointment and some comments to the post. The folks at Outdoorgearlab were not too impressed by SPOT 2. But on the other hand, for example Andrew Skurka uses SPOT 2 and finds it good for his needs. Andy’s post is worth reading also regarding general mindset towards these devices. People at Backpackinglight liked it (subscription needed to read) and it worked quite well for them. Nick also has a good review of SPOT 2 worth reading if you’re interested in getting the SPOT 2.

What I’d like to say… Warning!

The SPOT is not reliable!

Be it SPOT, SPOT 2 or SPOT 3, the system of one-way communication thru satellite network with limited coverage is simply not reliable. In most places and for most people SPOT’s systems work just fine but the system is limited and this should be taken into account while considering using it. In addition to not being able to save yourself or someone else with the SPOT it can also cause a lot of anxiety and worry back home and maybe also initiate a needless search and rescue operation.

Be warned and use at your own risk.

Availability

In Finland SPOT 2 is available for example from Varuste.net (199 euros) and Savantum (210 euros). You can also rent one from Savantum (70-80 euros per week) or from Vaiska (30 euros per week). If you need the device only for a week a two every year, renting makes more sense than owning one. And if you need it more often, I’d recommend you also considering the other options out there.

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Please, share your experience and thoughts on the topic!