SPOT GPS Satellite Personal Tracker Review

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SPOT Satellite Personal Tracker GPS Device

I got a SPOT messenger and tracker in December, 2007 and I wanted to write up some of my experiences, to share with others and maybe learn something too.

The first thing you should know is this works as advertised: make sure it can see the sky, hit the button, and you get tracking. Press other buttons to send other messages, including a "911" message that will mobilize local authorities (police, sheriff, search-and-rescue), and send them to your location.

Update April 2008: the SPOT people have vastly improved the way you can share your tracking data with others. Now you can let people follow your trips in real time on a Google map if you want to let them. You can share your data publicly or use a password to share only with selected people. It rocks!

Section index:

  • What is SPOT?
  • First things first: it works
  • How does it work?
  • What's the deal with 911 rescue?
  • Why did I get one?
  • What's the scoop?
  • What functions does it have?
  • How to be 100% sure you enter continuous tracking mode
  • How can I share my tracking data with people?
  • Other ways to use the system
  • How to use the 911 feature without undue worry back home
  • Does it matter who you buy it from?
  • Message reliability
  • Batteries
  • Indicator lights
  • Comparisons with other tracking systems
  • Comparison with Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs, EPIRBs)
  • Other notes and thoughts
  • Questions and answers
  • Web resources
  • More on usage scenarios and where to put the unit

What is SPOT?

SPOT ("Satellite Personal Tracker and Messenger") is a GPS tracking device and service run by people at SPOT, Inc. It tracks your position using and sends messages (including your location) to people you specify. It uses GPS satellites to determine your location, and it uses a different satellite system (run by Globalstar) to send the messages. Because it uses satellites to send the messages, it works even when you're outside all cell-phone coverage areas. (But it doesn't work in all places; see "Coverage" below.)

You can use this device while traveling to send messages to your family or other people saying you are OK, or that you need some kind of help, or that you need honest-to-God 911 emergency response to your location. The messages can go to any e-mail address and (as text messages) to many kinds of mobile phones. Also, you can tell the device to continuously report your location (every ten minutes) back to a public or password-protected map page on the Web so people can constantly see where you are.

If you use the 911 button, the people at GEOS Inc. will get the message and your location (if the unit knows it) and they will call the local police or sheriff or whatever. So you can summon help to a location even if you don't have cell phone coverage there.

The device costs about $150, and the service costs $100 per year, plus another $50 per year for use of the continuous-tracking feature. Some retailers offer discounts, and at least one (www.neartime.com as of February 2008) even throws in the continuous-tracking feature without an extra service charge. Besides price, it doesn't matter where you buy it: all sellers are selling the same device and service at different prices.

The SPOT company promotes this as a potentially life-saving device, because you can use it to call for 911-style rescue from places that don't have mobile phone coverage. Besides that, the device is also also a way for the folks back home to know you're still moving (not lying in a ditch or dashed on rocks) and to follow along on your adventures.

First things first: it works

I bought one of these when they had just come out, and it works great. It does everything it says it does, it seems reliable and rugged, and it's not finicky at all. Put it someplace where it can see the sky, press the button to enter tracking mode, and it sends your location out to the web. You can press the other buttons to send messages (by e-mail and cell phone) to addresses you set up. I've read stories from people who used the 911 feature and that seems to work too.

How does it work?

The device uses GPS satellites to determine its own location. When it decides to send a message, it transmits to a different satellite system (operated by GlobalStar). This second satellite system is used for satellite-phone service, too, but these tiny data packets reporting your position don't cost nearly as much as a voice connection. The message goes back to SPOT headquarters, where they are received and processed by SPOT computers. Their system will send e-mail messages and text messages to the addresses you set up in your account, and do all the other things they do.

Coverage

The system covers the land areas of North America and Europe really well. Other parts of the world are not fully covered, and non-coastal ocean areas aren't covered at all. You can check out the SPOT company web site to see worldwide coverage maps.

You might be surprised by this - after all, it's satellite-based, and GPS works everywhere. The SPOT system's limited coverage is due to the satellite system they use for sending your position reports back to home base. The satellites they send those messages to act as "repeaters" in space: they just bounce the message back down to Earth, to a terrestrial receiver. In order for your message to get to SPOT, two things have to be true: there has to be a message-system satellite in range to "see" the transmission from your SPOT device, and that same satellite also has to be visible to one of GlobalStar's receiving stations. Otherwise the message does not go through. They don't have ground stations covering all the land area of the world and they have none at sea, so you don't have service coverage in all areas of the globe.

What's the deal with 911 rescue?

If you activate the 911 feature, people at the GEOS, Inc emergency response center will see both the report and your location and initiate emergency response. They will call local authorities (local to your location, that is), and then coordinate with them if your location changes or other information comes. The GEOS people are the real deal: they do this all the time, it's their business and they've been at it a while.

When you set up your service, you enter some contact phone numbers that the GEOS people call to ask if this is a real alert. Their procedure is to call the local authorities first, then call your contact numbers. If nobody answers at your contact numbers, or if nobody can confirm it's a false alarm, they assume it's real. They will continue to call your contact numbers to let your people know you had an emergency and to get and give additional information that might help.

You can buy up to a service that does better than having GEOS call the local sheriff. The GEOS company also offers a kind of worldwide rescue insurance policy. If you buy this, they will spend up to $100,000 to get you out of trouble anywhere in the world. Check out their web site if you're interested in that. As an incentive, the premium for this is only $8 a year (maybe just for the first year) if you buy it at the time you register your SPOT device for service. Otherwise it costs much more.

If the device is able to send a 911 message but doesn't have a GPS fix, the GEOS people will still get the message. Since they don't know where the unit is, they will call the contact phone numbers you supply - it's all they can do, really. If you initiate 911 mode, the device will send 911 messages repeatedly for an hour unless you cancel the mode. If the unit gets a fix during that time, the GEOS people will get the position and then they can call for local help.

Why would you get one?

I got one of these mainly for the continuous tracking mode. It helps with my domestic tranquility. I like to go off on long motorcycle trips in remote areas by myself, and with the tracking mode my wife doesn't have to worry so much. As long as she can see I'm still moving, she knows I'm fine. If I stop moving, she'll know roughly where I crashed and can take appropriate steps. And of course the 911 feature gives both of us added peace of mind.

Being on a motorcycle, you always have to think about crashing. It's a fact of life. On motorcycle trips I plan to use the continuous-tracking feature routinely, because after a crash I might not be in any shape to hit the "911" button. If I'm overdue, my wife or somebody can check the web and see my last known location and my track leading up to it. This is better than relying on being conscious and able to move after an accident, and also on being in a place where the unit can get a GPS fix and get a message out.

See the discussion below about deciding where to mount the unit depending on what you want it for.

So, what's the scoop?

The thing appears to work as advertised. Make sure it can see the sky, and it'll send your tracking and messages out. There are just a couple of quirks of the unit and of the service, which I cover below, but it totally works.

The good: It works. It sends e-mails and text-messages as advertised. It does continuous tracking when you ask it to, as long as it can see the sky.

The bad: Just one: you can't tell by looking at the unit that you entered "continuous tracking" mode correctly. See "How to be 100% sure..." below.

Oh, and it floats but it doesn't float pointing at the sky, so in a boating accident it won't work as an unattended beacon.

Otherwise there isn't much here not to like.

What functions does it have?

There are four major tracking modes:

1. Checking in, or the "OK" message: press the OK button once and the unit will send a message saying "I'm just checking in" message. Before leaving home, you use the Internet to configure the text of this message and the list of addresses and cell phones it should go to. The messages people receive will include your latitude and longitude, plus (sometimes) the name of the nearest city or town. When sent as e-mail, the message also includes a link that will plot your location on Google Maps.

2. Continuous tracking. Press and hold the "OK" button and the unit enters tracking mode. (See "How to be 100% sure..." below.) The unit will send a position report every ten minutes for 24 hours (or until you exit the mode or turn it off). Hit the button again to track for another day. The SPOT people manage a web interface to maps and tracking data, either public or password-protected. They will also export data to Yahoo's Fire Eagle system for additional mapping and other capabilities.

3. Help. Press and hold the "Help" button and the system will send a different message to a different list of addresses you set up. You configure the text of this message and its e-mail/text-message destinations separately from the "OK" message. When you enter this mode, it sends the "Help" message with your position every five minutes for an hour. If you cancel this mode, the unit sends out a "Cancel help" message to the same list of people. If the unit loses the GPS fix, it sends messages anyway so people know you still need help (that is, that you haven't cancelled the mode). You don't get to set the text of the "cancel help" message; it's set by the company.

4. Emergency 911 mode. This mode is like "Help" but the people at SPOT, Inc. will also get the message. First they will call for emergency response that's local to your position - police, county patrol, whatever. Then they will call the contact numbers you set up in advance. If they can reach somebody and they say, "Oh, I hit 911 by accident," they'll cancel the 911. But if they don't get an answer or they can't determine that it's a false alarm, they'll assume it's real. The unit will send messages every five minutes for an hour (at least), and the SPOT people say they will stay in touch with the authorities and your contact people and update them on your position. If you manually cancel this mode, the unit sends a "cancel emergency" message.

You can exit Help (or 911) mode without sending the corresponding "cancel" message by turning the unit off.

If you set up the OK or Help buttons to send e-mail messages, the messages include a link to a Google Map showing where you were when you hit the button.This doesn't require a login or access to the SPOT web site - the URL contains your latitude and longitude and goes directly to Google Maps.

How to be 100% sure you enter continuous tracking mode

A design flaw in this unit is that you can't tell whether you're in "continuous tracking" mode, or if the unit is in the process of sending an OK message. Both modes are initiated using the OK button, and both have the same pattern of indicator lights. You're supposed to hold the OK button for X seconds to get into tracking mode, but people sometimes let go too soon and they can't tell they didn't enter the mode they wanted.

To be 100% sure you're entering tracking mode and not just sending a single OK message, do this:

  1. Turn the unit off if it's on. Press and hold the on/off button until you have not seen any flashing lights for 5+ seconds.
  2. Turn the unit on: press the on/off button briefly. The light above the on/off button will start to blink.
  3. Press and hold the OK button. The moment you press the button, the green light above it will light up and stay lit. Do not let go until that green light goes out, and then starts to blink. Then you can let go.

As long as you hold the button until the light goes out, you can be sure you entered continuous tracking mode and not single-OK-message mode.

How can  I share my tracking data with people?

You can use the SPOT company's account setup features to create pages that show your tracking data. You can choose to make a page public or password-protected, and you can set up multiple URLs that you enable and disable whenever you want. This lets you publish a link and then enable that link when you want it to work, then later disable it when you don't.

The page that people see when they look at your trip shows your real-time tracking data, OK messages, and HELP messages for the last 24 hours. (You can set it up to show one, two, or all three message types. Because of a known bug that's there currently (in June 2008), you should not let it show HELP messages.) The data points appear in a list and on a Google map. From the list, you can see how old a tracking point is, the date & time it was sent, the latitude and longitude, and (in the case of OK and HELP messages) the custom message text you configured. (That's an option - you can hide the custom text.) When you hover your mouse over a data point in the list, the corresponding point in the map is highlighted - pretty sweet.

The public and password-protected pages show data for a time span you specify, from 24 hours to 7 days.

During or after your trip, you can go to the SPOT web site and download your data points in a variety of formats. You can use these for various purposes, including creating a page that will display a Google map of your trip for posterity. See "Web resources" below for one such program. The data that's available when you log in to your account goes back for a whole month, not just 24 hours.

Other ways to use the system

You don't have to use the "OK" and "Help" messages to mean "I'm checking in" and "I need help." You can use them to mean anything you want. Add the "Cancel help" message, and you really have a system that can send any one of three messages to your recipients list, any time you choose. You can enter any text you like for the OK and HELP messages, but you can't control the subject line of the e-mail that gets sent. And you can't change the text of the "Cancel help" message. If you set the text of the messages (the ones you can control) and you brief your support crew in advance, you can agree on any meaning you want for each of these messages. (Don't use the 911 feature this way, because GEOS will call local authorities and they don't like false alarms.)

When on a long motorcycle trip, I can't see any real use for the "Help" message. If I'm in trouble, what good will a "Help" message to my home base be? Most likely, all they could do is call 911 on my behalf, and the SPOT device already has that feature covered. So I feel free to use the "Help" and "Cancel help" messages to mean something else - maybe "I'm stopping for a meal" or "Stopping for the night," to distinguish intentional stop points from crashes.

The "I need help" message would be useful in a situation where you have a mobile support crew nearby. I can see this for a river-rafting company or ballooning operation or something. In a situation where the base crew has a mobile phone signal but you do not, it lets you summon your support team to your position without getting the 911 emergency people involved.

How to use the "911" feature without undue worry back home

The SPOT device lets you press a "911" button and summon help to your location. The GEOS people will call the authorities and the numbers on your contact list. You should talk to the people who might answer those phone numbers, so they know what to do if they get a call.

The most obvious case is that you pressed the 911 button because you yourself needed help. Your contact people will assume the worst any time they get The Call. Why did you summon help? Are you OK, or are you bleeding and near death?

Maybe you're fine, but in your travels you came upon an accident scene where other people need emergency care. Fortunately for them, you can summon help with your 911 button. In a case like that, you'd like to have a way to let the people back home know there's nothing to worry too much about.

The way to ease the minds of people back home is to use the OK button either before or after you use the "911" button. Before you go, tell them that if they get a 911 call and shortly before or after that they an "OK" message on their e-mail or cell phone, it means you're calling 911 (for some reason) but you're really OK.

If seconds count, use the 911 feature first to summon help as quickly as possible. After 10-20 minutes, when the unit has had time to send a few 911 messages, you can turn the unit off briefly, then turn it back on, then press the OK button. This will start sending the "OK" message. Wait 5-10 minutes to give the unit a couple of chances to send the OK message, then turn the unit off, turn it back on, and hit 911 again. By sending the OK message, you're giving your crew back home a signal that you're pretty much OK and they can ratchet down their worry level. By going back into "911" mode, you're telling the GEOS people you still need help. Once the real emergency responders arrive on the scene, you can cancel the SPOT unit's 911 mode.

I am suggesting here that you turn the unit off to change modes, not just press and hold the 911 button to exit emergency mode. The reason I suggest that is that you don't want to send a "cancel 911" message to GEOS while the emergency is still going on.

Does it matter who you buy it from?

Only for price. All retailers sell the same device, and the service comes from the SPOT company and GEOS, not from the retailer. Prices vary, and some retailers offer package deals, like having the first year of service included in the price, but ultimately you're buying the same device and service no matter where you get it.

Message reliability

Getting GPS position fixes and sending messages from the unit is never 100% reliable. GPS signals and your outgoing message signal can be blocked by trees, hills, buildings, or even your own body. Or the unit might not be pointed at the sky, or there might be no message system satellites visible at the moment the unit decides to send. In the tracking mode, this isn't a big deal - it'll send another message in ten minutes anyway. In the Help and 911 modes, the unit attempts to send every five minutes, with or without a GPS fix, in the hopes that some of these messages will get through.

In the case of the "just checking in" OK message and the "cancel" messages, the unit tries three times to get the message out. It tries once when the unit first has a GPS position fix after you hit the button, and twice more after 5-10 minute delays. The initial attempt might happen instantly, if the unit already has a fix. The delays are randomized to reduce the likelihood of messages being transmitted at the same moment by multiple transmitters. The company's computers don't send the duplicate messages out - only the first one that gets through to SPOT headquarters causes the e-mail and text messages to be sent.

This multiple-attempt system does mean you can't be sure exactly when the message will go out successfully - it ends up feeling a little vague. Once you hit a button to send a message, you might not want to change to another mode or turn the unit off until the unit exits the mode on its own, to be sure the unit has made as many attempts as it's going to. You still get no confirmation that the message went out successfully, of course. If you're watching the unit, you will see some of its lights go on steady for a few seconds - that indicates a message is going out. But you can't be sure it was received.

A more elaborate (and expensive) system would have two-way communication with the unit and more indicators on the display, so you could get confirmation that an outgoing message had really been received by the SPOT computers back at headquarters. Such a device would cost a lot more; this SPOT device it transmits "blind," not knowing whether its signal is getting out to the intended targets or not, and relies on multiple attempts to get decent reliability.

Batteries

The SPOT unit comes with two lithium AA batteries, and that's the only kind they recommend. They say it'll last four years with the power off, one year with the power on, and various shorter times based on the number of messages you send out. Sending a message is the most power-hungry thing you can do with the unit, so if you use the continuous-tracking mode your battery life will be shortest - but still measured in months.

They say you can put in alkaline AA's in a pinch, which is really good. They won't last very long but they are often available in emergency situations where lithium AA's are not. In a situation where you really need to use the unit, alkalines are much better than nothing.

There are no recommended rechargeable batteries. Nickel-metal hydride rechargeables (NiMH) probably don't have enough juice, even when fully charged. (The base voltage for that type of battery is lower than the base voltage of alkalines, so even when fully charged they can look like "almost dead" alkalines from a voltage standpoint.)

Indicator lights

The unit has a green Power LED that flashes every three seconds when it's on. It flashes red instead of green when the batteries are below 30% power.

When you press OK to send out a "checking in" message, the LED above that button blinks in unison with the power LED. After a little while, it will go on for five seconds to indicate the unit is sending a message. Then it will blink until the unit makes its next attempt. This lets you know it's in the "message transmission pending" mode. It makes two or three tries over a few minutes. If the unit doesn't have a GPS lock, the two LEDs will blink out of unison. It won't send the OK message without a lock. When the unit has made all the attempts it's going to, the OK LED stops blinking and you're back to just the Power LED.

When you press and hold OK to enter continuous-tracking mode, the OK LED also starts blinking. You can't tell the difference between this mode and "OK message pending" mode, except that the unit doesn't exit the mode until 24 hours later. Again, when the tracking messages actually go out the LED stays on for five seconds to show it's transmitting. See "How to be 100% sure you enter continuous tracking mode" above to be sure you get the tracking mode every time, instead of accidentally just sending one OK message.

Pressing the Help button lights a different LED, and it blinks in unison with the Power LED to show you're in Help mode. That light stays lit for five seconds when your HELP messages go out. That mode lasts for an hour, sending HELP messages every five minutes whether you have a GPS lock or not. If you press and hold the HELP button again to cancel the call, the LED turns red and the pattern repeats for a couple of attempts at sending the "cancel help" message.

I don't know the light patterns for the 911 message, because I don't want to activate that mode "just to try it out."

Comparisons with other tracking systems

Broadly speaking, there are three other ways I know of besides SPOT to do continuous GPS tracking. One uses the mobile phone network to report your position, another uses satellites (but in a different way), and a third uses ham radio signals.

I have a GPS vehicle tracking page on this site that discusses these technologies more, but here are the highlights in comparison with SPOT:

Cell phone systems

Cell phones these days often include GPS receivers, and some can use that for tracking. This is either a feature sold by the phone provider or something you install and use yourself. (See accutracking.com and mologogo.com for examples of the roll-your-own type.) Some systems work without GPS in the phone, using data about cell tower locations and signal strength to get a pretty good fix.

All these systems rely on the cell phone service to send the phone's position to the Internet, e-mail, or other phones. If the tracking device is out of range of the cell phone system, you get nothing. I used a system like this on a trip once and got no tracking in any of eastern Oregon, northern Idaho, southeast Montana, or any of Wyoming. If you travel outside of urban areas, this isn't for you.

Star-Traxx

One other satellite-based system I know is Star-Traxx. That system uses geosynchronous satellites to receive your message, instead of SPOT's "satellite phone call" system. It takes a bigger antenna and more energy to send a signal to a geosynchronous satellite, because the satellite is farther away. This means the Star-Traxx device is bigger and it has to be plugged in to a vehicle battery - it isn't portable and it can't run on a couple of lithium AA's, like the SPOT device.

Also, the Star-Traxx coverage is not very good along the West Coast of the USA: the satellite you want to reach is just 10-15 degrees above the southwestern horizon, easily blocked by buildings and hills. Over most of the rest of the USA the satellite you need to see is higher, harder to block. On the plus side, Star-Traxx works on the open ocean and in other places where the SPOT communication system has no coverage.

Star-Traxx is much more expensive: the unit is something like $700, and the annual service costs more. Also, the "continuous tracking" feature only plots a point every hour unless you pay extra - not every ten minutes like SPOT. And they have a "please send my position now" button, but I don't think they have anything similar to the three "OK/Help/911" buttons that the SPOT has.

The Star-Traxx people also sell the SPOT device. The two devices serve different types of customers, people with different sets of needs. When you buy the SPOT device from the Star-Traxx company, you get access to their very good web-based mapping and sharing features. This isn't as important as it used to be, when the SPOT people didn't have any way to share your tracking data publicly. See the section above called "Does it matter where you buy it from?" for more.

APRS, a system based on ham radio

There is a system called APRS that uses the amateur radio system ("ham radio") to carry tracking messages to the Internet. You can read about it on my APRS page here at BestBits and at the APRS wiki. I got my ham radio license and tried this and it failed for me: I couldn't get a ham radio system working reliably on my motorcycle, and the coverage wasn't good enough in the remote areas where I ride. It's also much more complicated, both in the equipment you need and the system you're talking to. Even when I did make it work, I found it needed constant attention - it is not a simple pushbutton solution at all.

TrackStick (not even in the same product category)

The "TrackStick" product is not a comparable product at all. It's basically a device for covert recording of the movements of a vehicle. I say "covert" because if you want the same result but you don't need to hide it from anybody, you'll probably buy a different device. The TrackStick doesn't send the vehicle's position to the web or anywhere else - it just records the vehicle's track into its internal memory, and then you can retrieve the device and dump the memory into a computer.

Comparison with Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs, EPIRBs)

The SPOT device is not in the category of Personal Locator Beacons, or PLBs. (I've also seen these called EPIRBs, for Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons.) Those devices serve a different purpose: they are strictly for emergencies only, not for sending "just checking in" messages or every-ten-minutes tracking. A SPOT unit is not a substitute for a PLB in situations where a PLB is called for. Two key differences are: (1) activating a PLB will get nearby Coast Guard or other search-and-rescue teams going right away because they monitor the frequency all the time, and (2) the searchers who respond are equipped with devices to locate the beacon, even if it can't see the sky to get a GPS fix or reach the satellite-phone system. In a word, PLBs are "real" emergency lifesaving devices for activating heavy-duty land and sea search-and-rescue worldwide, while SPOT is more of a "hobbyist" tracking and messaging device which also offers the possibility of emergency rescue. You can read more about PLBs at The Ultimate Personal Locator Beacon FAQ at Equipped to Survive.

Other Notes and Thoughts

In this section I gather some notes and thoughts about the device and the service.

Oddities and misfeatures of the unit

Even with multiple LEDs of different colors blinking in different patterns, they still made it impossible to tell the difference between a pending OK message waiting to get out, and the every-ten-minutes tracking mode. Both modes look the same: the Power and OK lights blink together, or out of synch if there is no GPS fix. You can't tell by looking at the unit which of these two states it's in. See "How to be 100% sure you enter continuous tracking mode" for a helpful procedure.

If you aren't in any message-sending mode at all, you can't tell whether the unit has a GPS fix or not. I would like to be able to see whether it has a fix, so I can tell whether a given mounting position or orientation is a good one.

The user's guide is too simplistic. There should be a reference guide for people who want the details. For example, it could explain that the unit tries three times to send out an "OK" message, and that the unit can take between 10 and 20 minutes after you hit the OK button to make all its attempts and return to standby mode. Today, owners have to guess at things like that (or find web sites like this one that explain them).

If the unit does not have a GPS fix at the moment it wants to send a Help or 911 message, then the message goes out with no location info, no matter how recently the unit had a fix. I think they should send your last known location, with an indication of how old that fix is. Imagine you're in a vehicle where there's a unit (but the unit isn't in tracking mode) and you crash. The place where you crashed happens to be under some trees, so the unit can't get a fix. The unit might have had a GPS fix in the recent past, but the 911 message won't show that. Instead the SPOT people will have no idea where you are. I'd like to see a mode where the unit constantly updates its GPS fix (at least every ten minutes) but doesn't send any messages. If I weren't using continuous-tracking mode, then this is the mode I would use - even though it would reduce battery life compared to "off" mode. In this (hypothetical) mode, a 911 message sent from under some trees would still include my last known position.

The unit won't send "OK" messages without a GPS fix. I think that's a mistake. The fact that I hit the OK button at a certain time is information worth having, even without knowing my position.

All this talk about messages without fixes might sound strange - after all, if you're under trees and can't get a GPS fix, how can you get a message out? But it can happen - my unit has sent several "help" and "cancel help" messages with unknown locations. The positioning system and the communication system are two different sets of satellites, after all, with different patterns in the sky and different sensitivities.

The OK and Help messages appear as e-mail that includes your latitude and longitude, plus the nearest "location," like a city or town. This has been inconsistent for me: I've often seen two reports from virtually the same spot where one has a location while the other is "unknown."

The text messages for OK and Help don't include your "location" (the nearest city or town) - only the e-mail does. This makes the messages short enough to fit in the cell-phone SMS format, but it means people who get the messages don't have a nice human-readable sense of where you are.

About false alarms in 911 mode

According to the SPOT company's literature, when a unit transmits a 911 message the people at the GEOS company will call the phone numbers on your list. They will then call the local authorities if they don't determine it's a false alarm - that is, if nobody answers the phone or nobody can confirm it's a false alarm, they assume it's real. (They might do these in the opposite order, for faster response.) Once they call the authorities, the consequences of a false alarm are between you and the local agencies. Some places charge you for costs incurred on a false alarm, and in abusive cases I think they can prosecute you.

How easy is it to cause a false alarm? It looks pretty hard to me. The power and "OK" buttons are pretty big and not well protected - something in a backpack or pocket could hit one of those by accident. The "Help" button is recessed under the surface of the unit, and the "911" button is even better protected: it is both recessed and surrounded by a raised ring. It would take a pretty specific accident to hit that button for the required length of time in a tank bag or pocket.

Still, I'd like to see a physical cover over the Help and 911 buttons - something to make it impossible for a pencil or a key in the same bag or pocket to hit the buttons.

You can cancel a 911 call by pressing and holding the button while in 911 mode. I haven't practiced this (for obvious reasons) but I don't see any reason it wouldn't work. It almost certainly sends a message to GEOS to cancel the emergency call, but in fact I don't know if they would act on that message: once you call for an emergency response, it's usually bad to for the authorities to assume "Things are OK now, emergency over" without looking.

You want it to be hard to cause a false alarm by accident, but you also want the thing to be easy enough to use that a stranger can pick it up and call for help. The SPOT unit has an instruction label on the back that tries to show strangers how to use it. I hope this system doesn't get overburdened with false alarms. Nobody pays attention to car alarms any more, and in my area the police departments don't respond to automated residential burglar alarms either. Too many false alarms. I hope that doesn't happen with this system.

Questions and answers

Some of these questions came to me personally on e-mail threads I started, and the answers are mine. The second section is a digest of questions and answers that appeared on at least one SPOT thread at ADVRider.com.

Q: Does it work from the top of a tank bag?

A: Yes, I had it there (under a clear plastic map pocket cover) and it worked most of the time. There was a dead zone on CA198 near Priest Valley, both coming and going, that I can't explain. (No trees, no hills...) When in the tank bag, your body blocks a good portion of the sky; in my case parts of the bike and another GPS unit would also have been in its field of view.

Somebody who works at the company that makes the SPOT says he can use it in the glove compartment of his Durango, despite having an airbag device between the unit and the windshield.

Q: What about the device size and shape? Is it OK for a motorcycle jacket pocket?

A: Yes, I think it is. The unit is solidly built, has rounded corners, and is flatter than it is thick - it won't puncture anything or shatter if it hits the ground first in a crash. But a jacket pocket won't have much of a view of the sky. This is a good carrying place in order to have it with you after a crash so you can call for help (even if you're separated from the bike), but it is not a good place if you want to use the continuous-tracking mode.

The company includes a belt clip and they say if you're going to use that, you should let it get a good solid GPS fix first. Maybe once it gets a good fix it can hold on to it even with a limited and changing view of the sky - that's common for GPS receivers. So maybe a shoulder pouch or hip pocket (facing outward) would be a good compromise: you can get some continuous tracking and still have it with you after a crash.

Q: Is there a "dead-man switch" to send a call for help automatically if you don't reset it after, say, 12 hours?

A: No. And I think it's unlikely to be very helpful. The unit's flat face has to be aimed at the sky in order for it to work. To use the SPOT device in a crash situation, you have to be conscious enough to aim the unit and hit a button. A system that automatically calls for help even without you hitting a button is unlikely to work because the unit is unlikely to be facing the sky.

Instead, for a "dead-man" support system (one that will get help to you without you having to do anything post-crash) I would use the continuous tracking feature, and arrange for a contact person who will know if you are overdue. If you don't check in by a specified time, they can check your track and see where you are - or at least where you were - and initiate an emergency response.

By the way, the Screaming Meanine makes a handy dead-man system: set it to detonate in 12 hours, and if you crash (and it's still working) somebody might come to investigate the noise. (Do a Google search for "Screaming Meanie" to see what I mean. They are sold at truck stops too.) People sell other "sound bomb" devices like this for hikers and skiers.

Q: Does the unit have to be able to "see" the southern sky to send messages?

No, but reports are that it can help. The satellites the unit needs to see are in orbits that swing north and south up to 55 degrees; this means there might be one overhead or to your north (if you are south of 55 degrees, about at the southernmost tip of Alaska) but the southern sky is the most favorable direction for getting a signal out.

Q: Will this unit interfere with other GPS devices I have?

It doesn't interfere with mine. I haven't seen any reports of multiple GPS-type devices interfering with each other.

Web Resources

There's a great thread about the SPOT at Adventure Rider, and probably more discussion there to come in many threads.

More on usage scenarios and where to put the unit

I think there are two basic usage scenarios for this device: constant tracking and calling for emergency help in a crash. The two are somewhat incompatible. For constant tracking you want the thing on the bike facing upwards, but for the crash scenario you want to keep it with you - maybe in a pocket where it will not face upwards and see the sky.

If you crash in continuous-tracking mode, it's unlikely that the unit will end up facing the sky: the bike will probably be on its side. Your support team back home might notice you've stopped moving and call the cops for you, but they can only give your last known location and direction. You can expect an average of five minutes since the last position report, maybe more. This means the search area is localized but not tiny. (This assumes you're incapacitated, so you can't return to the unit, aim it at the sky, and push the 911 button yourself.)

If you crash while the unit is in a pocket or something, you have a better chance of being able to aim it at the sky and push the 911 button. But when the unit is on your person it's in a bad position for continuous tracking: in most pockets it'll be facing sideways instead of up.

So when it's on your body the unit is in a bad position for continuous tracking, and when it's on the bike it's in a bad position to let you call for help if you're hurt. You have to pick one and go with it.

The SPOT web page says they've seen it work in a pocket or a belt clip. They advise putting the unit out in the open and pointed at the sky for a while before clipping it to your belt, so it gets a good fix. They give this advice because it's easier for a GPS device to hold a fix than it is to acquire one in the first place.

Maybe you could tie the unit to your riding outfit with a secure lanyard, while sticking it (facing up, loosely) to the tankbag or tail bag. That way, if you have a get-off it will come with you. Or else you have to decide whether you're carrying this thing for continuous tracking or for its 911 feature: it's difficult to both.

Update from May 2008: one rider reports success in continuous-tracking mode with his SPOT device in the pocket of his riding pants, resting on his thigh and facing (mostly) up. In this position the rider's body blocks perhaps 25% of the sky, but there is still a significant area visible to the unit. The GPS satellites are in multiple orbits all over the sky, so seeing any 75% of the sky should be plenty. But the SPOT's satellite data system uses satellites that are in orbits that keep them mostly in the southern sky (as seen from the US or similar latitudes), so if the blocked 25% is to the south you reduce your chance of your reports being heard. The worst case, then, is to have the tracker on your right thigh while traveling northwest, or your left thigh while traveling northeast. The good news is that you can decide which pocket to use (left or right) based on your planned direction of travel, to have it on your more southerly side. Then you might have a pretty good chance at success.

 

 

 

 


This page was last edited June 02, 2009.