Korpijaakko

– my personal views on all walks of outdoor life

Tag Archives: Spot

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!

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Satellite communication!

Lately I’ve spent quite a lot of time trying to get a hold of all the different satellite communication options available for outdoor adventurers and I though it would be nice to share my findings with you. This is a sort of state of the market report limited to the devices that may interest outdoor adventurers. The post is not based on my personal experience with all these devices and technologies but mostly on information from the manufacturers or from secondary sources.

As the technology is new and experiences on these devices are just starting to accumulate I will be writing updates to this post in the future.

– The first update Satellite communication: Follow-up 1 with three new devices and couple of hands-on review links is online.

Basics of communication satellite networks

Somewhere there in the night sky is a big bunch of communication satellites...

Satellite phones, messaging devices and modems work with the same principle than your typical cellphone but instead of base station masts the signals are transmitted via specialized communication satellites. And just like there are different cellphone networks by different operators there are also different satellite networks with differing covera. These can be divided into two main types of networks:

Some satellites are geosynchronous (GEO) i.e. they appear stationary when observed from the surface of the Earth. This means that each satellite covers a fixed area and to make contact trough the satellite you must have somewhat unobscured line-of-sight from your communication device to the satellite. The advantage of a GEO satellite network is that they can reach near global coverage with only a few satellites meaning that they are relatively cheap to build. In addition these satellites can offer relatively high band widths for data services. The disadvantage is naturally encapsulated in the word near meaning that these systems don’t have a true global coverage and even some local obstacles like dense vegetation, buildings or hills can prevent the use of a such network. Maybe the most well-known networks using GEO satellites are the ones by Inmarsat (11 satellites covering everything between latitudes -82 to +82 but not the polar regions) and Thuraya (three satellites, see coverage). Inmarsat is widely used in ships and aircrafts but nowadays offers also handsets for consumers. Thuraya offers compact cell phone like handsets that are for example widely used by climbers in Himalaya region.

Then there are Low-Earth-Orbiting (LEO) satellites. These satellites orbit the Earth on relatively low orbits (around 1000km or so while  GEO satellites are about 35000km away) and on high-speed. This means that a contact from communication device to a certain satellite exists only for some minutes and several satellites are needed to keep up an continuous coverage. This enables true global coverage with not much problems caused by local obstacles but it requires a lot of satellites and is thus very expensive to set up. There are only two commercial communication systems based on LEO satellites and both went bankrupt while launching but are now operational. The systems are Globalstar and Iridium. Globalstar network uses 52 satellites but the coverage is limited because the satellites also need a line-of-sight to a ground station to transmit the signal. In addition Globalstar doesn’t cover the polar regions. Iridium network consists of 66 satellites and offers the only commercial true global coverage from pole to pole.

Satellite phones

Satellite phones are starting to become everyday tools of outdoor adventurers. They are more of a rule than exception on travels to distant places and things like the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic require the participants to carry a sat phone as a safety device. I won’t go into details of different satellite phone models and their use in this post but I think that they are worth a few words.

When there is coverage (see the chapter above for differences in satellite network coverages) sat phones work much like your cell phone: you can make calls, receive calls and often also send and receive short messages. Some models also enable sending and receiving e-mail and even surfing the web (with a low-speed though). The voice quality is likely a bit worse than on your cell phone and the use might be a bit more complicated but not much. Sat phones can also be used as modems for laptops and tablets to send and receive e-mail or update expedition websites (but for example with Iridium phone the data rate is around 2,4 kbit/s so you can forget uploading HD video on the go or watching Youtube in the tent…)

Janne trying to get a laptop & Iririum 9555 combination working at Helsinki-Vantaa airport before leaving to Svalbard.

The basic problem with sat phones is that they are expensive and often even more expensive to use. You can get an old used model for a few hundred euros/dollars but many new phones cost well over 1000 euros/dollars and for casual use it’s almost always best idea to rent one.

And as said, using the phone is often even more expensive than buying one. For example the monthly fee of a post-paid Iridium plan is around 50USD  and a 500 minutes pre-paid voucher, good for one year, costs around 650 USD. Thuraya and Inmarsat offer cheaper options for those who don’t need the global coverage of Iridium network. Thuraya sat phones can be even used with Finnish Elisa GSM Sim-card. Used this way the price per minute is quite high but fixed monthly costs can be really low and with some phone models you can also use the cheaper GSM network when available. Another problem with sat phones is that they require quite a lot of power if used to send regular updates. This means that spare batteries, solar panels, chargers or similar heavyish things soon enter the scene on longer trips.

Getting power for sat phone, laptop and bunch of other gadgets in Svalbard.

I’ve used Iridium sat phones and plan to do so also in the future when the situation requires taking one with me. But often satellite phones are unnecessarily expensive for casual outdoor adventurer and a cheaper and simpler device would be sufficient. Luckily, there is an increasing amount of other satellite based options available.

In Finland satellitephones are available for example from Hansa Baltic and Savantum (a terrible website but a lot of good stuff).

Satellite messaging & tracking devices

SPOT GPS Satellite Messenger

Picture stolen from the SPOT website.

SPOT is probably the first relatively cheap satellite messenger targeted for outdoor adventurers. The latest version is called SPOT 2 (a.k.a SPOT GPS Satellite Messenger) and it is upgraded from the original SPOT (a.k.a SPOT Personal Tracker) device but the two are about the same. SPOT uses Globalstar satellite network meaning that it doesn’t have a true global coverage which starts to show already on the Northern parts of Scandinavia. Another limitation is that the SPOT is only capable of one-way messaging: When you push the button, the device does what it can meaning that it shouts the pre-programmed message out real load and hopes that a satellite pickes up the message. But there is no way knowing if the message went through or not (despite SPOTs marketing material suggesting something else).

SPOT 2 is the lightest of the devices listed here and weights 147 g. It works with 3 AAA batteries and I’ve seen the original SPOT working for at least two weeks in Nordic winter conditions with a single set of batteries. SPOT has a build-in GPS so the device should always know it’s location and send this information with every message. If there is no GPS fix, only SOS message is send. SPOT 2 can send four different pre-programmed messages: OK, custom message, Help and SOS. All the messages are transmitted into pre-chosen e-mails or cell phones. In addition the SOS message is transmitted to the GEOS International Emergency Response Center which then should alert local authorities and rescuers. In addition SPOT can send tracking messages every 10  minutes if the feature is activated.

RRP for SPOT 2 is 179 EUR and one-year plans cost 99 EUR per year including an unlimited amount of messages. This makes SPOT probably the cheapest satellite messaging device.

I’ve seen SPOT working very well on the fells of Sarek National Park in Northern Sweden (around 8 messages per day for two weeks, every message went through) but I’ve also seen it fail miserably in Southern Finland (maybe only every third tracking message came through). I’ve also read about SPOT saving lives but I’ve also read about serious problems with the device and even more problems with SPOT’s customer service. Whether you’d trust the SPOT or not is up to you.

SPOT track from a ski trip in Sarek National Park in March 2010.

There is also a device called SPOT Connect (made by Delorme, by the way) that enables sending 41 character messages from a smart phone via Globalstar satellites. It costs 199 euros and the plans cost the same 99 euros per year. But if you are interested in this kind of product, check the Delorme InReach below.

In Finland SPOT is available from some outdoor shops and online for example from Marinea. And you can also rent one for example from Savantum or from Vaiska.

Summary: GPS positioning, tracking, preset messages, 1-way, cheap, not global coverage, possibly unreliable

Delorme InReach

Picture stolen from the InReach website.

Delorme InReach is the new kid in the block. As a stand-alone unit it is very similar to SPOT (Remember Delorme making the SPOT Connect devices?) but on the other hand, it’s something completely different. The main differences are:

– InReach uses Iridium satellites enabling a true global coverage.
– InReach is a two-way device, meaning that the user gets confirmation whether message went through or not.
– InReach can pair with Android smart phone (or Delorme Pw-60n GPS device) via Bluetooth thus enabling sending and receiving 160 character messages via the Iridium satellite network to any e-mail address, cell phone or other InReach device in the world.

The InReach is quite rugged (i.e. shock proof, dust proof and water proof at least down to 1 meter for 30 minutes). It is a bit chunkier than SPOT 2 weighting nearly 200 g but it also floats. The InReach works with two AA lithium batteries which I prefer over the AAA batteries. Also the InReach has a build-in GPS and it includes location data to every message. As a stand-alone device it can send pre-programmed text messages and a SOS message that is transmitted into GEOS International Emergency Response Center – just like with the SPOT messenger. But with InReach the user gets to know if the messages went through and get confirmation that GEOS has notified the SOS message. InReach is also capable of tracking with an interval ranging from 10 minutes up to 4 hours. And the best part is that with the help of Android smart phone (or Delorme Pw-60n GPS device) you can use the InReach to send and receive text messages just like using your cell phone but without the limitations of cell phone coverage. This enables also chatting with the GEOS in case of an emergency.

The regular price for InReach is 249 USD (185 EUR) and there are three different plans available starting from 9,95 USD (7,40 EUR) per month. The minimum contract is for one year but during the time you can change from plan to another (though downgrading into cheaper plan costs extra). Sending emergency messages is free as is tracking on the two more expensive plans. The price for each send or received message varies from 1,50 USD to 0,25 USD depending on the plan.

The InReach was just launched few weeks ago so there are no real user experiences yet but I bet there is a lot of reviews and “first looks” writings coming up.

At the moment the InReach is not available in Finland but there is a bunch of resellers shipping worldwide.

Summary: GPS positioning, tracking, 2-way messaging, works as stand-alone or with Android smart phone, cheapish, rugged enough, global coverage

Yellowbrick YB3

Picture stolen from the YellowBrick website.

YellowBrick is better known as a tracking device for yachts but is has also been used for example in Antarctica. I recall for example Finnish Teemu Lakkasuo (solo attempt to South Pole) having problems with his early YellowBrick unit in 2008 but apparently the problems have been solved and the model has been totally updated – and it looks very, very promising indeed! The YellowBrick is maybe a bit more serious communication device better suited for long trips in remote places than for the casual weekend stroll in the hills but you can decide that yourself.

The New YellowBrick YB3 uses the Iridium network delivering a global coverage and has a build-in GPS, just like the InReach above. The device weights 305 grams and is shock, dust and waterproof (IP67). The YellowBrick has a build-in rechargeable battery that last for 68 days if sending a tracking message every hour and if sending a message only once a day it can last up to whopping 389 days!In addition to tracking it can do a hell lot more. There is a small display and few buttons on the device itself to send preset messaged (you can make a lot of these). Pairing the YB3 with Android smart phone or iPhone via Bluetooth enables sending and receiving customized messages up to 1000 characters. And the device has also a dedicated alert button (hidden under the black cover on top of the unit) for emergencies.

It seems that there is only one YB3 device but it is available in four different variations each having a bit differing features enabled by different software. The price of a single unit ranges from 399 GBP to 599 GBP (466-699 EUR). The monthly fee for a single account is 8 GBP (9,30 EUR) and you have to pay only for the months when you actually use the device. The monthly fee doesn’t include any messages or data traffic. These are paid  with credits bought independently. One tracking message costs 1 credit and as does every 50 characters of text. The price per credit hovers around 0,10 GBP (0,12 EUR) depending on the bundle.

Like the InReach the Yellowbrick YB3 has just been released (in November 23rd 2011) and there is not too much real-life information about the device but for example Sarah Outen seems to be using the YB3 on her long way from London to London and I bet the YB3 will be soon seen on polar regions as well.

The YB3 is available at least directly from the company website.

Summary: GPS positioning, tracking, 2-way messaging, works as stand-alone or with Android smart phone or iPhone, rugged enough, very good battery life, global coverage

Solara (Fieldtracker 2000 and 2100)

Picture stolen from the Solara website.

The Solara Fieldtrackers are quite similar to the YellowBrick YB3 above but they seem to be even more serious pieces of kit – at least judging by specs and price. It is listed here mostly as a curiosity and because I see it possibly as the best available technology in satellite messengers (be it just compactible with Bluetooth devices…)

Also the Solara uses Iridium satellite network enabling global coverage and has a build-in GPS for positioning.The Fieltracker 2100 weights 500 or 400 grams depending on the battery. It starts to be quite a heavy piece of kit but it is also even more rugged than the devices listed above (i.e. it’s very much shock, vibration, dust, water, coldness and altitude proof). Both Fieldtrackers have a build-in rechargeable battery. They also have a build-in keypad and display (that works at least down to -42C!) making them stand-alone devices. The Fieldtrackers have a tracking and emergency message functions and they are also capable of sending and receiving text messages. Messages can be either preset or can be typed with the build-in keypad.

Solara Fieldtrackers are not cheap. They cost around 1500 USD (1120 EUR), activating the unit costs 60 USD, monthly fee is 50 USD (minimum 2,5 months) and includes 1200 messages and basic tracking. Extra messages are available for 4 USD per 100 messages.

Solara Fieldtrackers have been used on polar regions and other foreign areas and seem to be favored by scientific programs and similar government users.

The Solara Fieldtrackers are available from a bunch of resellers.

Summary: GPS positioning, tracking, 2-way messaging, stand-alone unit, expensive, very rugged, global coverage

PLBs i.e. Distress Beacons

The very small picture stolen from the McMurdo website.

Strictly speaking distress beacons are not satellite communication devices as they can only do one thing: Send an emergency signal when you activate them. But that is something these devices do very well. They are build solely to inform the authorities and rescuers that you are in trouble and to make finding you easier. They send signal on 406MHz frequency that is then picked up by a Cospas-Sarsat network (a specialized network for Search & Rescue use consisting of GEO and LEO satellites and other terminals). In addition some beacons can transmit your location with the help of build-in GPS and they also send locationing signal on 121,5MHz frequency.

If you need only a safety device to help you to get you out from a trouble and have no need for additional communication, a PLB might just be what you are looking for. Typically the weight of such device is around 150-200 grams and they work with internal battery that is good for 5 years or so and has to be then changed by authorized professional.

In Finland PLBs (McMurdo brand in this case) are available for example from Marinea.  The beacons need to be registered and in addition to the initial purchase cost owning one in Finland costs about 20 EUR per year.

Summary: GPS in some models, good (the best?) way to alert help, 1-way emergency messaging, reasonable price on the long run, global coverage

Epilogue

As a summary I might say that there are a lot of options for satellite based communication/messaging and there are probably more to come. Most outdoor aficionados don’t need any of these and one should never rely one’s life on an electronic device. But they might be highly useful in many situations and sometimes even save your life.

Do you have experience with any of these satellite messaging devices? Or maybe with something else? If so, please share your insight with me and other readers and leave a comment!