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Crowdfunded Smart Watch PLB – Scam or Dangerously Naive?

As appealing as the idea of an affordable ($179) smart watch personal locator beacon (PLB) might be, a recently publicized Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign that has garnered a fair amount of press would seem to be either an outright scam or dangerously naive. While many crowdfunding campaigns’ funding goals and delivery promises need be taken with a grain of salt, this one looks to require a dump truck load.

One of the issues with this particular crowdfunding campaign that goes beyond the normal risks involved in any such campaign is that the vast majority of folks have no clue what is involved in bringing a PLB to market. Prior experience in backing crowdfunding campaigns won’t help. It’s far more complicated than your typical tech gadget or mechanical gadget you see on a crowdfunding site. They don’t know what they don’t know, so they have no basis on which to make an informed decision. Informed risk is one thing. Uninformed risk is another.

A PLB is, typically, a pocket-sized distress alerting device used to notify authorities via an international satellite system (COSPAS-SARSAT) that you are in need of rescue. It also provides your location and a homing signal for those coming to rescue you. These are typically used in marine, aviation and wilderness distress situations. A PLB is distinct from a Satellite Emergency Notification Device (SEND) that requires a subscription and that may also provide additional value-added services such as remote area text messaging and tracking.

(NOTE: A copy of this article has been sent to Indiegogo. If the page has been taken down you can view a saved image of the page at: www.equipped.org/smartwatch_plb_indiegogo_07072016.pdf)

Is it irony or hubris that the music the promoter chose for the promotional video accompanying the campaign is the original theme from Mission Impossible? That video is a mash-up of scenes from a number of PLB and SEND promotional videos and Search and Rescue videos, including many from Breitling EMERGENCY videos. The Breitling EMERGENCY is the only available PLB watch you can purchase in the U.S. with a $16,000 +/- MSRP. (Disclaimer: Equipped To Survive Foundation supported the waiver of certain normally required PLB specifications required for the FCC to certify the EMERGENCY for sale in the U.S.)

Only one other PLB “watch” has received COSPAS-SARSAT approval, the chunkier and decidedly unfashionable SAT406 by Mobit Tekecom, but it doesn’t have a 121.5 MHz homing signal, doesn’t have FCC approval and isn’t available for purchase. While aiming to be more affordable than the Breitling, it might be better described as a wrist-worn PLB with auxiliary digital watch functions. Currently, conventional PLBs that are easier to engineer, certify and manufacture start in the low $200 range in a very competitive market.

I sent the Indiegogo campaign promoter, Bernie Goldmann of Riverside, California, a query with a number of common questions you would want answers to for any high-tech crowdfunding campaign via the “Ask a question” link on the Indiegogo page as well as to the email listed on his press release. As of publication of this article, I have not received a response. There was also no response to my voice mail I left when I called the phone number on the press release.

Goldmann’s goal of $25,000 with delivery in December 2016 is, in my opinion, laughable, given the actual costs and time required to bring a PLB to market. Ignore, for the moment, the cost and time for the challenging technical development of this device. A PLB must be certified by COSPAS-SARSAT and the FCC before it can be sold in the U.S. That COSPAS-SARSAT certification process, including lab testing, can typically take up to a year or more, even for a company that is experienced with the convoluted process. There are only four approved labs in the world, only one in the U.S. and that one charges a 200% surcharge for non-military testing. The lab in the Ukraine and Russia cannot be used by U.S. entities, leaving only TUV in the U.K. the only practical choice.

As a result, there is typically a 2- to 3-month lead time to get your beacon tested, assuming you plan ahead and meet your deadlines. The testing will typically take 3 months, and with multiple issues, a lot longer. The more that a beacon stretches established design parameters, the more likely there will be significant issues in testing thereby extending the time and cost. A smart watch PLB would be stretching them nearly to the breaking point with existing technology. The cost of beacon testing alone will be no less than $15,000 and it’s been known to go as high as $60,000 (according to my industry sources).

Then comes RTCM testing in order to get FCC approval that’s required to sell the PLB in the U.S. which industry sources quote at $20,000 – $80,000 through the testing and the FCC approval process itself. The more complicated the application, the more time and money it will cost. Given that any watch-sized PLB will likely need similar exceptions as granted to Breitling, which added years to its approval, that will only add to the time and cost involved.

So, just the testing and certifications required to sell in the U.S. will cost far more than the meager $25,000 budgeted. And, the odds of getting it done by December of this year are zero.

Finally, while Breitling and its technology partner proved you can develop a miniaturized PLB on a chip, so to speak, that is small enough to fit in a relatively large watch case (bigger than any current smart watch) and gain FCC approval, the cost to develop that unique chip and watch is reputed to have been in excess of a million dollars and it took years!

I could go on for pages about the technical and market challenges that prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that this campaign as presented is nonsensical given the $25,000 goal and promised delivery date, but I think just from these few issues you can see that it’s a non-starter.

Much of the text on the Indiegogo page are copied off other PLB or satellite beacon pages, images grabbed from the mash-up video or similarly other beacon pages. The image of a trio of smart watches was grabbed off the Internet and then surrounded with symbols and text. There’s no possible way that a PLB smart watch could fit inside an existing smart watch case.

Whether it is a con or simple naivety, I’ll leave for you to decide. Anyone buying into it (becoming a “backer”) is likely throwing away their money, in my opinion, since “flexible goal” means the promoter gets to keep the money, even if they don’t reach the goal. From our point of view, the good news is that with approximately one month to go, so far only a single person has backed it. Caveat emptor! Buyer beware!