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SPOT Personal Tracker (Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2007)

The SPOT Personal Tracker offers emergency locating capability with unique features at low cost and weight.

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by Mike Martin | 2007-08-11 00:00:00-06

SPOT Personal Tracker (Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2007)

HISTORY

When Personal Locator Beacons first came on the hiking scene circa 2003 the lightweight backpacking community had a mixed response. Here was an electronic device that you could use to summon help from virtually anywhere in the world with a push of a button. PLBs were a seemingly ideal insurance policy for backcountry adventurers in remote locations. But, they were heavy (initially over one pound), expensive, and as their use became more widespread, likely to set rescue operations in motion for non-life threatening scenarios.

Technology, however, does not stand still.

At the 2004 Outdoor Retailer Winter Market, we reported on the 12 ounce, $740 MSRP ACR Electronics TerraFix 406 GPS Personal Locator Beacon and the 9 ounce, $999 MSRP McMurdo FastFind Personal Locator Beacon. In 2007, ACR released their Microfix PLB with further reduced size and weight. While these units were still very expensive, the trend towards smaller, lighter PLBs had begun. In addition, these units incorporated GPS technology to pinpoint the user's location with unprecedented speed and accuracy making them far more useful to hikers than older non-GPS PLBs designed primarily for ocean rescue. However, these second generation PLBs still set an expensive and possibly hazardous full-fledged rescue operation in motion when activated, with no option for a lesser response.

Last Winter, we reported on the non-satellite based 1.6 ounce, $130 MSRP TracMe locating device. At first glance, this seemed to offer emergency locating capability that was small, light, and inexpensive enough to carry anytime you ventured beyond the pavement. However, the device's short range, reliance on a third party to initiate a search, and need for specialized locating equipment (Radio Directional Finders) in the event of a rescue limit its usefulness in many situations. Nevertheless, the TracMe is still a clever device that is well suited to certain backcountry activities, such as group outings where RDF equipment is carried in the group.

OVERVIEW

The SPOT Satellite Messenger promises to overcome many of the shortcomings of these other systems. Presumably because SPOT does not use the 406 MHz PLB frequency and instead relies on a commercial satellite network, it is marketed as a “Personal Tracker” rather than a PLB. However, like conventional satellite-based GPS-enabled PLBs, SPOT has the ability to broadcast your exact position to emergency personnel at the push of a button. And, it offers this capability for less weight and cost than ever before. But what really sets SPOT apart from conventional PLBs is its ability to send out non-emergency messages containing your location. This allows you, for example, to alert your family or friends (instead of Search and Rescue) if you just become lost or suffer a minor injury. You can even send out "I'm Ok" messages with your current location, or allow contacts to track your position with Google Maps™. As any hiker who has ever left a worried spouse at home can tell you, these last features are well worth SPOT's 7.4 ounce weight and $149 MSRP.

SPOT Personal Tracker (Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2007) - 1
Google Maps™ screen shot of spot tracking. Photo courtesy of SPOT, Inc.

SPOT offers four types of messages based upon varying levels of need:

  • Alert 9-1-1 - Dispatch emergency responders to your exact location
  • Ask for Help - Request help from friends and family in your exact location
  • Check In - Let contacts know where you are and that you're okay
  • Track Progress - Send and save your location and allow contacts to track your progress using Google Maps™

Specifications and Features (claimed)

  • Worldwide Satellite Coverage via the Globalstar network
  • 7.4 ounce weight
  • $149 USD MSRP
  • $99 USD annual OR $9.99 monthly service fee
  • Available Nov, 2007

Backpackinglight has arranged with SPOT to test the device ahead of its November release. Check back for a complete review where we'll provide further details, specifications, test reports, and field impressions.


Citation

"SPOT Personal Tracker (Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2007)," by Mike Martin. BackpackingLight.com (ISSN 1537-0364).
http://backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/spot_orsm07.html, 2007-08-11 00:00:00-06.

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SPOT Personal Tracker (Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2007)
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Michael Martin
(MikeMartin) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: North Idaho
SPOT Personal Tracker (Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2007) on 08/11/2007 16:09:55 MDT Print View

Companion forum thread to:

SPOT Personal Tracker (Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2007)

Christopher Plesko
(Pivvay) - F

Locale: Rocky Mountains
personal tracker on 08/11/2007 16:53:45 MDT Print View

the first one of these I can see owning. very excited to see these in action.

Ken Helwig
(kennyhel77) - MLife

Locale: Scotts Valley CA via San Jose, CA
Spot on 08/11/2007 17:03:08 MDT Print View

Wow, great price and weight. Amazing how these are changing. At 7.4 ounces the weight penalty is minor vs. the relief that my wife would get! I will buy this one!

Franco Darioli
(Franco) - M

Locale: Melbourne
Great idea on 08/11/2007 17:35:14 MDT Print View

like the (claimed) options. The one I have, and never used, is the all or nothing type. If I set it off every Australian rescue squad is going to look for me. What happens if I have an injury that prevents me from walking out but is not life threatening ?
The alert for friends and relatives will cover this situation.
Also great for the ones that actually have someone that cares to be able to give the I'm OK and progress report.
Potentially great. I am waiting for the field tests, and for a local version.
Franco

Aaron Wallace
(basilbop) - F
Globalstar network... on 08/11/2007 17:39:16 MDT Print View

One question I have is whether the well-known premature failure of the current generation of Globalstar satellites will affect this product. Apparently the problem does not affect "simplex" communications, which may be what SPOT uses. Otherwise, service may become more and more spotty until Globalstar launches their next-gen satellites, sometime in 2009.

Craig Shelley
(craig_shelley) - F

Locale: Rocky Mountains
SPOT and GlobalStar on 08/11/2007 18:23:12 MDT Print View

It sounds great on paper.

I've carried a PLB (first the ACR and later the McMurdo) for three years. It gives my wife some piece of mind. I don't know how well it would work in actual use.

I've also carried a Globalstar Satellite phone most of the time for the last several months. It has been largely to see how well it works. Eventually I will probably rate it in the reviews section but my experience with a Globalstar phone is terrible. Even when the view of the sky is almost totally clear (no mountains, trees, ridges, etc in the way) reception is hit and miss. I can call with a strong signal and 15 minutes later the signal is nonexistent. I can call in the morning, but not in the evening the night before. With anything on the horizon, I've been generally out of luck (many times I've climbed up to a point to get a clear horizon so I can call).

Anything based on the Globalstar network of today, I'm therefore VERY skeptical that it would work that well. It will be interesting to see how it does work in practice. However, personally, I doubt if it works very well. I would be thrilled if it did.

Mike Barney
(eaglemb) - F

Locale: AZ, the Great Southwest!
SPOT sounds very good.... on 08/11/2007 20:02:27 MDT Print View

Thanks, this sounds very exciting. I trust BPL will throughly test this in a wide variety of scenarios, including in east / west and north / south canyons, under heavy canopies, in the near presence of other electronic equipment, as well as battery life testing, in heavy rains and water resistance.

I have an Iridium satellite phone, and would gladly trade it in on one of these if it performs as one might expect.

FYI, here is their website: http://www.findmespot.com/
It's run by the Spot Imaging satellite guys, a very reputable company.

Mike B

Edited by eaglemb on 08/11/2007 21:40:40 MDT.

Ryan Jordan
(ryan) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Greater Yellowstone
Re: SPOT sounds very good.... on 08/11/2007 22:09:56 MDT Print View

I've hard a hard time getting excited over PLBs, and generally, have been pretty critical of them. And I've never carried one, or even considered it.

BUT (you knew this was coming, eh?)

I think this would be an awesome way to give my family a sense of relief about my progress on a trek without having to interrupt the normal flow of the backcountry experience with a satellite-based voice telephone call.

Being able to simply call in my position and have it updated on a map that my family can check in daily would be really cool for them, and completely benign in terms of sacrificing my wilderness experience.

Yeah, this is cool. I'm excited.

peter vacco
(fluff@inreach.com) - M

Locale: no. california
Re: SPOT and GlobalStar on 08/12/2007 09:37:31 MDT Print View

it's not like globalstar has real coverage all across the north either.

Rick Dreher
(halfturbo) - MLife

Locale: Northernish California
Re: SPOT sounds very good.... on 08/12/2007 12:43:05 MDT Print View

Not only do the check-in-healthy and location functions elevate it well above emergency-only devices, the potential for a convergence device (with GPS display and navigation functions) is compelling.

I found this, on coverage:

"SPOT works around the world, including virtually all of the continental United States, Canada, Mexico, Europe and Australia, portions of South America, Northern Africa and Northeastern Asia, and hundreds or thousands of miles offshore of these areas. SPOT uses the GPS satellite system to determine a user’s location and the SPOT network to transmit that location and the user’s status. The SPOT network features satellite technology with a proven 99.4% reliability while processing over 6 million messages a month – the equivalent of 2.3 messages per second."

http://home.businesswire.com/portal/site/home/index.jsp?ndmViewId=news_view&ndmConfigId=1000010&newsId=20070807005332&newsLang=en

My guess is someone in a canyon would get intermittent communications, but poor GPS location accuracy.

Robert Mohid
(mohid) - F
Super deluxe corpse-finder !!! on 08/12/2007 20:57:32 MDT Print View

*WOW*

This would make an incredible difference to my wife when when I'm in the steeps up high and cold. Might even be able to convince her to let me go to the karakoram or the hymalayas !

If it works as advertised ;)

John Dark
(darkj) - F
SPOT and Globalstar Simplex Data Network 99.4% reliability on 08/13/2007 14:50:45 MDT Print View

Full Disclosure: I am with SPOT, Inc.

I saw the commentary here and thought it would be worth clearing up how SPOT works. SPOT gets a GPS fix using an onboard GPS chip. This is a fast-acquisition G3 GPS chip -- in most cases only needs a second to get a fix, particularly if you've already turned it on and sent a test message in the area you will be using it. SPOT sends the coordinates and a status indicator (911, Help, or OK) to the right destination. Communications are outbound only -- using the highly reliable and robust Globalstar Simplex data network. (For the more technical - this is the L-band, not S-band portion of the Globalstar Network)

The Globalstar constellation of 40 satellites is fully operational and stable in supporting the Globalstar Simplex data network. The Globalstar Simplex data network has a proven 99.4% reliability while processing over 6 million messages a month – the equivalent of 2.3 messages per second. It has been operational for several years sending messages for industrial and governmental customers.

More information can be found at http://www.findmespot.com

Mike Barney
(eaglemb) - F

Locale: AZ, the Great Southwest!
Re: SPOT and Globalstar Simplex Data Network 99.4% reliability on 08/13/2007 20:33:30 MDT Print View

John,
thanks for the feedback. This looks like a much lighter option than my Iridium phone. It's nice having someone from the company A couple of questions if you don't mind:

If cold started, is the acquisition still about a second?
How well does the GPS receiver do under canopy?

Any comments on operational battery life?

With respect to the 0.6% of the 6 million monthly messages, which I think is approx. 36K that 'arn't reliable', is this on the uplink side, the downlink side, the system overall, non-coverage (such as being in a slot canyon or under heavy canopy) or something else?

Is there any redundancy in the messages sent such that they be retransmitted in time diversity?

Thanks,
MikeB

Edward Silva
(pcmodem)
Re: SPOT sounds very good.... on 08/14/2007 22:57:24 MDT Print View

If it works with simplicity and reliability and can maintain the $149 price point and ~8 oz weight, the Spot Personal Tracker could create a stampede of buyers that have until now been waiting on the sidelines. With one of these units, spouses could verify you are indeed off in the wilderness and not the Vegas Strip.

The optional $9.99 monthly service fee is a pleasant choice for those who don't have the bandwidth to be off backpacking year 'round.

Looking forward to the BPL review.

Edited by pcmodem on 08/14/2007 23:01:26 MDT.

Christopher Plesko
(Pivvay) - F

Locale: Rocky Mountains
Re: Re: SPOT sounds very good.... on 08/15/2007 07:23:09 MDT Print View

I think you nailed it Edward. If it works as advertised my whole family will chip in and buy me one for Christmas, haha. Sure it 8oz of deadweight by SUL standards but it would give my wife and parents a huge piece of mind when I"m out there in places with zero cell range just by sending occasional "i'm okay" signals. And if I were to need to be bailed out due to a non-emergency injury, having them be able to do that would be so great over a PLB which is the "all or nothing" problem.

Andy Stroman
(astroman20) - F
But are you willing to pay a yearly fee? on 08/15/2007 09:58:49 MDT Print View

I agree that the Spot is a great price and accomplishes tasks that the ACR PLB does not. What I am disappointed about is the monthly charge to use it. If you don't pay your monthly fee, then it won't work. I only plan on using a plb if I'm screwed (hopefully never) but there will be months where i won't use it. You can't just pay for a month, or pay for a weekend, you have to sign a contract like a cell phone. So, after 5 years, I will have paid $500 in fees to have it. Now, If I could pay for a week and then turn it off, that would be sweet. Any thoughts on this?

Christopher Plesko
(Pivvay) - F

Locale: Rocky Mountains
yearly fee on 08/15/2007 10:13:10 MDT Print View

I'm willing to pay a yearly fee, no problem. I get out enough that it's well worth it. In fact I'll use my cell phone less (pay as you go because I hate cell phones) so it may even be a wash in terms of total cost for me personally.
Arrive at destination, hit button, once a day, hit button. Wife is happy, i'm happy. No cell phone needed. Yay!

John S.
(jshann) - F
Re: But are you willing to pay a yearly fee? on 08/15/2007 10:30:40 MDT Print View

I hear ya Andy. In the first year alone the price will cost you nearly half the price of a real PLB, and the payout doesn't stop there. I'd hate to see the lawsuit of them not responding to a 911 and it's their fault for mishandling an account.

Jon Rhoderick
(hotrhoddudeguy) - F - M

Locale: New England
Re: Re: But are you willing to pay a yearly fee? on 08/15/2007 10:33:08 MDT Print View

Now the only thing you need to do is stop your mother or wife calling in the army if you accidentally press the need help (not the 911) button.

Michael Martin
(MikeMartin) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: North Idaho
Re: yearly fee on 08/15/2007 10:51:23 MDT Print View

Hi Guys-

I've forwarded the fee questions to SPOT. Hopefully we'll get a response soon.

I *assume* that the monthy fee only needs to be activated before a trip, and you can leave the service off when you don't need it. I also *assume/hope* that the 911 feature would continue to work even if your service had lapsed -- I can just imagine the liability for SPOT if they didn't put through an emergency alert because of a billing issue or something.

-Mike

Edited by MikeMartin on 08/15/2007 10:51:59 MDT.