Michael Mulley on the SPOT



COPA Flight 8's November 2008 meeting was a complete rundown on the SPOT satellite personal tracking device presented by Michael Mulley, distribution manager with Globalstar Canada Satellite.

Globalstar is the company that builds and sells the SPOT and also provides the satellite tracking service that makes it work.

SPOT is a completely unique service that was just launched a year ago in December 2007. Already there are 12,000 units in service in Canada alone and a much larger number in use worldwide.

It is used by pilots, of course, but it is also popular with anyone who needs to let others know where they are, almost anywhere in the world.

SPOT is a completely unique service that was just launched a year ago in December 2007. Already there are 12,000 units in service in Canada alone and a much larger number in use worldwide. It is used by pilots, of course, but it is also popular with anyone who needs to let others know where they are, almost anywhere in the world.

Here is how SPOT works. You buy the small lightweight SPOT device and carry it with you. By activating the service for your SPOT with Globalstar you have access to a range of services. SPOT includes a GPS chip, so when you turn it on it quickly locates you and sends your location to one of Globalstar's 48 low-earth orbit satellites 1,400 km up, via a simplex L-band connection.

The satellite then relays your location to one of the 25 local gateway earth stations, like the Canadian ones at Smiths Falls, Ontario or High River, Alberta. The message giving your location is then sent to whomever you want it sent to, as you previously detailed in your account instructions. It can be delivered by text message, e-mail or plotted on a website map. It can also be sent to an emergency response centre for rescue action.

That is the basics, but there are lots of details and options available. First the device: SPOT can be purchased in many retail stores, such as Canadian Tire, Future Shop and Best Buy. The usual retail price is $169.99, but in late 2008 there was a $60 rebate offer available and retail stores often discount the units as well.

The SPOT is light, it weighs just 209 grams, it floats in water and is waterproof to 1 metre for 30 minutes, a feature that makes it popular with boaters. It is small at 11 X 7 X 4 cm. It will operate between -40C and +85C and from 300 feet below sea level to 21,300 feet above sea level. It will tolerate high humidity and salt fog as well.

It puts out a fairly low-powered signal of just 83 mW and runs on two replaceable AA lithium batteries that should last a year in normal use. Replacing the batteries with new lithium AAs will cost about $20.

The satellite service costs US$99.99 per year. This includes Globalstar's "Alert 9-1-1" service, which means you can hit the button and the unit will transmit a distress message including your identification and location every five minutes until it is cancelled. Emergency responders from the appropriate local rescue agency will be sent to your location, depending where you are.

The "9-1-1" button is intentionally designed to be hard to activate by accident. This response service is provided by Geos, a certified 911 response provider based in Houston, Texas.

The "check-in" service will send your contact list a text message or e-mail to let them know where you are. The message text is user selectable and includes your latitude and longitude and a link to a Google Maps satellite photo. This is usually used to let your contacts know that everything is okay.

The "Help" message works similarly to the "check-in" but is designed for not-urgent situations where you need someone on your contact list to come and get you. It sends your pre-programmed message to your list every five minutes for an hour. Your contact list can include any 10 e-mail or text addresses you like and has a message limit of 115 characters.

For an additional US$49.99 per year you can buy the "Track Progress" service. This provides the ability to automatically send your present location to a private website so your contacts can follow your trip in close-to-real time. It provides position fixes every 10 minutes for up to 24 hours at a time. You can also save your way-points to review later. This service can be useful as a training aid for flight debriefings.

An extra service is the Geos Search and Rescue Benefit. For US$7.95 per year (only at the time of purchase of the unit) you get up to $100,000 in SAR response, including helicopter extraction anywhere in the world, with a limit of US$50,000 per incident. This is an insurance policy underwritten by insurers at Lloyd's of London.

Once you purchase the SPOT device everything else is accomplished through the SPOT website. There you can find out more about the unit and the service, establish an account, set up your contacts, profiles and pay for your services, too. The tracking service only retains tracks for 30 days, so the website allows you to download and save old tracks, before they are overwritten.

While a boon for hikers, hunters and boaters, SPOT has some obvious uses for pilots. In tracking mode it enables you to let your loved ones know where you are and follow your in-flight progress. It will also summon help for you if you signal "911" in an emergency. It could also be used to find you, in the tracking mode, as you will be found within 10 minutes travelling time from the last transmitted position if it is destroyed on impact, or right at the last repeated position if it survives the accident.

The most common question COPA Flight 8 members had was about the SPOT's ability to replace a conventional ELT. Using the SPOT to locate downed aircraft seems obvious.

The main failing of traditional ELTs is that most of them don't survive the crash - broken antennas, sunken or burnt aircraft and impact damage make ELTs unlikely to survive the accident and they often don't.

Logically it makes much more sense rather than to rely on a device that must turn on when an accident happens, to have one that turns off when an accident happens. That way it doesn't have to survive the crash.

Naturally Transport Canada and the military SAR forces have some issues with SPOT. The first is that it can't be homed, particularly if it was destroyed in the accident. The other issue is that the 10 minute position reporting isn't accurate enough. An aircraft that travels at 180 knots with a SPOT reporting every 10 minutes would travel 30 nm in between reports. If it went missing then the SPOT would locate it only within a circle of a diameter of 60 nm and an area to search of 2,827 sq nm.

So at present SPOT will not replace your ELT, but COPA HQ is working on the issue with Transport Canada and Globalstar and we hope to hear more in the future.

Flight 8 would like to thank Micheal Mulley for coming to speak to the Flight in Ottawa from his office in Mississauga. The briefing on this innovative device and service was greatly appreciated. The SPOT website is http://findmespot.ca/.