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Satellite device offers peace of mind

March 1, 2008
by Heidi Ulrichsen
In: Technology with 0 Comments

An innovative satellite communications device allows prospectors and other outdoor enthusiasts who have travelled out of cell phone range to let their families know whether they’re safe, or if they need help.

SPOT Satellite Messenger is being sold in Northern and Central Ontario by Beyond Wireless, a cell phone and technology company. The United States-manufactured device, which is slightly larger than a cell phone, was only released for sale a year ago.

It has four buttons – one to turn it on or off, an OK button to let friends and family know the user is safe, a Help button to ask friends and family for help and a 911 button that contacts emergency services.

Every time the OK, Help or 911 buttons are pushed, the device sends a message to a pre-set list of e-mail addresses and pinpoints the user’s exact latitude and longitude location on Google Earth.

“SPOT basically takes the search out of search and rescue. If the only thing left is to be rescued, that’s probably a good thing. They’ll know exactly where you are,” said Sean Crandall, retail sales manager at Beyond Wireless in Sudbury.

“It uses three satellites to triangulate your position and then it sends a message to up to 10 people. It can be 10 e-mail addresses or 10 cell phone numbers for text messaging purposes, or whatever combination you want.

“Once the message is sent, it gives the recipient the longitude and latitude of your position, and there’s a link to Google Earth. It pinpoints pretty much exactly where the person is.”

SPOT is relatively inexpensive – it costs $169 for the device itself and $99 a year for satellite connectivity, said Crandall.

Advanced tracking

For an extra $50 a year, Beyond Wireless will turn on an advanced tracking feature on the device. When the user presses the OK button, an e-mail with the user’s co-ordinates will be sent to selected contacts every 10 minutes so they can track their movements.

Beyond Wireless has sold about 200 of the devices at its five stores, said Crandall. Other companies have sold devices similar to SPOT in the past, but they were much larger and only conveyed emergency messages.

SPOT is tough, having the ability to withstand a drop of 10 feet or float in water. It runs on two AA lithium ion batteries that can last up to a year. To prevent false alarms, the 911 button has to be held down continuously for 10 seconds to be activated.

Crandall said he is marketing the device to professionals, including prospectors and park rangers who spend a lot of time in the bush, as well as outdoor enthusiasts such as snowmobilers, hunters, hikers and canoeists.

“My father-in-law fishes and hunts in Gogama and other places where he’s in the middle of nowhere. His wife doesn’t know if he’s alive or dead until he gets home, or at least back in cellular range,” he said. “With this device, she could see where he is at any given point of time and that he’s OK.”


Sudbury Mining Solutions Journal arranged for veteran prospector and geologist Frank Racicot to test the SPOT Satellite Messenger.

He took the device into the bush near Gogama, where he is working on a drilling program with Augen Gold Corp.
Overall, Racicot gave the product good marks and said he’ll probably buy one for himself and encourage Augen to buy several for its employees.

“I liked the fact that it works through the windshield of my truck. It even seems to work from inside buildings, so it would probably also work inside a very dense overburden of trees,” he said.

“I like the fact that it’s pretty tough and the fact that it will fit in my pocket. It’s waterproof, it floats, and it’s a nice bright orange so it can be spotted easily. It’s well designed.”

Racicot said he was initially put off by the fact that SPOT uses latitude and longitude co-ordinates, because the GPS directional devices used by outdoor enthusiasts employ the universal transverse mercator (UTM) co-ordinate system instead.

“Then I realized it’s better to leave it in latitude and longitude, because who is going to come and rescue you when you press 911? It’s going to be a pilot. You want them to know your latitude and longitude co-ordinates.”

He also said prospectors have to be careful about using the device when they’re staking a claim because they don’t want to give away their position to a lot of people.

In the past, if Racicot was going to be alone in a remote area, he would leave a map on his kitchen table marked with where he was travelling, and ask his wife or a friend to get help or come looking for him if he didn’t phone by a certain time.

This isn’t an ideal situation because if he got lost temporarily or delayed for some reason, but wasn’t in immediate danger, he might actually panic if he was supposed to phone at a certain time and get himself into even more trouble, he said.

Racicot said he would probably press the OK button in situations like these to let friends and family know he’s safe, but won’t be home on time.

He would only press the Help button if he were hurt or in a situation where he really needed help, and would only press 911 if he were in danger of dying.

“If I needed help, I would press Help. If I were stuck or had to spend the night in the bush, I would just push OK. I might be cold, wet, miserable and lost, but at least they’d know I’m all right. That’s where it would be handy to have this device.”


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