SPOT Messenger: A First Look

Initial thoughts about my new flight following solution.

My friend, Jim, is an Idaho-based R44 pilot with a company very similar to mine. He’s a single pilot Part 135 tour and charter operator who sometimes operates over very remote terrain.

Of Flight Plans and Flight Following

One of the challenges we face as charter operators is last-minute route changes requested by paying passengers. For example, suppose the passenger books a flight from Scottsdale to Sedona. I’m required by the FAA to file a flight plan that indicates my route so that if we don’t turn up in Sedona, they’ll know which way we went and can [hopefully] find us. But at times — sometimes after the flight is already under way — the passenger might say something like, “Can you follow the course of the Verde River to Camp Verde?” This is not the most direct route and it’s not likely to be the one I planned. But what do I do? Say no?

[The right answer is yes, say no. That’s the answer the FAA wants to hear. But the FAA is not paying by the hour to conduct the flight. The FAA is not going to refer its friends to a friendly, accommodating pilot.]

The problem is, if I deviate from a route and something goes wrong, the search teams may not be looking for us anywhere near where we are. So they might not find us. And sure, I have an ELT (emergency locator transmitter) in my aircraft — even though it is not required by the FAA. But how well do those really work? It certainly didn’t help them find a pilot and his co-worker when they literally disappeared on a flight between Deer Valley in North Phoenix and Sedona nearly two years ago. They’re still missing.

And then there’s Steve Fossett. Or maybe I should have said, where’s Steve Fossett. They must have spent millions by now to find him and he’s still among the missing.

Airplane pilots and pilots flying in the flatlands of the midwest can request something called flight following from the flight service station (FSS). Flight following keeps you on radar so they pretty much always know where you are. The problem with helicopters is that we fly so darn low. Even if I flew up in nose bleed territory at, say, 1500 feet above ground level (AGL), the terrain in the area I fly is too mountainous to keep me on radar. I’d have to fly much higher to stay on radar. And if I’m going to be that high, I may as well fly a plane. So flight following is not a practical solution.

The True Geek’s Solution

Jim also flies in remote and often mountainous areas. And, like me, he’s a true gadget lover — someone who likes to fiddle with electronic toys. (I think he’s lusting for a POV.1 after seeing mine.) He was based in Chelan for cherry drying season and happened to see the SPOT Messenger displayed at the local Radio Shack. He went in and checked it out. Then he did more homework. Then he bought one and told me about it.

SPOT MessengerThe SPOT Satellite Messenger is a personal location device. It’s about the size of my Palm Treo and, as you can see here, bright orange so it’s easy to…well, spot.

My understanding of the unit is that it combines GPS receiver technology with satellite transmitter technology. So you turn it on and it acquires its position via GPS. You can then use one of four different features, depending on the subscription plan you choose:

  • The SPOT standard service plan, which costs $99/year, includes the following three features:
    • OK sends a text message or e-mail message to the phone numbers or e-mail addresses you specify. The message, which is customizable, tells the people on the list that you’re checking in OK and provides the GPS coordinates for your position. Those coordinates include a link that, when clicked, displays your position on Google Maps.
    • Help, is similar, but it sends a customizable help message to the people you specify. The idea here is that you need help and have no other way to contact someone who can help you.
    • 911 sends your GPS coordinates to the folks at the GEOS International Emergency Response Center, who, in turn, notify the appropriate emergency authorities. This is for real, life-threatening emergencies. The Response Center folks also contact, by phone, the two people you specify to notify them of the signal.
  • The tracking upgrade option, which costs another $49/year, includes live tracking, which, when activated, sends you GPS position every 10 minutes or so to the SPOT folks. This information is visible to anyone who has been given access to a Share page you configure with or without a password.

Jim went with both plans. When I bought mine on Monday, I did the same.

First Thoughts

I’ve been playing with SPOT on and off since Tuesday morning. In general, I like it and I think it’ll do the job I intend to use it for — flight following on those long cross-country flights.

After configuring message recipients, I started out by sending a few OK messages. Although the marketing material makes it seem as if those messages are instantaneous, they’re not. After pushing the OK button, the unit will try for up to 20 minutes to send your OK location via satellite uplink. It’ll send the message 3 times, but only one message is forwarded to the people on your list. For experimental purposes, I made myself one of those people. I had to wait longer than 20 minutes to receive one or two of the messages. To be fair, part of the reason for that could be my location at the time — flying between Wenatchee and Seattle in mountainous terrain. (I don’t think my cell phone was receiving very well.) The delay is satisfactory, once you realize that it’s not an instant communication.

For obvious reasons, I have not used Help or 911 yet. Let’s hope I never have to.

I did set up tracking. It took several tries to turn it on properly. The unit does not have a screen, so you have to rely on understanding the blinking lights to know what it’s doing — if anything. Twice I thought I was enabling tracking, but discovered that all I did was send OK messages. Once, tracking was on and in trying to turn it on, I really turned it off. In all cases, it was operator error. Evidently, you cannot turn on tracking during the 20-minute period in which an OK message is being sent. Since both features use the same button, it’s pretty easy to do one thing instead of the other if you don’t pay attention to how long you hold down the darn button.

My husband complained that the messages he received did not include the date and time. We later realized that it was because he was not viewing the message on his phone; he was viewing its summary. (My husband is text message challenged.)

Snowqualmie PassPad 6The e-mail version of the OK message is handy because of the link it includes. Click it and go right to Google Maps with the position clearly marked. Here are two examples. In the first one, we’re flying just to the east of Snowqualmie Pass over I-90. In the second one, we’re sitting on Pad 6 at Boeing Field in Seattle. These images are at two different magnifications. All GoogleMaps features work — it’s just the location put into GoogleMaps. My personal Messages page on the FindMeSpot.com Web site displays all points with the option of displaying any combination of them on Google Maps. It also enables me to download these points to a GPX or KML format file for use with a GPS receiver or GoogleEarth.

The Share page feature, which is still in beta, was not working when I first tried it. But it’s working now — and quite well! I set up a page that does not require a password so anyone could check in and see where I was when I was traveling with SPOT tracking turned on. Apparently, it only shows the past 24 hours of activity, so it you’re checking it now and there’s nothing going on, it’s because I’m not traveling with SPOT. But here’s what it looks like right now; as you can see, I spent a lot of time exploring Walla Walla, WA today:

SPOT Shared Page

A few things about this feature:

  • The lines between the points (which, for some reason, are not showing up in the screenshot) do not represent tracks. I was in a truck today and did stay on roads.
  • If the unit did not have a clear shot of the sky, the point that should have been recorded wasn’t. This wasn’t a problem today, since I had the unit sitting on the dashboard in the broiling sun — partially to see if heat would affect it. (It didn’t.)
  • Clicking a point in the list on the left side “flashes” that point in the display. You can also click other controls to get more information.
  • If you leave this page open, it will automatically update. So you can watch new points appear if you’re tracking someone. Way cool.

The URL for this feature is long and impossible to remember, so I created a custom URL using TinyURL: http://www.tinyurl.com/FindMaria. I invite you to try it for yourself.

Overall

My overall opinion is very positive. It will certainly give me peace of mind while flying in some of the remote desert locations I fly in. I think it’s worth the $150 unit cost plus annual subscriptions.

Even if something goes terribly wrong out there, I want to be found.

My next challenge: getting it to send OK messages to my Twitter account. Anyone have any ideas?

12 thoughts on “SPOT Messenger: A First Look

  1. I would wonder how good this unit would be if you crashed and were unconscious and couldn’t push a button. I guess if you had the GPS tracking on, it would show up. Also wonder how many G forces it could take in a crash.

    Good idea, though.

  2. Hi Maria,

    John with SPOT Marketing here.

    Thanks for the thoughtful review. I’m glad you like your SPOT! You asked about getting SPOT to work with Twitter. We just made our connection with Yahoo! Fire Eagle live — you can access it in the Shared page section of the SPOT Web Service — and it looks like there will be a service that hooks your Fire Eagle data into Twitter in the near future.

  3. I looked into the ELT issue for the plane I and my partners share. There are three TSO standards for ELTs. The first one, a later improvement, and the new 406 MHz ELTs.

    Our ELT is under TSO-C91, the original standard. This has only a 25% activation rate and 97% false alarm rate. TSO-C91A, the improvement, has a 73% activation rate. The latest standard is TSO-C126 and is the 121.5/406 ELT with a activation rate is 82%.

    This latter is the standard for new ELTs as the COSPAS/SARSAT satellite watch on 121.5 will stop next February. Of course, ATC will still monitor 121.5, but in a hilly area that they won’t pick up a grounded aircraft.

    The activation and false positive rates I think I got from an aviation magazine article somewhere. “Activation” in this sense meant activation when it was supposed to go off. I don’t have the false positive rates for anything but the first TSO.

    SPOT is cool, but there are two problems I have with it. First, it would be much more useful if there were some way to send a short message other than “OK”, “Help”, or “911”.

    Second, for aviation use, the 911 button may not be able to reach the right people. What’s the interconnect between the emergency response center and the Civil Air Patrol who does aircraft search and rescue in the US?

    Still, better than nothing and a good step forward. As a software engineer working in the same general area, I can’t help but be a little envious.

  4. John, thanks for stopping in.

    I’ve been experimenting with the Tracking feature and Shared page on a drive from Walla Walla, WA to Page, AZ. Oddly enough, on yesterday’s drive, there was a huge gap in way points. My friend Jim, who has been tracking me, wants to know why these points are missing. I don’t know. Once I turned on the device and put it in tracking mode, I left it on like that all day. Maybe you can shed some light on this problem.

    As a pilot, I NEED the tracking feature. As Bob pointed out in his comment above, if I were in a crash and could not push the 911 button, I’d rely on the tracking info for my last reported location. It’s important that this feature works.

  5. John Dark with SPOT here.

    Maria, regarding tracking in a car, positioning is everything. The best is to have it up in a sunroof — I place mine up there and never miss a beep as long as I’m outdoors, not under an overpass, etc. If it’s in the windshield, I get very good, but not perfect performance because the roof is blocking a good portion of the sky. If it’s anywhere else, like on a seat, you’ll only get out a few messages.

    Regarding the question about who gets a 9-1-1 message, they all go to the GEOS emergency response center who looks at your lat/long and alerts the closest best local authorities after contacting your emergency response contacts. This way, the fastest and most effective response is possible.

  6. I keep it on the dashboard in the car. Remember, I’m still testing it. I just completed a drive from Quincy, WA to Wickenburg, AZ via Walla Walla, Salt Lake City, and Page. Spot’s tracking worked extremely well for the entire drive EXCEPT for that 2+ hour period from Idaho to Utah. I’m assuming this was some kind of fluke.

    I’ll be using it for flight following on a helicopter flight from Seattle, WA to Page, AZ starting on Saturday, August 9. Anyone who wants to watch the track can do so at http://www.tinyurl.com/FindMaria.

    My buddy Jim, who is also a new user, has been following me on my drive. When I arrived in Wickenburg this afternoon, he called to ask why I was there!

  7. Hi Maria,

    I had a Spot for a few month now and although it is a very nice idea and gadget to have, I would not rely on it 100%. I am a sailor and bought it when I left Houston, TX to go to St Petersburg, FL, and did not have any other way to communicate with the rest of the world when in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico. We had somne engine problems and ended up drifting more South and went to Key West because of the wind conditions.

    During our trip, I religiously sent my Okay messages and wanted to make sure that everyone knew where we were. That is the idea with traking, right? Well, for some unknown reason, it quit tracking us for 2 days, and did not send my Okay messages during that time. After waiting for 2 days and calling Spot to figure out what was going on, my friends decided to call the Coast Guards to find us. Which they did after 5 hours of searching since we sailed South rather than East after our last position. When they found us, they asked me to reset the Spot unit to make it work again. When I looked at it, before reaetting it, it was performing the right flashes showing that everything. I told the Coast Guards that it was supposedly working fine, but reset it anyway, not having any way to know if it was working or not.

    When I arrived to Key West, I called the Spot “You should reset the device everyday”. Even if I did not like the response, I went along with it.

    I used it again last week for a trip from Melbourne, FL to St Augustine, FL, and had similar problems. The unit stopped tracking around 7am last Thursday, even though my lights were working fine, and when I had a real problem, my boat was taking water, I pressed the 911 button that did not work apparently. My radio went underwater, so it was my only way to send a Mayday, and it did not work as promised. My boat sunk, but everyone is fine. I am not saying that they are responsible in any way for my loss, but I would be very carefull relying on it for emergency situations. I think that the unit should send itself a signal to double check its performance and should let the user know that it is not communicating with the satelite immediately, rather then supposedly thru the blinking of the 2 green buttons simultaneously, which is not necessarely the case.

    I am sorry for my long note, but I feel that I need to tell my story and have them aknowledge that their unit connot be considered a safety device until it is very close to be true. Here is my shared page: http://share.findmespot.com/shared/faces/viewspots.jsp?glId=0NHOEinlBuMeqLpWnhe82pHaliLyIYPGm

    Good luck,

    George

    • George, thanks for the details of your unfortunate (and scary!) experience with Spot. I agree that I really can’t DEPEND on it — although I’ve never had a problem with it not tracking me. It’s more of the idea that 10 minutes can mean a lot of miles when you’re flying. The fact that the 911 feature did not work as advertised is very distressing, though. I hope you’ve passed this info on to the folks at SPOT and that they’ll do something about it. Lots of folks WOULD rely on it for assistance and might not end up safe, as you did.

      Sorry about your boat.

  8. I will be in Seattle in the middle of June to sail in the Pudget Sound. Maybe we could exchange stories :) and maybe have you and your husband sail with us?

    You can see what I do at http://www.heartofsailing.org, we teach sailing to Special Needs children and adults for free as form of education and recreational therapy.

    George

  9. Hi Maria:

    This is Hari from Globalstar (SPOT). I work in the SPOT development team. I found that you were talking about SPOT to Twitter. I was initially looking at supporting it in SPOT but by that time, a third party has already done it. You can try http://www.sat2twitter.com/. Pretty cool.

    We also released a SPOT widget that can be embedded in your blog. I have that in my blog: http://www.harinair.com

    Hari Gangadharan

    Hari Gangadharan’s last blog post: Look what I was working on!

  10. I live in Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada. My husband and I just got back from a driving trip down to New Mexico. I made sure my spot was up to date and sent myself an ok message in Fort Mcmurray before we left to make sure that the emails were working. I had 4 other people that were on my email list that were going to follow our progress. On 4 separate occassions I sent ok messages from various locations while in the US.
    2 of them I sent twice just to make sure. Not one was received!!! Finally I just gave up. Does the unit work for sending messages in the US if you set it up in Canada or is there some other explanation?
    Dissapointed in Canda.

    • I have no idea. I’ve only used mine in the US and have had excellent results. In fact, I just tested it yesterday in preparation for two long trips I’m making next week.

      You should talk to the folks at Spot. Maybe your unit is defective.

What do you think?