Friday, 7 March 2008

Satellite tracker

I've been testing the Spot satellite tracker - a device you'd carry to call for help in an emergency out in the back of beyond. It uses satellites to locate your position. When you press a button, it sends an SOS to your predetermined emergency service (or wife, girlfriend, etc). It doesn't use the mobile phone system at all, so it works anywhere you get a clear view of the sky (not indoors, in a cave, etc).

Sound good? If you need it, you'll know you need it. Deerstalkers and lone estate workers spring to mind, but I also know some adventurous fishermen and wildfowlers who could find it useful.

The device is slightly larger than a mobile phone, with rugged styling a bit like the early Motorola PMR446 radios - bright orange plastic, with a thick ribbed black rubber strip around the bottom and sides. It has a simple plastic belt clip, and four buttons on the front with a selection of LEDs to tell you what's going on inside.

So let's suppose you're setting off on some intrepid trip up the glen, away over the hill and beyond. You know your phone will lose signal after the first half mile, and the wife will be worrying herself sick before you're even late for tea. And even though you know she shouldn't worry, there is always the remote possibility you'll slip on a rock and break a femur. At which point it would be rather nice to know that help is on its way.

So you reach for your gun and cartridges, stuff your 'piece' in your pocket, clip your trusty Spot on your belt, and set off...

Wait! You should have set up your Spot first. Fortunately the nice people at their PR agency sent me a detailed sheet explaining what to do, and telling me the pre-set login and password. So I was able to go to their website and change the settings for who to email in the event of me pressing the 'Help!' button. I tried to get it to send a text too, but UK Vodafone didn't seem to be an option - I was offered the USA or Germany, but could see nothing UK-based. Just have to hope my would-be rescuers are watching their email closely then.

The device itself runs on two AA sized batteries, but not just any old AA batteries; this thing needs the lithium type (two supplied). I think if I was going to trust my life to it, I would buy a spare pair and carry them with me. Just in case. To insert the batteries you remove the back cover, using a couple of nifty screws with wire loops attached, handy if you don't carry a coin or screwdriver. The battery compartment, like everything else on this device, looked reasonably watertight. However I didn't chuck it in the pond to check, just in case the PR folks turned less than helpful and sent me a bill.

The belt clip doesn't fill me with confidence. It's thin and bendy and, although there's a ridge at the end to stop it riding up off your belt, I still wouldn't want to trust my life to it. Any stalker worth his salt knows that you have to tie your knife on or one day it won't be there. Same goes for this; I'd tie it on. Trouble is, there isn't a decent anchorage point to tie on to, just one of those little slots for a mobile phone style wriststrap. Probably good enough, but again this is my life we're talking about.

OK, so off we go through the heather. You could save the batteries til you need them, and leave the thing turned off. Or you might choose to switch it to 'track' mode, in which case it sends an 'OK' message every 10 minutes. So your wife/girlfriend/boss/etc can watch your progress on a Google map like this one. Which might be a good thing, or it might not...

In fact I still haven't managed to access the 'track' mode. I've pressed all the right buttons, and it simply refuses to work. I suspect I need to sign up (and pay for) an additional service.

What I have done, however, is use the single-shot 'OK' mode, which sends a single 'I'm here and I'm fine' kind of message to your chosen ones, together with a Google map link. If things go belly-up, you'd just press the next button along to raise the ante, with a 'Help!' message. Or if you've slipped into a pit of snakes and broken your leg and used up all your cartridges, presumably you'd swallow hard and go for the 'SOS' button, and watch the sky for the Coastguard, Mountain Rescue, SAS, or whoever is appropriate to your location and predicament.

In use, I've found that the device isn't half as instantaneous as you imagine. I was out walking the dog and pressed the 'OK' button, then drove home and checked my email expecting to find a nice little Google flag on my favourite dogwalking spot. No, the ping had been delayed, presumably while the device picked up various satellite signals and then sent its message. The flag showed me in the car, 100 yards from home! Still, that wouldn't be a problem for your average intrepid adventurer, or mountain walker casualty for that matter.

Will I be buying one? Honestly I'm tempted. It costs around £150, with an annual subscription of around £65. If I'd know about it when my daughter set off for her gap year, I'd have got one for her. It really comes into its own when you go beyond the reach of mobile phones, or will be unable to give a precise location (hand-held GPS would help here of course). For estates worried about their 'duty of care' to lone workers, I should think it's a must.

I believe there are one or two similar devices coming onto the market, so I'll keep an eye out and see how they compare. See the Spot at There's a similar looking device being offered by Scottish Communications here.

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