Tuesday, September 07, 2010

SPOT GPS Messenger

I do a bit of bushwalking - a lot in areas not well covered by mobile phone. My wife gets worried when I'm away and often I have to climb hills to get some sort of mobile phone message to her to say I'm ok.

So for my birthday she bought me a SPOT GPS Messenger. This little device is like a personal EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon) but with the added extra that it can send pre-formatted email and mobile phone SMS recipients. So I can send my wife a "Checking In / I'm OK" message a few times a day. The email and SMS messages also send the GPS co-ordinates and a link to Google maps. If I get into trouble (like being stuck), I can send a "I need Help - come and get me" message. If I'm in a life threatening situation or seriously injured, I can send a "911" emergency message that goes to the US rescue center, who then relay the message to Australian rescue centres.

Relying on private satellite communication links (Globalstar) the service is subscription based. But for $115USD per annum you get unlimited email messages and 200 SMS messages. You can have up to 10 email and/or SMS recipients per message type - so I can not only keep my wife informed, but also my kids. The system also lets you set up a web page showing the last 30 logged locations. So in my mind the pricing isn't too bad.

There are certainly some pros and cons compared to conventional EPIRBs.

Pros of SPOT GPS Messenger

  • Cheaper to buy (around $300 vs $500-$800 for a personal EPIRB).
  • Can send non-emergency and or low priority help messages to friends and family - Check In/OK and pre-formatted custom messages (EPIRBs just send emergency messages).
  • Non emergency messages go to your friends and family (email and SMS), whereas EPIRBs send messages through an emergency response centre.
  • Sends "911" emergency messages through the emergency response centre (just like EPIRBs do but using a different satellite communications channel).
  • Can be used for tracking your trip (additional subscription).
  • Generally lighter than EPIRB units.
  • Replaceable batteries.

Cons of SPOT GPS Messenger
  • Relies on a commercial communications network (Globalstar) and private service provider to get messages through - maybe less reliable?
  • Emergency response in Australia relies upon a Memorandum of Understanding between the service provider (SPOT), the US rescue services (who will take the call initially), and the Australian rescue services (who get handed the call to act on it). You can download the unsigned MOU from here.
  • No homing beacon function - relies on GPS co-ordinates contained in the message to get the rescue people to you. If you move (for example to avoid flood waters), you would have to send another message with an updated position.
  • Annual subscription needed - $115 USD per annum.
  • Battery life is limited - EPIRB batteries generally last 5 years, SPOT uses replaceable lithium AAA batteries that last about a year (quite a bit less - some 7 days - if the unit is set for tracking mode that send a message every 10 minutes). Having said that, if you only turn on SPOT when you want to send the batteries should last some years. On a fresh set of batteries, SPOT should send continuous emergency messages (every 5 minutes) for a number of days.
  • Not 100% global coverage - most land areas but marine areas not covered well.
Just a note on the first bullet point above - Globalstar has been having all sorts of problems with it's satellite telephone service. Apparently the problem is failing satellite transmitters. Apparently this does NOT effect the "simple message service" used by SPOT.

Anyway, if you want to check out my location have a look at http://www.smithonline.id.au/?Greg:My_SPOT_Page. Yes, the map is "live".

You can get more info at www.findmespot.com and Google "SPOT GPS Messenger" to get some local retailers.

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