SEARCH What's New

Review of DeLorme InReach Satellite Messaging System

G. Alan Hepburn

October 2012

 

Background

A relatively new player in the field of affordable non-mobile phone communications is the Delorme inReach.  While it has apparently been available since November 2011, the author first became aware of it at AirVenture 2012.  Basically, it’s a rugged pocket sized 7 oz box which, when paired with an Android smartphone or iOS device, provides you with outgoing text messaging to SMS or email addresses, incoming text messages sent in reply to your outgoing messages, or from a special Delorme website, and tracking capability anywhere in the world.  It also has useful capabilities as a stand-alone unit.

 
The device is the obvious next step in a series of products that started with SPOT, which gives the ability to send pre-defined messages and tracking, through SPOT Connect, which supports free form text messaging, but only in send mode.  InReach goes one step further, by allowing you to send and receive text messages through the Iridium Satellite Communications network when you pair the device with an Android phone, iPhone, or iPad.  There are no plans to support Blackberry phones at this time.  The Iridum network provides exceptional coverage of the entire surface of the planet, thanks to its array of 66 satellites, and is the only network currently supporting two-way messaging.

InReach can also fill the role of a substitute for a Personal Locator Beacon.  Activating the SOS feature of inReach will send a message to the GEOS Emergency Response Center, a privately operated facility located in Houston, TX.  This is the same service used by the SPOT products.  GEOS will liaise with local SAR facilities to get help on the way.  Thanks to the two-way communications capabilities, you can specify the nature of your situation, and the services you require, and receive messages back from GEOS.  Even in standalone mode, you have an indication that your distress call has been received and acknowledged by GEOS.  If the distress situation is resolved, you can cancel your distress call.  Unlike a PLB, inReach does not provide a continuous homing signal on the internationally recognized VHF/UHF monitoring frequencies for SAR purposes.

I have described inReach messaging as “affordable”, but it is not cheap in comparison to the ubiquitous text messaging so readily available using mobile phones.  If you lend yours to your teenage kid, you might want to have a serious conversation with him about costs before you set him loose!  The Canadian subscription plan offers four levels of service, ranging from the “Basic Emergency Plan” at $14.95 a month to the “Expedition”  plan at $49.95 a month.  All plans are renewable on a monthly basis, and the cost of maintaining an inactive account is $3.95 per month.  The per message rates I will quote here are for the Basic Emergency Plan.  The higher end plans do include a defined number of pre-paid messages and/or tracking points, and the rates for additional messages are significantly less.  See www.inreachcanada.com for details.  Plans available in the USA are quite a bit different form those in Canada.  Readers from south of the border should refer to www.inreachdelorme.com for rates there.  Once the Basic Emergency Plan subscription is active, each text message (160 characters maximum, in or out) costs $0.95.  Each position report in tracking mode costs $0.25.  From a billing standpoint, messages to multiple recipients are billed single messages.

My initial reaction on learning about inReach was that it would be useful as a PLB substitute and for occasional communion in areas where my Rogers mobile phone does not provide coverage.  In recent GA trips, I have found out the hard way that the Rogers does not provide coverage in parts of northern Canada, Newfoundland, and a number of countries overseas, for example.  I decided I might purchase the device the next time I planned to travel to one of these areas.  Then I moved on to my next task, which was planning a little floatplane outing a couple of hundred miles north of Pembroke Ontario.  I am a low time floatplane pilot, and I’ve always had a concern about getting weathered in on one of these remote Quebec lakes and being unable to cancel or amend my flight itinerary.  Without communications, unless you’re lucky enough to raise an overflying airplane on VHF, you’re pretty well stuck with waiting until the C130 appears overhead.  It took about 10 seconds to realize that the inReach provided an ideal solution to this problem, at which point I ordered one from Mountain Equipment Co-op, who offered a slight discount on the MRSP, and free shipping.

When the unit arrived about ten days later, the first task was to evaluate it in a real aviation application.  The plan was to fly my homebuilt Murphy Elite amphibian northwest from Pembroke (CYTA) to Swisha, Mattawa, Kipawa, St. Bruno de Guigues, Earlton, Rouyn , Val d’Or and back to Pembroke.  This would be a 400 nm trip, with the last 135 nm over pretty sparsely occupied territory.  Tracking would be enabled on the last leg, and we would drop down on a lake somewhere along that leg to test the inReach’s capability to provide two-way communications from such a location.

Setup

The first step is to open your inReach Canada account (inReach Canada is DeLorme’s authorised master distributor for inReach products in Canada).  At this point, you select the level of service you want.  I opted for the Basic Emergency Plan.  You are then asked to enter the email addresses of your emergency contacts.
Once the account is set up, you can log on to the explore.delorme.com website and set up some more information

1. You can click on the “My Info/Address Book” tab and specify a list of email addresses/SMS numbers of anybody you expect to be sending messages to frequently (8 entries maximum).  Each pre-defined recipient’s address only reduces your 160-character limit by one character, whereas addresses defined at the time of sending reduce the character count by their full length.  What’s not clear is that your emergency contacts also have to be included in this list if you plan on sending them non-emergency messages.

2. The inReach can send any one of three pre-defined text messages by pressing the “Message” button in the device.  It does this without any requirement for an external mobile device.  But during setup you have to define the addresses of the recipients using the “My Info/Message Book” tab.  So here is a second place where you have to enter a list of addresses.  You can also modify the text that is pre-defined at the factory.  I set them to “I am leaving this location”, “I just arrived at this location” and a test message to DeLorme (see later)

3. If you want people to be able to view your track, you have to send them an email containing a link to the tracking website.  So the addresses have to be re-entered under the “Map Share” tab as well, together with the pre-defined message that they will receive.

All text messages sent by the inReach are tagged with the location at the time they are sent.  This can be viewed on a map by the recipient.

To access the free-format text messaging and message receive features of the inReach, it has to be paired with a mobile device.  I used an iPhone 4, so what follows relates to that device, though the Android interface appears to be very similar.  The next steps were as follows:

1. Install the free Earthmate app on your phone in the usual way, from the iStore

2. Turn on the inReach and pair it with your iPhone using the “Settings.General/Bluetooth” menu item, as described in the instructions

3. Start Earthmate on the phone, and “Options/Account and Synch” tab to synchronise the information (addresses, etc.).  This brings the data you just entered on the DeLorme website into you iPhone and inReach.

4. Also use the “Options/Tracking Interval” tab to set up the frequency at which tracking messages will be sent.

Stand-Alone Functions

Now you’re ready to start using the device.  First, we’ll look at what it can do on its own, independent of the iPhone.

Perhaps the simplest thing you can do is to start tracking.  To do this, you simply push the tracking button until it starts flashing.  A tracking message ($0.25) will be sent immediately, and will be re-sent every 10 minutes until you stop moving.  When you do stop moving, two messages with an identical location will be sent before sending messages frequency is reduced to once every 4 hours.  When you start to move again, the sending of tracking messages at 10-minute intervals will resume.  “Moving” is defined as changing position by more than 100 metres within 10 minutes, so even walking out to the airplane counts.  The thing that I did not realise at first is that when tracking is started in standalone mode like this, the tracking frequency will be once every 10 minutes, regardless of what tracking interval you set on the iPhone.  So, with the Basic Emergency Plan, the minimum cost of a track lasting less than 10 minutes will be $0.75, and it goes up $0.25 for each additional 10 minutes.  On other plans, the cost per point would be zero until you hit the included number of tracking points, then 10 cents per point beyond that number.

The next thing you can do is send one of the three pre-defined messages.  To do this, you simply press and hold the message button until it flashes once, twice, or thrice, depending on which message you want to send.  One message will cost $0.95.

The last stand-alone function is to send an SOS message.  To activate this, you have to slide the “Lock” switch to the left and hold the “SOS” button for 3 seconds.  This will ring a bell in the GEOS centre, and they will first check with your emergency contacts, then relay the message to the appropriate emergency authorities.  When I set up my account, I added a comment in the “Emergency” area to the effect that my device is used for aviation purposes, and giving the number of the Trenton SAR Centre as the appropriate contact.  Once you push the SOS button, airtime costs are suspended until you cancel the emergency, but there’s an indication that you will incur significant costs if you use it in a non-emergency situation.

Smartphone Paired Functions

Once you pair the inReach with your iPhone, the phone is used as the user interface.  The same three functions are there, but they have significantly extended capability.

Tracking will start sending tracking messages at whatever the pre-set tracking interval has been set to on the “Options” tab.  A number of intervals between 10 minutes and 4 hours can be set.  If you’re prepared to live with track points more than 10 minutes apart, this keeps tracking costs a bit more economical.  Apparently, tracking intervals as short as one minute are in the works.  Watch inReach ads for details.

Messages can be sent to any email address or SMS number.  A list of recipients from your contacts list, plus those you defined on the DeLorme website will be presented to you when you start typing the contact’s name.  To be sure you get the advantage of the single character addressing mentioned under “setup”, select the phone number preceded by “SMS” for text messages.  The only way to confirm that single character addressing for email recipients has been applied is to confirm that the character count reads “1” when you start composing the message text.

A recipient is able to reply directly to any message sent form the inReach.  Alternatively, an unsolicited message can be sent by logging on the DeLorme website using your email address and password, clicking the “Message” icon, typing in the text in the window that appears, and pressing “Send”.  You view an incoming message on the iPhone using the same Messages window on which the sent ones appear.

The SOS function allows you to type in the text of your outgoing SOS message.  It uses a separate, protected tab to preclude inadvertent use.  I did not attempt to use this function, of course.

A fourth function, “Maps” allows you to see your position on a pre-loaded map.  The device comes pre-loaded with a useful road map, which shows the main roads and other features.


The zoom buttons can be used to zoom in to a 0.8 nm scale.

Much higher resolution topographical maps are available for free download, but for the kind of area we are interested in for aviation, the files are enormous, so unfortunately I have to declare them useless for aviators.  No doubt, they are intended for hikers, but even for them, the minimum file size is very large, so loading is quite slow.  Aviators are much better served by installing ForeFlight on their iPhone, but of course at the present time that only works in the area of Canada covered by the FAA VNCs.

Flight Test

The flight test route was entered in ForeFlight on the iPad.  The planned flight takes you about as far north as you can go on the US sectional charts without running off the edge of the known world (as far as the FAA’s VNCs are concerned).


This route would take us to a number of locations which were new to me, since I had never been to any of the stops, despite having lived in the Pembroke (CYTA) area for the last 12 years.  The leg from Val d’Or back to Pembroke would give us the opportunity to test the inReach well beyond any cell phone coverage.

Preparing for our flight, I was struck by the plethora of portable electronic devices that have invaded the cockpit in the last few years.


From left to right, we have

1. A Garmin XM weather antenna
2. A Garmin GPSMap 496, chiefly used to display the XM weather
3. An Ipad 2, atop a waterproof box for most of the other stuff
4. A Dual XGPS150, which supplies GPS data by Bluetooth to the iPad
5. The DeLorme inReach
6. An iPhone 4
7. A Vetex handheld VHF radio
8. A Pilot PA-86 Bluetooth Cell Phone Adapter
9. A Quiet Technologies in-ear headset
10. A 12V USB charger for the iPAd/iPhone/XGPS 150

On this flight, we were to use every one of them.

I started out by leaving a flight itinerary with my wife, with instructions to call SAR if she hadn’t heard from us by 5 p.m.  I did, however, warn her to check her email first.  My flying companion was an old flying buddy, Alan Jeffs, from Pembroke.  Our planned departure time was 09:00.  We had 398 nm of flying ahead of us, which Foreflight said should take 4+24.  Even with a few stops, 8 hours should be plenty, right?

FlightTest #1

We headed out on a bright Friday morning in August.  Given that the author is a Scotsman, and that inReach messaging is not cheap, we didn’t really make use of the inReach until the final leg, from Val d’Or to Pembroke.  Prior to this, we were able to report progress by cell phone at each stop, though Alan’s Telus phone had far better coverage than did my Rogers unit.

Weather forced us to omit St. Bruno and Earlton form our plan.  Instead, we went straight from Kipawa to Rouyen.  Thanks to the in-flight weather provided by XM, this was a fairly easy decision.


On the last leg, we had 137 miles to cover, with a stop planned at Lac Dumoine to test out some backwoods messaging.  As a result of fueling delays at Val d’Or, we got off the ground at 15:56 local, and a little simple arithmetic showed that our scheduled 17:00 arrival in Pembroke might be a bit tight.  However, the XM weather showed we had other things needing more urgent attention.  Some heavy showers were showing right over Lac Dumoine, so we switched our destination to Lac Arive, about 25 miles further east.  At this point, I realised that I’d forgotten to turn on tracking on the inReach, so I pressed the appropriate button.  It was just starting to rain when we alighted on Lac Arive, and we found a little beach to put the floats on.  I jumped out and set the inReach on a rock, then keyed a message in to the iPhone.  Everything seemed to go fine, and in 17 minutes we were back in the air, with the rain getting rapidly heavier.  Time constraints unfortunately precluded waiting for a reply.

 


The sun was peeking through the rain to the south in the direction we wanted to go, and everything was looking good, except that out ETA was now showing a few minutes after 5 p.m..  Despite my injunction to my wife to check her email before panicking, I was a little concerned.  I punched the “This is my present location” message button on the in Reach, and keep on trucking.  At about 10 to 5, we started to pick up a cell phone signal from the towers along the Ottawa valley, and both of us managed to send out text messages.  Alan got a message back from his daughter, complaining about her ride being late.


A few minutes later, I was able to put through a cell phone call to my wife on the Pilot PA-86, and confirmed that she had not done anything rash.  She had not even thought about checking her email, however.  We were on the ground at Pembroke at 17:07, 7+22 after takeoff, having been in the air for only 4.7 of these hours.
Checking my wife’s email, all the messages I sent were received.  On the left, is the one from Lac Arive.  Clicking on a link in the email brings up a map of the location from which it was sent.  On the right is the track for the flight south to Pembroke, which can be viewed by clicking the link in the email inviting recipients to view the track.

 


We received two messages sent by Alan’s wife, though they appeared long after she sent them.  More on this delay later.  Some hikers have reported signal strength issues in heavily wooded country, but we had no problems.  Airplanes, after all, don’t operate deep in the woods.
One of the features advertised by DeLorme is that the inReach is waterproof.  This begs the question “Will it float if it falls out of the floatplane?”  Safely back in Pembroke, we soon found the answer.


Yes, it floats!  Not only that, it still works!

Flight Test #2

At the start of September, I had the opportunity to give the inReach a more ambitious test.  As COPA Flight 8 members will be aware, I lead trips overseas for AirJourney from time to time.  The itinerary in September called for me to take over leadership of a flight of two aircraft in Prague, Czech Republic, and lead them to Venice, Rhodes, Odessa, Budapest, Berlin and back across the pond via Norway, Iceland and Greenland.  I decided to take the inReach along to test its capabilities, particularly with regard to in-flight two-way messaging. Fortunately, the folks at inReach Canada offered me complementary use of the system for a month, so I was able to run 10 minute tracking without incurring major bills.
As you can see from the following picture, tracking works just fine.  The aircraft was a TBM 700, and the inReach was positioned on the glareshield.


Clearly, for flights of this length, 10 minute tracking is a bit of overkill.

The results of in-flight messaging were a little less satisfactory.  While outgoing messages are sent to the DeLorme server and forwarded to the recipient almost immediately, there was apparently a significant delay on receiving replies. 

Subsequent investigation disclosed that incoming messages are queued by the Iridium system for up to 20 minutes before being sent to the inReach device.  Of course, if the inReach cannot “see” the Iridium satellite, or is turned off, all bets are obviously off.  Even after you switch the box on, you will have to wait up to 20 minutes for a queued message to be delivered.  In a timed test under good signal conditions, it took 34 minutes for a sent message to be received on my inReach, so there are apparently some delays in addition to the 20-minute Iridium queuing time.  Perhaps the system was simply unsuccessful in sending the message on the first try, and had to wait another 20 minutes.  DeLorme acknowledge the queuing delay of up to 20 minutes, but is looking in to why it took longer in my test case.

If you send a message of any sort from the inReach, any queued message will be received shortly after the message is sent, without waiting for the next 20-minute window.  This was confirmed by pushing the “message” button on the inReach, to send one of the pre-defined messages.  The queued message appeared within a minute or so.  Thus, if tracking is running at 4 minute intervals, the maximum delay in receiving a queued reply should be four minutes.

If you want to see if there is a reply queued for you right now, all you need to do is send another outgoing message to anybody, and any queued replies will be sent to your inReach immediately, but that will cost you $0.95 for the outgoing message, plus $0.95 for the reply, if indeed one is there, so this could get expensive.  As it turns out there is another undocumented “feature” which you can use to soften the financial impact.  If you send a message to test@delorme.com, this will force an automated response to be sent back immediately, and the test plus this response are both toll free.  So, if you are waiting for a reply, all you need to do is send anything to test@delorme .com, and you will get any queued reply right away.  All it will cost you is the $0.95 for the reply itself.  At the next 20 minute window, you will get the automated reply from test@delorme.com, which you can happily ignore.  It’s a bit of a kludge, but where there’s a will there’s a way.  I have added this “Test” message as one of my three predefined messages, so all it takes is a press of the message button to get any queued incoming messages.

The bottom line is that incoming messages can encounter significant delays, so don’t expect to be able to carry on a dialogue as you would with cell phone messaging.  If this was mentioned in the user manual, it would simply be a limitation of the system, and potential purchasers would have to decide whether they can live with it, but it is not documented, so the user’s immediate reaction is to conclude that something is not working correctly.  Hopefully, the user’s manual at least will be corrected in the near future.

If you happen to be heading for your destination at 280 knots and looking for the latest METAR, half an hour can seem like quite a long time.  Here’s an example of a METAR sent to me while I was in flight.


This one took 25 minutes to arrive, even with 4 minute tracking running.  In this case, however, my contact had to get the information from ADDS and paste it into a message, so most of the delay was probably not due to the messaging system.  That’s a European METAR for Vienna, by the way, so it looks a little different from what we’re used to in North America.
According to inReach Canada, when you activate the SOS function, a position message is sent every 60 seconds.  This should force any queued messages to be sent every minute, so in a distress situation, something close to a true dialogue should be possible.

Messages have a location and time stamp attached, which can be viewed on the DeLorme website.  Time stamps are in the time zone set up on that website.  For aviation use outside, you might want to set this up for UTC.

The allocation of messages to various threads is also a bit of a mystery.  It is apparently based on the recipient/sender’s address.  I found conversations with one individual spread over about four different threads. one with his cellphone number, another with his cellphone number prefixed by a “+”, another with his name, and yet another flagged as “Unknown Address”.  Then, if you include more than one recipient, that generates yet another thread.  DeLorme is aware of this issue, and is working to correct it.

Readers will no doubt want to know how long the batteries can be expected to last.  The answer is that it depends on usage, particularly on whether a Bluetooth connection to a phone is running.  The manufacturer says that, in standalone use with tracking running at a 10-minute interval, the batteries are good for more than 100 hours.  But, as I found out the hard way, you have to remember to switch it off at the end of the flight!

User Documentation

The users manual covers three interfacing devices – Android phones, iPhones, and a GPS manufactured by DeLorme.  The manual does not provide very detailed information about any one of them.  Perhaps if it were specific to a single interface device, and provided more information about features that are by no means intuitively obvious, the user would have a less confusing initial experience.

Prior to departure, I decided to check the device out on the deck behind the house.  I used several messages just to get a reasonable idea of how the device is supposed to work, and as you can see from this review, even after some fairly extensive use, a couple of issues are still not completely explained.  For a device that will typically be used in isolated locations and/or emergency situations, you want to be sure you know how it works before you are in a position when you need to use it.  DeLorme should consider including a quota of “learning” time in their registration fee, and the user documentation should perhaps describe a step-by-step teach yourself process.

In addition to the hardware, there are two pieces of software with which you have to become familiar – the “Earthmate” app. which runs on your phone, and the DeLorme website.  The user manual coverage of Earthmate is pretty superficial, and, other than for setup functions, the DeLorme website is pretty well ignored.

As an example of missing information on Earthmate, when you compose a message, you are presented with addresses from your phone’s “Contacts” list, and addresses entered on the DeLorme website.  There is no clear distinction between them, but the Contacts list entries deduct fully from your total of 160 available characters, whereas the DeLorme entries only count for two characters.

There is no reference to the delays associated with incoming messages mentioned above, although these are very significant, and can even lead you to conclude that the device is not working correctly if you don’t know about them.

Final Impressions

The inReach product enables in-flight tracking at user-selectable intervals down to 10 minutes.

InReach also provides useful two-way communications capability with one significant limitation.  Incoming messages are subject to a significant delay, which should be 20 minutes or less, but in my test exceeded half an hour.  This means that the kind of dialogue possible with cell phone based text messaging is simply not practical.  Since this “feature” is not documented, the user could easily come to the conclusion that inbound messaging is simply not working at all.

The assignment of messages to threads has some shortcomings, which will hopefully be corrected soon.

The SOS functionality was not tested, but assuming the GEOS office does their job, it should in some respects provide the functionality of a Personal Locator Beacon.  It does not, of course, provide the continuous post-accident homing signal of a PLB.  The delay issue alluded to above should only be one minute or less in a distress situation.

The pre-loaded maps are of some use to aviators, but the downloadable topographical map files are too large to be useful, though you might be glad of them if you were forced down and had to hike home.

Despite the shortcomings noted above, the device is definitely a “keeper”.

The tracking function could be improved for aviation users if an “Aviation” mode were added.  In this mode, tracking would not start until speed exceeded, say, 30 knots, and would stop when speed dropped below that number.  A message would be sent when tracking started and stopped (i.e. on takeoff and landing), and at pre-determined intervals during the flight.  This is the way a competing product – Spidertracks – works.  InReach Canada Technical Support asked for a suggestion along these lines.  Hopefully, DeLorme will feel it would be a worthwhile addition for their aviation customers.  As it stands, you have to add “Turn on inReach tracking” to your pre-takeoff checklist, and tracking will not stop at your destination until you stop moving for two successive points, which may never happen.  It’s also easy to forget to turn the device off, which of course exhausts the batteries.  DeLorme is about to come out with a DC power interface, which would overcome that problem.

The user documentation is a bit superficial, with the result that I found myself rather confused.  Even after more than a month with the device, this confusion has not completely disappeared.

In conclusion, I’d like to leave you with this seasonal advice: