One of the frustrating parts of owning a 406 MHz EPIRB, PLB or ELT has been that it is nearly impossible for the average consumer to actually test their beacon, at least affordably. We have been pretty much forced to rely on the beacon’s own internal self-test mechanism. It’s not that I don’t trust the manufacturers, but…well, yes, I guess I don’t trust them to a certain extent. I’m a professional cynic. I’m betting my life on this technology and I’d feel a bit more confident if I actually saw it worked, before I need it in an emergency.
Mind you, it’s not that there have been failures and such that leads me to be concerned. 406 MHz beacons have proven extremely reliable and I confidentially bet my life on this technology every time I go into the wilderness, flying or boating. However, it’s just human nature to prefer to really know something works because we can see it work. The more technology involved, the more it helps raise our confidence level.
Part of the problem has been that Beacon Testers, such as we use in our extensive evaluations, are very expensive. The other part of the problem is that the satellite ground systems are almost entirely government owned and run and not accessible by mere mortals. So, even though most 406 MHz beacons send out a single test-coded 406 MHz burst during a self-test which the satellites can pick up, we haven’t been able to take advantage of that. Enter Procon, Inc’s SafeLife Systems. They have established their own ground stations (technically called Local User Terminals or LUTs) to receive those signals from the satellites, the same as do the government’s LUTs. Actually, that’s not exactly correct. Procon’s LUTs actually are more capable in some respects because they aren’t bound by some of the limitations inherent in the government’s somewhat archaic systems and software.
The bottom line for thee and me is most of us will now be able to test our beacons through the satellites at a reasonable cost. I have been working with them to test their system for some time now as it has been under development. They have asked me to invite others to come help wring out their 406 Beacon Test System on a wider scale.
If you live within the continental U.S. you may be eligible to participate in a free Beta Test of the system, and just by applying to participate in the Beta Test, you will be eligible to receive 30% off the cost of the various SafeTrip and beacon testing services SafeLife offers. No downside to this that I can see.
Some older beacons do not send out a test burst, so this will obviously not work with those. Not a big problem, really; just not that many out there like that. On the other hand, it will also not work with newer PLBs such as the McMurdo Fast Find PLBs that store the antenna rolled up or coiled in the case and have no means of erecting the antenna for a test. So all those who own the previous generation FastFind or are buying their new compact and lower cost PLBs are out of luck as far as this test is concerned.
SafeLife lists the following advantages for a beacon owner who takes advantage of the 406 Beacon Test Service:
- Confidence that their beacon transmits a signal that can be picked up by the satellites
- Confidence that the digitally encoded signal can be decoded by the ground stations
- Confidence that the identification information programmed into the beacon is correct, helping to speed up a rescue should the beacon be used in a real emergency
- Confidence, in the case of newer beacons that transmit a GPS location in the test signal, that the beacon’s GPS is working correctly
- Overall confidence in the complete system from end to end in case of an emergency
I’ll have more information in the near future on their SafeTrip programs and 406 Beacon Test Service when they roll it out, but for now I’d urge you to sign up for the Beta Test program, get yourself a free beacon test and help them wring out their system.