I’ve used the SPOT satellite messenger since it came out several years ago with great success. While I wholeheartedly recommend it, I will say that it really requires some thought to establish exactly how you’re going to use it with those following your adventure. I detail here how I use it, what the limitations are and why I now also carry a Delorme InReach.
As a pilot, a Spot (version one or two) is the easiest and most sensible way to satisfy the requirement to have a responsible individual provide flight following. Certainly I would do this even if it wasn’t required by law.
Here’s how my system works. I send a text message from my phone with details to the individual(s) following my flight on departure (more on this later), then use the tracking mode while enroute and finally send an “OK” message on arrival (“arrival message”). If I’m in cell coverage on arrival, I’ll alternatively send a text message to provide additional details on closing the flight plan. Spot charges about $160 per year for this service package with unlimited tracking, and that’s a no-brainer for the value received even if you only fly a few times per year. I conduct at least a hundred SPOT flights per year, using it for all but the shortest repositioning flights where I’m in contact with an air traffic controller.
Over the years, I’ve learned several things using this system;
1. OK messages are indeed reliable. It’s remarkably good at sending OK messages (and thus presumably HELP and SOS), even when landing in mountain valleys. Your message then goes through the SMS (text message) network where it is more frequently lost, especially if the recipient is temporarily out of coverage, etc. I copy all messages to a couple email addresses as backup. Believe it or not, the pilot may occasionally forget to promptly send an arrival message, but in any case the flight follower simply goes to web site to see my track and current location. It turns out that the tracking is more important than the arrival message.
2. Tracking messages are frequently missed. We have come to suspect by watching the system’s behaviour that about 10% of messages don’t get through so what the SPOT does is send each tracking message more than once, i.e. it sends the last two locations each 10 minutes to create the appearance of greater reliability when in fact the latest location available to Search & Rescue may frequently be between 10 and 20 minutes old, not between 0 and 10 minutes as you might presume. Even at my pokey 110 knot flight speed, this means the search radius from the last message could be nearly 4,000 square miles! I would sure pay for a five minute update option. An easy way to do this would be to simply purchase two SPOT devices and start them five minutes apart although I’ve not done this.
3. You don’t know if a message didn’t get through. Although it’s proven reliable, I have no way of knowing if a message didn’t get through. This bothers me when on a multi-day, out of coverage trip.
4. It is very hard to assign any significant meaning to messages. We’ve decided an OK message means landed and the HELP message means send help. Often I may make an unscheduled landing in which case I also use the OK message. Now that’s not a full update of the flight plan, so the follower needs to infer, perhaps the pilot got hungry and will be late. And how to say, “fishing awesome, we are staying another day”, or, “weather lousy, but we’re fine and will come home tomorrow”, or, “departing here, going to revelstoke for fuel”.
5. HELP isn’t that HELPFul. If I ever did send a HELP we’ve agreed it means “send another helicopter and then we can talk about it”. But how urgent would it be, and what should that pilot bring? There is no way to know whether to rush in to get a sick kid, plan a trip the next day with that essential AVGAS, bring another battery to start the bird, bring a new bird, or bring that scarlet fly I tied in February. It seems almost certain that a recon flight to talk on the radio would be required, then a second trip. I would really like to be able to send a message with more information in it. I already have a SOS button on the aircraft’s emergency location transmitter (ELT) so calling for help isn’t the reason for pilots to buy a SPOT.
6. You might think the OK message could have dual meaning of “departing now” and “arrival”, thus replacing a fully described text message for a pre-established flight, such as returning from a fishing location out of coverage. However, I’ve not found this satisfactory because you can’t use tracking mode at the same time the way it is designed and the higher priority is to have tracking mode enabled before departure. Also, dual use of the OK message would be ambiguous. Announcing your departure from a remote destination is tricky, especially if there is a change from original plans and basically the SPOT doesn’t satisfy this requirement.
7. All aircraft have finite capabilities, and in my case the safest way to get to a high altitude location is often to do it in two steps. Drop partial load A at the bottom of the valley, fly up and drop off partial load B, then go back for partial load A. Repeat on departure. Now as you may have guessed, partial load “A” and “B” are often living, breathing people. Who keeps the SPOT? Clearly, a second device is required for the chicken, fox and priest to fly up the mountain.
8. Battery life and form factor are excellent. I’m sceptical of the newer 4xAAA model vs my original 2xAA model. The original model is plenty compact, AA are an easier to find, I already carry them, and two AA batteries have 50% more capacity than four AAAs plus there is half the chance of a cell failure. I’ve found a pair of batteries last at least about 75 flight hours in tracking mode and AA Li batteries can be found at Walmart in the US for ~$2 each (in 8 packs). AAA batteries are more expensive per battery so the operating cost will be at least 3x higher, but that’s still likely not more than 25 cents per hour.
Summary: think of the SPOT as a great way for someone to track your progress and little more. Used successfully as part of a well-functioning marriage, it will greatly increase the probability of you finding a hot meal and cold beer on the table the moment you land from a long flight. This is a powerful value proposition.
Enter the Delorme InReach in 2012. Twice the price to purchase and prohibitive cost for tracking mode, but how sexy is it to send a 160 character message from anywhere in the world for $1.50. Rather than buying another SPOT, buying an InReach also provides satellite diversity, in case one doesn’t work. In other words, if one billion dollar satellite network in your pocket is good then two is even better. I have the bluetooth version and send/receive messages from my iPhone with it, I don’t use the tracking or the built in messaging. After just a month, here’s what I’ve learned so far about the InReach;
1. Delorme is deceitful. I don’t begrudge the $250 device cost, at the modest volumes they produce I doubt it creates a meaningful profit for them, although a lower price would, like SPOT, encourage more users thus creating more economies of scale. I don’t mind the $20 activation fee, it helps Delorme lower the cost of distribution but it is troublesome that Delorme works hard to hide both this and the actual contract terms, such as a $30/yr “universal service fund” fee. Most disturbing is that Delorme attempts to charge three times the price for the same level of service to Canadian customers vs US, and is very cagey about exactly how message billing works. Even after you get an invoice you can’t really figure out why it’s much more than you expected. But if you sign up as a US customer for the basic safety plan (i.e. use your SPOT for tracking) then you’ll likely have spent $300 to acquire the device and make a few mistakes in the first month, and be committed to $200 per year provided you keep below ten messages sent plus received. Somehow I sent three messages, received three and got charged for 18 so if I ever figure out how they actually count messages I’ll update this post!
2. The device is much bulkier than a SPOT, but is lightweight and happily uses the same AA Li batteries as my original SPOT, noise cancelling headphones, backup VHF radio and flashlight so no additional spare batteries to carry. There is really no advise on battery life, although I expect it will be must shorter.
3. Confirmation is the killer app, knowing that your message got through is the reason I bought this rather than the “SPOT connect” messenger competitor. 160 characters vs 41 is a huge difference also as well.
3. Sending a message seems to require a more panoramic view of the sky than SPOT, although I’m still comparing. There is no way to know whether the device has a clear sat view or not except during that brief moment when it tries to connect and gives you a green or red flash, if you get a red flash you move it around but then have to wait twenty minutes for the next retry, then move it again… I spent all night moving it around near our tent, left it overnight to still have a message in the outgoing queue. Fortunately I’ve only had that experience once, if it forms a pattern I will be concerned.
4. It is, as yet, unclear that receiving messages works well. Received messages are often delayed at least one cycle (20 minutes) if not many hours if you don’t have a good connection so given this combination of factors, it can take several hours to send a message and receive a reply. Don’t expect a “cell phone” like experience. When I did receive an inbound message, I frankly found it an intrusion to the whole point of having gotten away from civilization! Think of the ability to receive messages as confirmations, useful perhaps for changing a meeting location/time for the following day, not to be “online” as when you’re in cell coverage.
5. The iPhone app is well done, and I think if you’re not buying the bluetooth version to use with an android or iPhone then get the SPOT.
Summary: InReach is a paradigm shift and has quenched my desire to consider a sat-phone. It provides disturbingly intrusive two-way communication from the deepest remote location which, as an insurance policy, is worth its weight in gold. Buy it with the cheapest plan and go.
The InReach and SPOT compliment each other well. Please ask questions below and I’ll update this blog post as I get more experience using them together.