Thursday, August 27, 2009


I mentioned earlier that I have been fooling around with SPOT. SPOT makes a little device that includes a GPS receiver and a satellite transmitter. The receiver keeps track of your position; four buttons on the front control the transmitter. The unit has the footprint of an iphone and is about twice as thick, although it is lighter. It has a solid belt clip that seems to hold it in place well. (I have been clipping it to my shoulder harness in the glider, and it has not budged.)

With a receive-only module and a different transmit-only module, SPOT does not do much. But, that's plenty. If you press and hold the 911 button, SPOT sends your GPS coordinates (via satellite) to its headquarters. They take your GPS position, figure out where the nearest Search & Rescue facility is, and send them to get you. It's for life threatening situations. [For those of you outside the USA, 911 is the nationwide telephone number for contacting emergency services.]

The HELP button sends email and text message alerts to a group of people that you specify on the SPOT website. The path is the same, but instead of "calling 911," it calls your Mom. Or wife. Or glider buddies, who find out where you landed out and come get you.

The advantage here is that satellite coverage is much broader than cellphone coverage.

I am pleased to say that I have not needed these features.

But SPOT offers another service: tracking. When in track mode, the unit sends a message with your current location every ten minutes or so. These appear on a (password-protected, if you like) web page, so your buddies can get a good idea where you are.

We used this a lot during the recent Region 9 North SSA contest. The contest director had access to everyone's SPOT page, and therefore had a good idea where the gliders were and when to expect them back.

The picture on the left shows three of my tracks. The low-numbered fixes heading to the southwest were from a night cross country with a student. The clump to the southeast was a glider flight in weak conditions (so I never got away from the airport, although I flew 2.9 hours). The ones to the northeast were from Tuesday's flight home from our satellite campus.

Some people have complained that SPOT service is, well, spotty, and should not be relied on for rescue. I have noticed that a few times the tracking message was never received, so they may be right. But the vast majority of the messages got through. For now, I'm concluding that SPOT really improves the chances that you'll be found sooner.

Recently, a Stemme motorglider went missing after departing an airport in eastern Idaho headed back to California. I was peripherally involved in the search as one of the few glider pilots in eastern Idaho; the searchers were looking for advice on glider tactics. Another part of the search was a lot of calling around to see if he had a SPOT; that would have made the search much quicker. Alas, the pilot was killed.

The other "complaint" is that SPOT needs a clear view of the sky to reach the satellite. So, if you are upside-down in a wreck, or stuck in a slot canyon with a boulder on your arm, it will be difficult to get the rescue message out. But, again, difficult is better than impossible.

I'd choose difficult over impossible any day.

The company strikes me as a company of true believers. They believe, with good reason, that their product will save lives. they seem to believe this so strongly that they have frequent promotions in which they give the unit away! You have to buy the tracking and messaging services, of course, but you pay nothing for the hardware.

Seems like a good deal.

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At August 31, 2009 at 8:53 AM , Blogger Sarah said...

Did you see the comments in the latest Soaring from Alan Silver (?) about attachments to the shoulder harness?

I have no ELT/SPOT, flying mostly over farmland. I'll consider it for the next western safari...


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