I wrote about SPOT 2 for my Trends Aloft column in the February issue of EAA Sport Aviation magazine. EAA members can view the article and the entire February issue by registering and signing in at http://www.oshkosh365.org. You’ll find the magazine in the EAA Members Only section.
SPOT LLC is providing a free SPOT 2 that will be awarded randomly on March 31, 2010 to one lucky Trends Aloft web site reader. To qualify, all you need to do is enter your email address in the Subscribe window at the top of the left column of this web page. Then press the Subscribe button and respond to the automated email you receive. That’s it! If you received this article via my automated email, then you are already signed up and don’t need to register again.
As I wrote in the column, SPOT “is an innovative, satellite-based system popular with hikers, boaters and pilots that lets others track your position via the Internet. A SPOT user can send two or three (depending upon the model) different pre-programmed messages via a commercial satellite that triggers emails or text messages to up to ten friends’ cell phones. For people who travel in remote areas out of cell phone coverage, SPOT provides a low-cost lifeline to reassure loved ones or to get help in an emergency.”
The original SPOT Personal Tracker, now called SPOT 1 by many users, was introduced to the market in early 2008. The new SPOT 2 was introduced in October 2009 and is improved in many ways. However, there is a voluntary recall and early purchasers of this unit have until March 31, 2010 to exchange these early units for an improved version.
According to an email sent to registered SPOT 2 users “Spot LLC is dedicated to providing the highest quality and best performance products to our customers, therefore, Spot LLC will be conducting a voluntary return on any new model SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger ™ (SPOT 2) purchased since October 1, 2009. During recent testing, we discovered that some of the new SPOT 2 devices might not meet battery and messaging operating specifications.
“We highly recommend you return your product for replacement at your earliest convenience. Please visit www.findmespot.com/exchange for complete details. Replacement product will be available in early 2010. Spot LLC guarantees we will exchange your product free of charge and send your replacement unit when product is available.
“This notice does not affect the original SPOT Satellite Personal Tracker (SPOT 1) devices. Customers can easily identify the unaffected SPOT 1 product as it is clearly marked as the SPOT Personal Tracker. The operating condition does not apply to any other SPOT products.”
Registration and Annual Fees
SPOT 2 sells for around $159, but you must register a SPOT before use. When buttons, including SOS, are pushed on an unregistered SPOT, no messages are sent. To register, you need the serial number and authorization code, found in the battery compartment.
For $99.95 per year, you can use SPOT to send three customizable text messages as often as you’d like. When registering a SPOT, enter your three text messages and the email addresses and cell phone numbers to which they’ll be sent. Then practice sending messages to ensure everything is working. When testing the HELP button, I included the word “TEST” and later removed it via the SPOT web site. For an additional $49.95 per year, the tracking mode can send your position every ten minutes, not to a cell phone, but to a Google map friends can view over the Internet. A new dedicated key makes it easy to enable tracking mode on SPOT 2.
Saved by a Satellite
The February 2010 issue of AOPA Pilot magazine contains a great feature article written by Dave Hirschman that chronicles a real life rescue of a pilot using SPOT 1. A Cessna 206 crashed with two pilots aboard among tall pine just after taking off from a remote airstrip near Yellow Pine, Idaho. According to the private pilot, who was acting as pilot-in-command (PIC), the purpose of the flight was for him to receive a signoff for a biennial flight review. The NTSB report states that the aircraft had landed at three other back-county airstrips prior to the accident.
Although the aircraft was equipped with a 121.5 MHz emergency locator transmitter (ELT), monitoring of the COSPAS-SARSAT satellites had ceased five months before. The only value of an old 121.5 MHz ELT is that Civil Air Patrol flight and ground crews may be able to find you using traditional direction finding techniques if they even know that you’re lost and have a general idea of where to start looking.
Both pilots had SPOT 1 personal locators and activated them. According to the article, after a series of phone calls and emails from the dispatch center, a USFS smoke jumper aircraft was directed overhead and spotted the wreckage. Then a medical helicopter was dispatched and arrived at the accident site 20 minutes after the accident.
Registering and Setting up Your SPOT
Registering your SPOT is relatively easy if you’re using a Windows PC with Internet Explorer. I first tried registering a SPOT 2 in November 2009 using first Apple’s Safari web browser and then the Firefox browser. Neither would work because the web site’s alt tags, the words that appear when a mouse is rolled over the image on a Web page, covered up the fields where you needed to enter data. The registration process worked fine when I switched to a Windows PC and used Internet Explorer.
I tested SPOT by walking outside my house and pressing the Check In key. Two minutes later, the pre-programmed text message that I’d entered on the web site came through to my cell phone. To see how closely SPOT identified my location, I went in the house to check my SPOT account on a computer.
I initially didn’t get anything by clicking on “Show on Map.” Later, I realized that I first needed to select the GPS location I wanted to display. Clicking on Show on Map then brought up Google maps. I then clicked on Satellite and had a view of my house. The pin was within a couple of feet of where I’d been standing on the sidewalk. Next I set up a Public Share page. By emailing a link to that web site, anyone could see where I’d been.
I tested SPOT while on a trip to Gulf Shores, Alabama, where I was training Cessna 400 pilots as part of the Cessna Advanced Aircraft Recurrent Training program (CAART). The system performed reliably, giving constant updates to my position throughout the trip.
If you buy a SPOT, you’ll want to pay attention to the batteries that you buy for it. The unit requires three AAA lithium batteries that should last for several years in a stored SPOT 2. Of course using either SPOT runs the batteries down; if left in tracking mode, SPOT 2 will work for about 8 days. In the SOS mode that you would use for a real emergency, it is specified to work for about 6 days. Note these battery durations are for a SPOT 2 with a clear view of the sky, not one shielded by aircraft metal or terrain. A 50% clear view/50% obstructed view will cut these battery durations in half.
If you plan to use SPOT as the primary way to get help in an emergency, you’ll want to minimize your routine usage or always carry spare batteries. The lithium batteries specified are more expensive than popular alkaline batteries, often over $3 per battery, but have a shelf life of up to 10 years. In use, they last many times longer than alkalines, which could save your life. In an emergency, alkaline batteries could be used.
If you’d like to win a free SPOT 2, don’t forget to register for the drawing by entering your email address in the Subscribe window at the top of the left column of this web page. I’ll announce the lucky winner in a future article here on the Trends Aloft web site.