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Spidertracks – Product Evaluation

By Kevin Psutka and Bob Kirkby

Updated 8 November 2012


(This is a two-part report. Kevin was provided Spidertracks 2 for testing in the flatlands of eastern Canada while Bob tested Spidertracks 3 in the Alberta mountains)

Part One – by Kevin Psutka

I have used SPOT since the beta testing days and most recently upgraded to a SPOT 2 (see my report ). I carry a tracking device because my many years of experience with the ELT issue and my knowledge of the limitations of ELTs, including their high failure rate, leads me to conclude that regardless of what the government may require, I want to carry something else to improve the prospects for my passengers and I in the event that we go down.

SPOT has its advantages but it was not designed for aviation use. Consequently, there are features that can be cumbersome. It can be in the wrong mode or fail to alert people if you do not fully understand how it works and take the time to configure your account for your SPOT. Of course, the same can be said for the new 406 MHz ELTs if you do not register them, keep your account up to date and provide contact information for someone who will most likely be there when the call comes in from the search and rescue folks.

I was intrigued by a company, now based in Colorado but who developed their product in  New Zealand, who claims that their device and service, Spidertracks, is the first tracking device specifically designed for aviation, so I stopped by their booth at Oshkosh for a demo. Bruce Bartley, a helicopter pilot and Director in Spidertracks, provided the demo and also explained a unique new tracking feature, Spiderwatch, which automatically sends an alert without input from the crew or the need for the device to survive the accident, which is a major drawback of ELTs. Bruce agreed to provide me with Spidertracks 2 and COPA Chair Bob Kirkby with Spidertracks 3 for our evaluation. Spidertracks 2 has subsequently been updated and renamed Spidertracks 4. I am a flatlander (Ontario) and Bob is located in Alberta so our combined evaluation of two devices and two areas of the country (including the mountains where some tracking devices are limited) should provide a good shakeout. Bob and I both use SPOT, so our evaluations of Spidertracks will include a comparison with SPOT.

Out of the box, the first thing I noticed is that Spidertracks 2 is larger than SPOT and comes with cables for connecting a keypad and for power, which can come from a standard cigarette lighter power receptacle, be hardwired to the aircraft or from a separate battery pack. The advantage of aircraft power is that the device will automatically power up when aircraft power is supplied and you do not have to worry about carrying extra batteries such as is the case for SPOT. However, there are disadvantages. Cables clutter the cockpit and in the aircraft I fly (2006 Cessna 182) the power receptacle is supposed to be turned off for takeoff and landing, thereby rending some of the features, such as automatic check-in at aircraft power-up, useless. In the event of an accident where aircraft power is no longer available and you did not purchase the optional battery, you have no way to continue sending reports of your location if, for example, you decide to walk away from the last reported position. Bruce reported that it was a company decision not to provide integral batteries in order to discourage accident victims from walking away from the accident. Rescue experts agree that staying with the aircraft is the best bet for being found.

I found the registration procedure to be about the same as for SPOT. I did have a problem with seeing the tracking reports online because of my computer’s security settings but the FAQ section of the Spidertracks web site led me through the steps to correct this problem.

Spidertracks operation takes a bit of study to understand the various modes, button selections and what the lights on the keypad mean but the user guide is straight forward. I received the device in the morning and by that afternoon I was playing with it as my wife drove me home from work. It is more complicated than SPOT but there are more features to get to know in order to maximize Spidertracks.

The best feature of Spidertracks, compared with SPOT, is that it is automatic in its operations. Configure it via the web site for one or two minute reports, set up Spiderwatch for what ground speed you want it to start monitoring and then just fly. On aircraft power-up, Spidertracks will find its GPS location (mine found itself within one minute even though its last location was thousands of miles away) and then it will send a power-up message to wherever you determined in your set account online. When you accelerate on takeoff (mine was set for 40 knots) Spiderwatch is automatically activated and a message is sent to your contacts. My contacts included my Blackberry so I had verification within one minute that the entire Spidertracks system is working. This is something you can never do with an ELT unless you send an actual alert and wait for either a phone call from a rescue coordination centre or for a search aircraft to appear overhead. With SPOT, you have to manually select check-in or manually switch to track mode in order to accomplish the same thing.

Another great feature is one or two minute tracking reports (SPOT has ten minute only). Although it costs more for these frequent reports (more about cost later) the frequency of reports narrows down the search area considerably. Like insurance, everyone has their own value for such coverage and hence willingness to pay. For my evaluation, the tracking reports were every minute.

Spidertracks uses the Iridium satellite network, a more reliable network than SPOT’s Globalstar system. In over three years of extensive use of SPOT, mostly in eastern Canada, I found that 92% of the tracking reports came through with SPOT 1 and in the six months that I have been using SPOT 2 (more powerful transmission signal) 100% of the tracking reports came through. There are reports that SPOT is not as reliable in mountainous terrain or in the far north. SPOT is also only uses the simplex part of the Globalstar system (one way communication from the device to the satellite) whereas Spidertracks uses the duplex portion of Iridium. This permits some significant features, including confirmation that a report has been received. I will explain with a very significant feature, Spiderwatch.

DND’s reluctance to accept tracking devices, despite their obvious advantage for narrowing the search area dramatically compared with an ELT that fails to operate, is that most of them do not automatically send an alert, at least in the sense that an ELT does. Spiderwatch is indeed automatic. When your aircraft exceeds a certain speed (mine was set for 40 knots), Spiderwatch automatically starts monitoring for reports to come in at the rate set by the user. When you land (ground speed less than 40 knots), you must depress the monitor button in order to tell the system that you have arrived. When your monitor signal has been received by Spiderwatch, the system will send a signal to your unit to let you know that Spiderwatch is deactivated and you can then power down. If Spiderwatch does not receive two tracking reports in a row, and you have not manually deactivated Spiderwatch, the monitoring system will send an alert to whoever you have set up in your account. There are tier-one contacts, who receive a message and instructions for deactivating the alerts if they know where you are or taking other action if the alert is real. If one of your contacts does not respond, alerts will be sent to them every few minutes plus any tier-two contacts you have set up in your account. Spidertacks does this so that, for example, the first level of alert will be to verify with you, your friends or family that an alert is real and then the system will alert the authorities if they are set up as tier-two contacts. This feature for the most part prevents false alerts from reaching the authorities.

Bruce Bartley reported that the rescue coordination centre in New Zealand readily accepts being a tier two contact because they see the value of the timely notification. Unfortunately, our Department of National Defence’s position on tracking devices at the current time does not permit them to accept this responsibility, so there is no contact listing to include in your tier two contacts. DND is committed to ELTs, notwithstanding their limitations, and does not permit their coordination centre staff to learn about other devices or develop procedures for using information from them. As technology develops, as it has with Spidertracks and Spiderwatch, it will become apparent that this technology saves lives, compared with ELTs. I can only hope that DND will eventually see the value of tracking devices before too many people die from dependence on ELTs. In the meantime, the best way to deal with this limitation is to ensure that your contacts have the rescue coordination telephone numbers (Halifax 800-565-1582 or (902) 427-8200, Trenton 800-267-7270 or (613) 965-3870, Victoria 800-567-5111 or (250) 363-2333) and call them when they are unsure of the status of your flight.

After familiarizing myself with the system by driving it around town, I was ready for a flight evaluation. Spidertracks comes with a mounting bracket that can be attached to the top of an instrument panel with screws or the included double-sided tape. I just placed it on top of the instrument panel where it had an excellent view of the sky. I bundled the excess keypad wire with an elastic band and plugged into the power receptacle. On power up, a small LED glowed red until GPS position was achieved and then it glowed amber. It would be clearer if the light was green.

Within two minutes I received a power up message on my Blackberry, confirming that the entire system, from device, to satellite to ground station to communicating with my contacts, was working.

There was nothing else to do for flight. When I accelerated through 40 knots, Spiderwatch was activated and another message was received on my Blackberry; comforting indeed. My flight was an IFR flight from Gatineau CYND to Rouyn CYUY, taking me beyond radar coverage at the 4000 foot altitude that I was forced to fly due to strong headwinds. The one minute reports produced a report every 3 km at the speed I was travelling; typical of most light aircraft. If an accident occurred and the device was destroyed, it is highly likely that the aircraft would be within 3 km of the last report, well within the advertised accuracy of an ELT (5 km) if it activates and is not masked by foliage or wreckage, has not submerged or been destroyed by crash forces or fire.

In my two weeks of testing on a number of flights, all tracking reports came through.

At one point, I simulated an accident by unplugging the device. After about one minute, I received an alert notice on my Backberry as a text message as well as an email message. I responded to the instruction to cancel the alert and received a confirmation soon after that the alert was cancelled. On another test, I did not respond to the alert message. I received several messages including an escalation to tier-two contacts. I am confident that Spiderwatch will do a great job of automatically sending alerts without intervention for the crew and I will point this out to DND and Transport Canada in an attempt to again get them to understand that value of tracking devices as an alternative to ELTs. If a rescue coordination centre would accept an alert notice, they would have a report, including identification of the owner and aircraft plus very accurate GPS location of the last report.

The level of service provided by Spidertracks comes at a cost, of course, but I discovered that the cost differential is not all that great compared with the costs of SPOT and an ELT when everything is considered.

Let’s look at an ELT. The least expensive ones are now about $1000 but be careful with the so-called low cost ELTs, some of which are less than $1000. It is becoming apparent in service that they are failing to perform. New Zealand, for example, has an Airworthiness Directive on all of the new Artex ELTs because of faulty g switches, the same ones that are used in most ELTs. Transport Canada has been made aware of the AD and has not taken action to this point. The NZ AD requires inspection every six months and an Artex company spokesperson told me that he considers the issue to be unique to New Zealand. I await Transport Canada’s assessment.

The average to purchase and install an ELT varies considerably, depending on what type of ELT is being replaced, certification basis of the aircraft, etc. I have received reports of costs as low as less than $1000 and as high as $9000, but I will use a low end of $2000 for an average. Annual recertification cost is between $80 and $150 depending on where you have the required annual service performed, plus shipping charges. So, let’s say $100 average. For those who have suggested that the annual recertification be eliminated due to the self-testing features in the new ELTs, this has been suggested to Transport Canada but they refuse to eliminate the requirement, citing corrosion inspection as the reason. Replacement batteries for the new ELTs cost about $200 and last about five years, so the annual cost for a battery is about $40 per year.

SPOT 2 sells for as low as $150. The annual subscription, including tracking service, is $150. At the rate that most private aircraft fly, the batteries should be replaced once per year at a cost of about $15. For some more frequent fliers, such as a flight school, this could be as much as $90 per year.

The price of Spidertracks 4 is $1795 US and Spidertracks 3 is $995 US . Annual cost depends on the level of service you desire, similar to mobile phone plans . The lowest usage plan gives you 48 hours of tracking per year (4 hours per month) for $120. If you go over in any month you pay the overage by the minute. Other plans give you more base time, similar to cell phone plans.

So, Spidertracks can be less expensive than an ELT and SPOT, but the value you place in these devices depends on your level of activity and your risk assessment for your operation. For most recreational fliers, Spidertracks appears to be a good choice. With automatic alerting and a breadcrumb trail, Spidertracks is an excellent alternative to an ELT and in many ways it is superior. With over 1000 units in use in over 50 countries so far, Spidertracks is gaining acceptance throughout the world. Be aware, however, that as of the writing of this report, tracking devices are not acceptable to Transport Canada as a replacement for an ELT.

Part Two - by Bob Kirkby

The day I received the latest Spider model S3 from Spidertracks for evaluation I had to do a four-hour trip in my car so I took the S3 along to get to know it. Before leaving I logged on to their web site and set up my account without a difficulty. Like SPOT you can direct messages to both email addresses and cell phones for SMS text messages. I set it up so all messages would come to me during my testing.

The unit only came with a brief guide so I downloaded the user manual from the web site but this proved confusing since the manual was written for the S2 model. There are several differences and I hope they produce an S3 user manual soon.

Once the Spider is powered on it looks for the GPS satellites and the Iridium satellites and an LED indicator lets you know when it has established communications. I found it would always lock onto satellites within 30 to 60 seconds.
My testing was varied. I used the S3 in my car on four trips, two of which were in the mountains (Kananaskis and Banff). I used it on five flights, two of which were in the mountains on a trip from Calgary, AB to Golden, BC and return (2.5 hrs). I tested it a total of 9 hours in my car and 5.5 hours flying. After every trip I logged on to examine my tracks and the Spider never missed a single report. I used my SPOT along side the Spider and it never missed a report either.

I noticed a big difference in the quality of the tracks between the two products. The SPOT reports every 10 minutes which is not bad when you are travelling from A to B in the flat lands. But in the mountains it’s a different story. Following the valley routes the SPOT shows track that jump over mountains as you wind your way through the valleys which could be very confusing to SAR folks. With Spider reporting every 2 minutes the tracks shown on the Spiderwatch web site looked very close to my actual track, confirming that I was indeed following your intended route which would make locating a downed aircraft easy. I was flying at 130 knots and my tracks followed my actual valley route precisely. If you prefer, over hostile terrain you can set it to report every minute.

Once the Spider starts sending reports it doesn’t stop until it either loses power or you press a button to tell it to cancel reporting (and tracking at the server). In this case the blue light flashes until it receives an acknowledgement message back from the server, then the blue light goes off signaling it is ok to power down. If you turn off power to the Spider before that point it will begin the alerting sequence. So proper shut-down procedure must be followed to avoid false alerts.

I tested this a few times. In my car I forgot to cancel tracking before pulling the power and at 15 minutes I received the alert messages. In the air I deliberately pulled the power and waited. I received both the 15-minute and 30-minute alerts on my smart phone, both
as emails and as text messages. I then plugged the Spider back in and it automatically started position reports again within 30 seconds.

The S3 also has an SOS button on the front which, when pressed, will start the alerting sequence immediately. It also triggers the Spider to send reports every 30 seconds until cancelled. This would be great in the event of an engine failure or a precautionary landing that went bad and you needed help.

The S3 Spider is designed for GA users and the company offers several different service plans to suit the amount of flying your might do.

There are other convenience features and offerings unrelated to finding missing aircraft. By pressing a button on the Spider you can send four different Mark messages, which you predefine, that you can use to identify waypoints on your tracks for later reference. When looking at the track on the web site you can click on a report point or Mark and it will display the date, time, lat and long, altitude, speed and direction of travel. It also lets you store a description with each data point for future reference. Since tracks are stored indefinitely you can use this as a virtual log book. Spidertracks is in the process of developing something they call the Aviator Club, which will let you add lots of information to your trip records and share this with friends and family via a social networking forum.

This service has potential to be an alternative to ELTs, not just a supplement. I am looking forward to watching as Spidertracks continues to develop their offerings, which seem to be targeting our sector of aviation.