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February 17, 2010

SPOT 2 Replacement Units Shipping

Filed in Gear , News

(Replacement SPOT 2 received. Check it out here.)

I received the following email this evening from SPOT regarding the replacement SPOT 2 units for those recalled previously. (Read about the recall of SPOT 2 here.) If you own a second generation SPOT and have not checked to see if your unit is subject to the recall or have been waiting until the replacement units were available to return your, make sure you you do so now.:

Subject: SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger Units are Now Available!

Dear valued SPOT customer,

Great News! SPOT Satellite GPS Messengers are starting to ship.
Shipments to customers will begin on Thursday, February 18th, 2010. We expect to have all customer returned product out our doors by the first week of March.

As you know, in December we discovered that the SPOT 2 unit failed to meet battery and messaging operating specifications. At that time we issued a “voluntary” product recall. Okay, in this instance “voluntary” meant that SPOT was choosing to recall the product because we weren’t happy with it. We understand that this may have caused some confusion. Let’s be clear now – we continue to urge you to return your SPOT 2 unit with an ESN number equal to or less than 0-8053925 to be returned for replacement. Please visit www.findmespot.com/exchange for more info.

As we mentioned in our last e-mail communication to you, we put SPOT 2 under rigorous product testing. We know you have been waiting, and are impatient to use your SPOT. We hear you! We want to assure you though that SPOT LLC has taken the necessary extra steps to ensure this product meets all our rigorous tests. We pulled the product and retested. This meant environmental and user tests. We were thorough – we need to be.

The SPOT product has initiated over 550 rescues worldwide and has sent millions of “peace of mind” messages. There is no way we are going to let you hike into the woods, drive into the mountains, sail off into the ocean, or just enjoy your weekend getaways with a product we are not satisfied with. SPOT is an emergency messaging device. We take that seriously. We take our commitment to our customers seriously. Therefore, we apologize for the wait, but we can now tell you the product is ready for your hands.

Sincerely,

The SPOT Team

(Replacement SPOT 2 received. Check it out here.)

February 5, 2010

SPOT 2 Recall Update

Filed in Gear , News

Feb. 17, 2010: Replacements for Recalled SPOT 2s Shipping

Responding to the recall of new SPOT 2 Satellite GPS Messengers, we sent in our SPOT 2 a couple weeks ago and today received the following email from SPOT:

Dear valued SPOT customer,

Spot LLC appreciates your cooperation in the SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger (SPOT 2) Product Return Program. We know you are eager to receive your SPOT 2 replacement unit and Spot LLC is dedicated in providing you with the highest quality product as soon as possible.

We are happy to inform you that the testing for replacement SPOT 2 units is nearing completion. We anticipate having more good news with specific timing soon. In efforts to keep you informed on the status of your claim and the SPOT 2 product availability, we will provide you with email updates on a weekly basis. You can also review regular updates at www.findmespot.com/exchange.

The Product Replacement Program has been expanded. Please check the ESN number on your SPOT 2 unit (located in the battery compartment) or in your SPOT account. If you have a SPOT 2 unit with an ESN number equal to or below 0-8053925 and have not submitted your SPOT 2 replacement claim, please visit www.findmespot.com/exchange and complete the simple Product Replacement form. All claims must be submitted by March 31 to be eligible for a replacement unit. If you have already submitted your claim, thank you.

Have questions?

Please call toll-free 1 (866) 727-7733 or Email: SPOTexchange@findmespot.com

Thank you for being a SPOT customer. We appreciate your patience and understanding.

The SPOT Team

Feb. 17, 2010: Replacements for Recalled SPOT 2s Shipping

January 8, 2010

Latest Update on SPOT and DeLorme

Filed in Gear , News

SPOT and DeLorme Unveil First Handheld GPS With Satellite CommunicatorI have a few more details to provide on the DeLorme Earthmate PN-60w with SPOT Satellite Communicator introduced at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. (read the original post here) However, it is just a few more details because from my discussions with SPOT it is clear that a lot of the specifications and such are still under development. So what do we know?

The wireless communication is via 802.15.4 “Zigbee” protocol, not Bluetooth or WiFi. I asked about possible adaption of the SPOT Satellite Communicator to other platforms (such as iPhone, BlackBerry, etc.) and was told that it was technically possible (we already figured that out), but the spokesperson I spoke with could provide no further information. I was also not able to ascertain if this concept will remain exclusive to DeLorme and if so, for what term.

The SPOT Satellite Communicator retains its own GPS receiver, so the SOS button the the SPOT is fully independent of the PN-60w. The location of the SOS button, as seen in the photo on the side of the SPOT, has not been finalized. The SPOT Satellite Communicator will use two AA-cell non-rechargeable Lithium batteries, same as the PN-60w.

The free-form text messages will be limited to 58 characters. Each message will also include the GPS location (Latitude and Longitude). That obviously takes up a significant part of the potential message length, so one wonders if they might eventually allow a user to use those bits for a longer text message. You don’t necessarily need that information to be included. Text entry is via a keyboard on the screen navigated via the four-way switch. Only mildly annoying, and for short messages, acceptable.

In addition to the existing SPOT SOS and Help messages, I was told that they expect to provide an additional 10-14 user-defined canned messages to be sent, as opposed to the one additional with the standard SPOT 2. These are messages to enter via the online interface, not into the PN-60w. This will allow you to avoid the awkward text entry in many cases, just select the appropriate canned message and send it.

Unlike SPOT, which allows only a single group of contacts to be notified, it is anticipated that you will be able to have “more” contacts and be able to group them in various groups. You will also be able to identify a particular contact to receive a message. At this point, they do not plan to allow you to enter a contact number or email from the device in the field.

Finally, one of the things they couldn’t provide was the cost of the subscription or even how it would be priced. No word yet if it will be a simple added cost for unlimited messages, a cost per message or if different plans with different levels of service will be offered. Certainly, the appeal of this will depend in part on the cost, so without that to factor in, it’s difficult to evaluate the package.

More details as I get them.

January 7, 2010

SPOT and DeLorme Unveil Handheld GPS with Satellite Communicator

Filed in Gear , News

(See latest Update for more information.)

SPOT and DeLorme Unveil First Handheld GPS With Satellite CommunicatorAt the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Spot LLC, and well-known GPS manufacturer DeLorme announced the world’s first handheld GPS and satellite communicator product. The DeLorme Earthmate PN-60w with SPOT Satellite Communicator will be the first handheld GPS capable of sending user inputted real time text messages from remote locations. This is clearly a significant advantage over the very limited pre-defined messages allowed using the existing SPOT GPS Satellite Messenger. Note that this is still a one-way device, it cannot receive messages via the satellite link. The following is distilled from the press release.

(click on images for higher resolution photos)

The SPOT Satellite Communicator, designed exclusively for the new PN-60w, merges SPOT satellite message functionality and DeLorme state-of-the-art GPS mapping via wireless. Together, this product pairing offers broader messaging capabilities. Users can send freeform text messages using the PN-60w’s keyboard to select individuals or groups from the field even from remote areas world-wide.

SPOT and DeLorme Unveil First Handheld GPS With Satellite CommunicatorEstablished SPOT technology allows real-time location updates and the ability to summon help in an emergency. Custom messages and waypoints can easily be shared with social networking sites like SPOTadventures.com, Geocaching.com, Twitter, and Facebook. As an emergency back-up, the SPOT Satellite Communicator has stand-alone capability to send location-based SOS notification to an emergency response center.

“Today’s announcement combines the latest in sophisticated handheld GPS with SPOT satellite communications providing one-of-a-kind, custom messaging and sharing of geo-location information with others in real-time,” said Peter Dalton, President of Spot LLC and Chief Executive Officer of Globalstar Inc. “We are excited to partner with DeLorme in bringing to market a new wireless GPS solution to consumers.”

“For the first time, people will be able to type custom text messages using the Earthmate PN-60w internal keyboard and then transmit wirelessly to the unique DeLorme SPOT Communicator for sending satellite messages around the globe,” said Caleb Mason, DeLorme Vice President.

Users of the PN-60w can easily manage their profile online including custom maps and message history utilizing a fully integrated user interface designed by SPOT. Information can be kept fully private or shared with family and friends using custom tools like SPOT Shared Pages and SPOTadventures.com.

As a stand-alone GPS, the Earthmate PN-60w delivers premium navigation features including a 32-channel GPS chipset, blazing-fast dual-core processor, 3-axis electronic compass, sensitive barometric altimeter, elevation profiles, and GPX file transfers.

At CES, DeLorme also will be announcing new worldwide map data for the PN-60w, including high-resolution color aerial imagery.

The PN-60w with SPOT Satellite Communicator is scheduled to be available in spring 2010. The PN-60w and SPOT Communicator bundle will have an MSRP of: $549. No information yet on any additional charge for the text messaging capability over the standard SPOT Alerting and Tracking annual subscription of $100 and $50 additional, respectively.

Some more details can be found on the DeLorme Blog.

(See latest Update for more information.)

December 14, 2009

SPOT 2 Recall Announced

Filed in Gear , News

Feb. 17, 2010: Replacements for Recalled SPOT 2s Shipping

Click here for Latest Update

SPOT LLC has issued what they are calling a “Voluntary Return Program” for their recently released second generation SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger which even they are now referring to as “SPOT 2.” The email sent to all registered owners is reproduced below with the text of the email following. We’d call it a recall, and obviously have, “a rose by any other name” and all that, but there are no doubt legal reasons why they are choosing not to do so.

Just to be clear, this recall does NOT involve the original SPOT Satellite Personal Tracker, just the second generation SPOT 2 as shown to the right in the photo.

When we tried the procedures outlined on the SPOT 2 exchange web page we found some inconsistencies which we brought to the attention of SPOT and their tool for determining if your SPOT 2 is affected was not working. They assured us they would being taken care of, but apparently not until all the emails were sent out. Only some units are affected by the recall, but the recall notice was sent to all SPOT 2 owners, so even though they can clearly identify which units are affected and who owns them, it’s in their database, each customer will need to check to find out if their SPOT 2 is affected. They explain that this will allow them to deal with other owners who hear about the recall, but via other means such as this posting, and won’t know if it covers their SPOT 2. We can think of a number of ways to accomplish this that doesn’t inconvenience owners with out an affected unit, but… At least they are working to do the right thing.

In discussing this issue with SPOT representatives, they explained that the problem which they relate in their notification as being “not meet(ing) battery and messaging operating specifications,” is that at least some of the SPOT 2 devices are indicating via the “ON” button flashing red that the batteries require replacement well before they actually do. I suppose that this is better than waiting until it is too late, but clearly it presents its own problems. SPOT says they have not been able to determine what specific units are affected, so they are exchanging all units.

Retailers have been notified to return all stock of the SPOT 2. Any customer who recently purchased a SPOT 2 and hasn’t yet registered it and paid for the annual service will be blocked from doing so and will be sent to the return program page.

When a SPOT 2 owner goes to their “exchange” web site and fills out their online form, they will be sent a prepaid padded shipping envelope to return their SPOT 2. As soon as the problem has been fixed, SPOT says they will send out a new SPOT 2 free of charge. SPOT is providing an additional free month’s of service on to the customer’s 12-month service plan to compensate for the anticipated month they will not have the unit to use. They indicated that if it takes longer than a month, they will adjust the compensation period. The best they could offer at this time for a resolution is “early 2010.”

We’ll keep you informed as we learn more.

SPOT 2 Recall Email

December 14, 2009

Dear Valued Customer,

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.

Sincerely,

The SPOT Team

Feb. 17, 2010: Replacements for Recalled SPOT 2s Shipping

Click here for Latest Update

November 19, 2009

Follow-up Report – Second Generation SPOT

Filed in Gear

(Click on images for higher resolution photos)

Our initial evaluation of the second generation SPOT GPS Satellite Messenger (SPOT 2) was cut short when the unit died after we immersed it in a bowl of water. While we were originally told it was a production SPOT 2, turns out it was one of the pre-production units and wasn’t waterproof. I received what I was assured was really a production SPOT 2 while on the road. Taking advantage of the hotel’s pool with a depth of five feet, I power it on and I tossed it in, waited an hour, pulled it out and it worked fine using Check OK. Once I was home I put together a 20-foot tall test rig made of Schedule 40 sewer pipe, borrowed a neighbor’s balcony and suspended the SPOT 2 at a depth of 5 meters (16.2 ft.) for an hour, the depth and duration to which the SPOT 2 is rated. That’s when things got a bit weird.

SPOT 2 depth testing

When I pulled it out the power button was flashing red. That would mean that after only about 3 hours of use and a half dozen messaging attempts the batteries were run down. So, I turned it off and turned it on again and light was now flashing green. Ran Check OK and it worked. Still puzzling over this strangeness, a few hours later I performed the 16 ft. water test again, but with power off this time. I pulled out and turned it on, green LED and tested Check OK again, which worked fine. Turned it off and then about an hour later I turned it on again and it was now flashing red again. Ran Check OK and it worked fine. Turned it on and off a few times and each time it flashed red. Pulled the battery cover to see if there was any water inside and it was dry. Over the next day and a half I tried turning it on a half dozen times and it flashed red each time. Then, just before retiring for the night, I tried and it flashed green. I left it on all night and it was still flashing green in the morning and a Check OK worked fine. Shared the experience with SPOT and they have been unable to come up with an explanation so far. That left me with lots of questions and no good answers, not what I want in a distress alerting device.

In an effort to see if the depth testing had anything to do with the red battery indication, I set up the test rig again and tried it once more with fresh batteries. This time when I pulled it out it was still flashing green, but the Message Sent LED was also flashing. Given that I hadn’t pressed any of the message buttons, that was unexpected. Pressing the Check OK button didn’t activate that either. As I puzzled over that, I left it flashing in order to take some photos and video. Then GEOS called! Seems they had received an SOS alert once the SPOT 2 was removed from the test rig. After assuring GEOS that everything was okay, I turned it off and called SPOT.

Well, turns out that at its rated depth, the pressure can be sufficient to press the buttons and in this case it switched on the SOS button. Bottom line, while it may be waterproof to 5 meters, you need to be careful because at depth it can turn itself on and the result could be an unpleasant surprise visit from SAR. I suggested to SPOT that they might want to include a warning to that effect in the User Manual. And, still no answers for the apparently erroneous red battery indication.

Other Problems

A few other issues cropped up during our brief test period..

SPOT 2 Damaged protective coversThe red SOS dot and white text on the protective cover for the SOS button has started to wear off after only a few days and there is a scratch in the “reaching hands” image on the HELP protective cover. This SPOT 2 was carried in my pocket for a day or so, in aggregate, and spent an aggregate of about an hour or so being spun on its face on a tablecloth during a meeting. None of that is really the sort of abuse you’d expect to result in this wear, and far less than it can expect it to receive in real world use. That doesn’t bode well for its durability.

SPOT 2 Damaged label on backThe instruction label on the back was already starting to peel off and come apart after being exposed to water/wet for only a total of three hours. After the fourth hour in the wet it really started to come apart completely. This is another example of poor durability that suggests either poor quality control or poor selection of materials or design. For a device intended to be used in wet environments, such as sailing, boating, PWC, kayaking, etc., this is unacceptable in my opinion.

Issues such as this suggest a lack of concern for durability in the design and specifications for the SPOT 2 and inevitably raise questions about the entire package.

Also, we were told after our first report that SPOT would include updated battery life information in the email sent to newly registered SPOT 2 units, but when we registered this SPOT 2 last week, it still had not been included.

Testing will continue…

New Zealand

I also sent a second pre-production SPOT 2 that I received after the first failed (also not waterproof) with a close friend who is touring in New Zealand. He has been dutifully turning it on daily and we have been tracking him on his travels down under. No question that it is fun to follow along. Tracking performance has been similar to what we have seen here with SPOT in the past and during our brief initial evaluation. It is doing pretty well, but there are occasional gaps, even with SPOT 2’s redundant tracking transmissions that we discussed in our first report. He’s also carrying a McMurdo Fast Find PLB, just in case.

New Zealand Trip

November 5, 2009

A Preventable Tragedy

The tragedy of the three college softball players who were trapped in their vehicle and drowned in a pond on Sunday was totally preventable, if only someone had equipped them to survive. A simple, inexpensive safety tool on their keychain could have saved them. Either the ResQMe or the Houdini Automotive Escape Tool would have easily allowed the girls to break a window and escape. The tools also include a seat belt cutter to enable you to free yourself if trapped by your safety belt, or to free someone else. The Houdini also includes a whistle and LED flashlight. Put one of these on your keychain today. And,to answer your likely question, yes, they are both TSA safe, so you can travel with one at all times.

ResQMe and Houdini Escape Tool

UPDATED: November 19, 2009: I received an email today from a gentleman who had difficulties with the TSA about his ResQMe. Unfortunately, the TSA Screeners are often not the brightest bulbs on the tree, to put it politely, and often interpret the rules incorrectly. In those instances where I have run into problems with screeners, asking for a supervisor has always resolved the problem (of course, there’s never a guarantee with the TSA, they can still be arrogant, mercurial and unreasonable at times). Bear in mind that that in the U.S. scissors with pointed tips and blades shorter than four inches are legal. All I can add is that I and many others carry them through TSA checkpoints all the time with no problems.

November 3, 2009

Initial Hands-on Report – Second Generation SPOT

Filed in Gear

(Click on images for higher resolution photos)

Click to read our Follow-up Report.

SPOT 2SPOT, LLC has started shipping their second generation SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger (which we will refer to here as SPOT 2) that we took a look at when it was introduced at Outdoor Retailer earlier this year. I was supposedly sent one of the first production SPOT 2 devices to test. During testing, the unit failed (see below). Then SPOT told me that it really wasn’t a production SPOT, it was a pre-production unit hand assembled by Axonn, SPOT’s device designer/manufacturer. Regardless, all I can do is report what I witnessed since I have no way to determine whether or not it is or isn’t production at this point. They tell me that the electronics are identical to production, only the case and assembly are not. They have assured me that the real production units are actually waterproof. They promised to send me an honest-to-God real live production unit later this week or next. The first batch of production units can be found at REI and similar major retailers, but my local REI didn’t have one. I will update this once they get a replacement SPOT 2 in my hands. Click to read our Follow-up Report. As I am off on two weeks of travel and folks have been bugging me for my opinion on the new SPOT, here goes…

This is a very limited look at SPOT 2, due to time constraints and the failure. As such, I’ll stick to the primary improvements and changes and how they will affect the user, and in keeping with our primary interests, my focus is on SPOT as a means of signaling distress, so I will not spend much time on the ancillary value-added capabilities, except as the relate to this function.

Like many first tries, the original SPOT had a number of issues that quickly manifested themselves in real world use, creating problems for both users and SAR. SPOT certainly didn’t lack for criticism from which to garner ideas for improvements. As the second generation product evolved, I had the opportunity to provide my own candid input into the development process. To their credit, SPOT listened for the most part.

First, as an aside, devices such as SPOT now have their own official acronym, “SEND,” standing for Satellite Emergency Notification Device. SENDs are satellite distress beacons other than COSPAS-SARSAT 406 MHz devices (PLBs, EPIRBs and ELTs). RTCM started up a new subcommittee, SC 128, that began meeting earlier this year and which is defining a standard for SENDs, similar to those that exist for PLBs. It is anticipated that this standard will eventually become part of the FCC regulations. The goal is to ensure that the device and the distress function is designed and produced to a minimum standard of performance, so that consumers and SAR can have more confidence in these devices. I am a member of SC 128 and SPOT has been participating since the first meeting. SC 128 is not dealing with the interface between the private call centers these devices rely upon, another problem area, and the SAR services. That issue is being dealt with by a new NSARC (National Search and Rescue Committee) Working Group that will hold its first meeting next month. I am pleased to have been invited to participate in that group as well.

SPOT 2 has a large seal over the battery compartment that says “SERVICE REQUIRED” and provides the SPOT web site address. That hopefully clues in the new owner that they must pay for a subscription before they install the batteries and can use SPOT. I still don’t think the term “service” is all that clear; I’d prefer they were a bit more forthright about it, something like, “SUBSCRIPTION REQUIRED,” both there and on the packaging. The retail packaging does include text that “SPOT requires activation of a basic service plan prior to use,” but I’d be happier if that was in bold on the front of the package, not on the inside of a fold-out flap on the back. SPOT still has an official policy that without a paid-up subscription, they do not respond to a distress message. I am sure you trust computer databases as much as do I.

GPS Performance

SPOT 2As in the original, the GPS receiving and satellite transmitting antenna in SPOT 2 are one and the same. In the original, this antenna favored transmitting performance over the GPS reception, compromising the device’s GPS performance. Since that is the only locating means that SPOT has, there’s no Doppler back-up and 121.5 MHz homer as in a 406 MHz beacon, that proved to be a notable deficiency. SPOT claims the new antenna in SPOT 2 is a breakthrough design which doesn’t compromise either GPS or transmissions. The new GPS chip is also a relatively current generation 50-channel design and inherently delivers much greater sensitivity and performance. The combination should make a big difference in the less than optimum GPS reception situations survivors too often find themselves dealing with.

We weren’t able to thoroughly test the GPS performance in the few days we’ve had the device, that will take some time, but we did run it through some tests similar to what we did with the McMurdo Fast Find PLB. We were able to get an indication of a GPS location from inside my home, including the most difficult locations. In terms of GPS performance, it was far better than the original, which was unable to get a GPS location inside unless right by a window.

The new GPS LED provides the user a very clear indication of GPS status, in contrast to the original. Blinking green is good, blinking red is bad. No questions.

It is worth noting that SPOT transmits full GPS accuracy rather than the potentially degraded accuracy the 406 MHz beacons provide of +/- 4 seconds. Of course, without a GPS location, it’s a different story with SPOT. However, while SPOT does not inherently provide a true back-up for location like a PLB’s Doppler location and 121.5 MHz homer, SPOT does have the potential to at least get SAR into the area if Tracking is engaged. That’s a somewhat big if, in my opinion, but better than nothing. Assuming someone intends to use SPOT as their distress alerting device, they would do well to ensure tracking is always turned on (which must be done manually every 24 hours, something that has occasionally been forgotten by a user, with resulting issues for SAR).

With regards to Tracking, SPOT 2 incorporates some valuable improvements over the original. Beyond the improved GPS that should better ensure you get a location to be tracked, SPOT 2 now sends both the current tracking location and the prior two locations with each transmission to the satellite. These changes are designed to accommodate the all too common situation, in our experience, where SPOT is unable to communicate with the satellite for a period of time, which led to many gaps in tracking with the original SPOT. We didn’t see any evidence in our brief initial testing that SPOT 2 is any better at getting the transmission to the satellite, we saw the same sorts of gaps develop in driving around with it positioned on the car’s dash as we do with the original SPOT. The big difference was that once it did successfully get through, the trail was much more complete than it would have been previously because of the built in redundant location transmissions. We would see the gaps develop with no location displayed for 20-30 minutes and then suddenly appear as it caught up in subsequent transmissions. The result is that it is more likely that the tracking will be useful in an emergency when no GPS location is provided, assuming Tracking was turned on.

Without a homer, Tracking’s value to SAR in part depends on how the user is traveling. With a transmission every 10 minutes, on foot the potential area to search from a last known position is going to be a whole lot smaller than if traveling in a car, boat or especially an aircraft. On the other hand, when on foot you’re probably more likely to find yourself in a situation without a GPS location and more difficulty transmitting to the satellites over time. Either way, it doesn’t provide me a warm, fuzzy feeling, but it is an element to consider in deciding if SPOT is adequate for your purposes.

The PLB standard and the draft SEND standard both require that the location of the GPS antenna be identified and instructions included to not obstruct the antenna and to orient it to the sky. On SPOT 2 there’s a small illustration of a SPOT device with an arrow pointing “up.” In my opinion, it isn’t big enough, but it’s better than what the original had, which was nothing. The logical spot (pardon the pun) to place a larger version of that is right where the SPOT logo is, but I expect the marketing and sales types couldn’t cope with that. On the other hand, I’m more interested in saving lives. There is also nothing to warn about blocking the GPS antenna, which I consider just as critical. The only argument is that unlike a PLB, a SPOT user may have prior experience using the device for the value-added functions and may be more familiar with how best to operate the device. That doesn’t, however, cope with a situation where a person totally unfamiliar with SPOT ends up using it for the first time in an emergency, which could occur for lots of reasons.

Human Interface

The interface with the original SPOT was hardly intuitive and created many problems for users and SAR alike. SPOT 2 has six separate buttons, one for on/off and for each mode of operation. They are illuminated with green or red LEDs to indicate their status, plus there are two additional LED status indicators. While not yet a model of intuitive design, it is a huge improvement over the original.

SPOT 2The old “911″ button has morphed into “SOS,” a more internationally recognized symbol of distress. The SOS button is now covered to prevent inadvertent activation, which is very good and required on PLBs and in the draft SEND standard being worked by SC 128. Not so good is that you are unlikely to be able to lift the cover up while wearing even moderately thick gloves. You’ll either need to remove a glove or use a tool with a thin section, such as your knife or such, to lift the cover and possibly to press the small recessed button. This same applies to the HELP button, now showing a symbol of two hands reaching for each other, which is also protected in the same manner. As before, SOS goes direct to the GEOS call center, while HELP sends a message, which you can edit online, to your contacts. A spare set of covers is provided, in case one breaks off I suppose.

I still have one quibble from a distress alerting perspective. You must turn SPOT 2 on before pressing SOS, which is not how I’d do it. If you need SOS, that should be the only button you need to press to signal distress. A placard on the back does tell the user to first turn on the unit and then to press SOS. There is also a caution to move the device to a location with a clear view of the sky if the GPS LED is red. SPOT includes versions of this placard in English, Spanish, French and Portuguese. On the downside, being on the back doesn’t exactly make it readily visible to the unfamiliar user, even more so if in its case and not viewable at all.

The Check OK button is still there. SPOT 2 adds a Custom Message button, which is user configurable to whatever message your want, as is Check OK for that matter, and sent to separately defined contacts. SPOT now sends each of those messages three times at 5-minute intervals, which should make it more likely the message gets through. However, in our tests, conducted under not at all demanding circumstances, we occasionally found that the Check OK message did not go through. That’s a concern for me, as failure to receive an OK message can turn into a Search and Rescue mission very quickly when someone close to the user is worried that something is wrong.

One minor aggravation in the online interface is you cannot copy contacts from one to another,or if it is there I missed it, each must be separately entered. Seems like they ought to be able to make that easier. Also, if you want to enter multiple numbers for any one Emergency Contact, the only way to do that is to enter the same contact with different numbers. Given you are only allowed two Emergency Contacts, this is a problem. They need to allow multiple contact numbers for each Emergency Contact, At a minimum this should include home, work, cell, and instant messaging.

While SPOT 2 will send the SOS or Help messages even if it cannot get a GPS location, as before and updates with GPS is it later gets a location, it won’t send a Check OK or Custom message unless it has a GPS location, which doesn’t make much sense to me. While odds are that you more likely to get a GPS location, with the new GPS, than be unable to send out a message, stuff happens in the real world. Given the fact that failure to receive an OK message has already resulted in panicked calls that have sent SAR forces into the field, why make it any more difficult to get that message out? Moreover, the Custom Message may not even need a GPS to be relevant or useful. At least SPOT 2 makes it much clearer, via the LEDs, whether it has a GPS location and if the message has been sent. That allows/encourages a knowledgeable user to relocate to a better GPS receiving position, which will also most times give you a better transmitting location as well. So, using a somewhat perverse logic, if the user actually understands all this and what the flashing LEDs actually mean, it more likely assures the Check OK message gets through, sort of, kind of. I’m not buying that logic, however, because I know better than to assume the user actually understands how everything works.

SPOT 2With the switch to three AAA-cell lithium batteries from AA-cells, as well as the additional LEDs and such, SPOT 2 has shorter operating times than the original. With fresh batteries, SPOT 2 will transmit an SOS for 2.8 days (approximately 810 messages at one every 5 minutes) at -22 F (-30 C). At the point that the red LED starts flashing. it has 100 messages worth of battery life remaining, or about 8.3 Hours of SOS transmissions remaining. In most situations on land, that’s more than adequate since you aren’t likely going anywhere, you should be waiting for rescue. On the water where you can drift a long ways very quickly and rescue can often take a while, that’s not so great.

We were not able to conduct battery run-down tests. Of course, using the Tracking (approximately 4.3 24-hour days worth on a set of batteries) or other messaging functions will reduce the battery capacity available for an SOS or Help message. From my perspective, the take-way from this is to make sure you always have a spare set of batteries with you if you are going to be depending on SPOT for rescue. Also on the topic of batteries, we have noticed that unlike AA-cell lithium batteries which seem to be readily available these days, finding AAA-cell lithium batteries locally can be a challenge. I expect that to be an even greater challenge out of the country. A word to the wise…

On a related note, neither the User’s Guide or the “Important Changes Regarding How SPOT Functions!” addendum have accurate information on battery life, other than messages remaining in the latter. That represents a decided deficiency, in my opinion, especially considering that the limits impact how a user might use or manage battery life for possible use in distress alerting. SPOT say they are updating the User’s Guide, but seems to me they ought to not deliver units until that critical information is provided. At the least, they should include that information in the email message they already send you upon registering your SPOT.

The original SPOT was buoyant and the specifications we were provided for SPOT 2 when introduced at Outdoor Retailer indicated it would also be buoyant. Somewhere between prototype and production things went awry and the production model does not float. Since I don’t consider buoyancy all that important for personal devices, that’s not a significant deficiency in my opinion. Buoyancy is a nice-to-have feature, but anyone using any personal distress signaling device in situations where it might be lost in the water should have it tethered to their person at all times, regardless. I would definitely suggest that marine users secure the SPOT 2 with some Velcro if they are just going to set it on the console, as seems to be common with the original SPOT.

When we registered our SPOT, we got a message via email that included the following information: “In its carrying case, SPOT-2 will float until the carrying case becomes saturated with water, which will provide you with a limited time to retrieve SPOT from the water (as little a ~1 minute if using SPOT + case + armband). Whitewater conditions shorten the time until case saturation. SPOT highly recommends that you keep SPOT in its case and either attached to you or your gear.” So, there you go. I think a closed-cell neoprene pouch might be a better choice.

SPOT 2 Failure

Click to read our Follow-up Report.

SPOT 2 is rated as waterproof to 5 meters (16.4 ft.) for one hour, a five-fold improvement over the original. We submerged it briefly in a shallow bowl of water (2 inches worth) while attempting to determine how much buoyancy it lacked to be able to float and afterward it was dead. We checked to see if water leaked into the battery compartment, but it was dry. After a few hours the red LED in the Tracking button lit up, which isn’t even in the list of possible indications. That red LED eventually grew dimmer. When we subsequently picked it up, it was very warm. Removing the recalcitrant battery cover, the batteries were almost too hot to handle. Obviously, that failure ended our functional testing. The unit is heading back to SPOT as you read this. As noted earlier, now they tell me that the SPOT 2 we tested wasn’t a production unit as originally we were told, rather a hand-assembled pre-production unit.

Click to read our Follow-up Report.

Like the original SPOT, SPOT 2 is made in China by Axonn who provide a 1-year limited warranty. SPOT does not warrant the device they sell, the warranty is from the manufacturer. Axonn’s warranty doesn’t cover warranty shipping costs either way and neither is the warranty extended if they replace or fix the problem. All currently available PLBs (or, at least those sold in the U.S.) come with a minimum 4-year warranty, most are 5-years or more.

You can expect to lay out $150 for SPOT 2. A basic subscription, including SOS and the other messaging, is $99.99 per year. If you want tracking, add another $49.99. GEOS rescue cost insurance, to the tune of $100,000, costs $7.95 per year. If you upgrade from the original SPOT to SPOT 2, you don’t need to buy a new subscription, your existing one will work with the new SPOT 2.

Conclusions

With only a couple days to play with SPOT 2, and given the failure we experienced and the questions about whether or not this was a production unit, there’s a limit to how far I’m willing to go with any conclusions. Still, it was pretty obvious that SPOT has a much better human interface, which should cut down some on false alerts, and the GPS clearly performs much better.

On the other hand, the failure we experienced after a brief dunking in a shallow bowl of water does not give us a lot of confidence in the device. Was the unit they sent me really pre-production or not? I cannot tell as I sit here. Given all the emails I get about SPOT 2, I also wouldn’t feel right delaying publication of this report. So, take that for what it is worth.

We’ll take another look at SPOT 2 once they have send me a replacement and I am, hopefully, convinced that the production units are actually waterproof. In the meantime, I cannot recommend this second generation SPOT. Even if we get past this hiccup, there are lots of other issues to consider before you decide on a SPOT.

Click to read our Follow-up Report.email me your results.

July 27, 2009

Second Generation SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger Introduced

Filed in Gear , News

Initial Hands-on Report – Second Generation SPOT

SPOT 2SPOT, LLC introduced their second generation “SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger” at Outdoor Retailer Summer Market in Salt Lake City, Utah, this week. The new device (I’ll refer to it as SPOT 2 to differentiate between it and the original SPOT) appears to address many of the deficiencies we found in the original SPOT, both in terms of ergonomics and human interface issues as well as GPS performance.

SPOT provided the following list of new features in their press release and I have annotated the list with my thoughts and comments:

30% smaller and lighter than the original model at 5.2 ounces – As the images show, it is quite a bit smaller, which is rarely a bad thing. In comparison to the new McMurdo Fast Find PLB, it is a bit shorter and thinner, but wider. I suspect volume would be similar.

SPOT 2, McMurdo Fast Find, original SPOT

New enhanced satellite antenna for improved performance in foliage or canopied environments and Advanced GPS performance chipset – The original SPOT suffered from less than stellar GPS performance in challenging environments and even some not so challenging. In part it was the GPS receiver, which wasn’t leading edge, but in larger part it was caused by the fact that the GPS receiving antenna and the satellite transmitting antenna were one and the same and it was optimized to transmit to the Globalstar satellites. SPOT claims the new dual use antenna is a major breakthrough and doesn’t compromise GPS performance. I’ll take that with at least a small grain of salt, but expect that there will be a significant improvement in GPS performance between having a current generation, high sensitivity GPS receiver and a better antenna. Only testing and field experience will show how much better.

Because SPOT 2 still relies only on GPS to provide location information in the distress signal, improved GPS performance would be a significant advantage. If you are already a fan of SPOT, and plan on it being your distress alerting device, that alone would be worth the upgrade, assuming it delivers on the promise. At this point, particularly without having tested it, I am not suggesting that SPOT is, in my mind, a replacement for a 406 MHz Personal Locator Beacon for distress alerting, but if you intend to use it for that purpose, the improved GPS would be good to have.

GPS Acquisition light and “Message Sending” indicator light – dedicated indicating LEDs should help eliminate some of the confusion that was caused by the many different flashing LED indications on the original SPOT. That was a continual source of annoyance and, in many cases, serious problems when a user misinterpreted what the device was doing. The lighted buttons (see below) are part of that solution.

SPOT 2 buttons and LEDsDedicated GPS Tracking button – Again, this should help make it less confusing and easier to use the tracking function. This is actually pretty important because the tracking function can provide a degree of back-up in case the device does not transmit a GPS location in a distress alert. SPOT 2 will transmit a distress alert, even without a GPS location. If you have tracking engaged and you have an emergency, but the distress alert does not include a GPS location, then Search and Rescue might have the digital bread crumb trail to provide a starting point for a search. The key here is that you have to manually engage the tracking feature and you have to do that on a daily basis.

SPOT has improved the tracking feature by recognizing the issue that often showed up with the original SPOT when in the field, that a tracking point or points were often not received by the system, which could occur for a variety of reasons. In an effort to mitigate this issue, SPOT 2 now sends the current tracking location and the previous two locations in every tracking data burst (three bursts every 10 minutes). Thus, if the system doesn’t receive a few of those tracking data bursts, for whatever reasons, it can recover to a degree. Obviously, if there are more than a couple tracking locations not received, as we would sometimes see or have been reported with the original SPOT, it cannot recover more than two locations previously. There is no suggestion that satellite communications have been improved, so satellite visibility may likely still be an issue in some cases.

New, dedicated pre-programmable Custom Message button – This could be very helpful by allowing an alternative message to the Help or I’m OK messages available to the original SPOT user. Uses for this message function are limited only by your imagination.

Protective covers over S.O.S and Help button to prevent inadvertent message transmissions – This should help prevent accidental activation and the unexpected arrival of SAR at your location. This is a requirement for PLBs and I’m glad to see SPOT adopt this to their device.

Illuminated buttons – Helpful at night, for sure. But, even better, each is used to indicate that function is engaged and working, which will address the confusion caused by the LED indicators on the original SPOT

SPOT 2 silver

Choice of orange or silver – I think this is aimed primarily at their SPOT Assist vehicle assistance market where perhaps bright orange isn’t considered quite so fashion forward. Orange makes a lot more sense for our wilderness, marine, aviation and other similar uses

Included case and neoprene fastening band – There’s no integral clip like on the original SPOT; they provide a cell-phone style soft case with a clip. The Velcro dot can be used for mounting on your car dashboard or aircraft glare shield, etc.

The new model includes globally recognized symbols for its message buttons to accommodate use in international markets and stimulate distribution to a growing customer base in North and South America, Europe, Asia and Australia – 911, as used on the original SPOT, is not universally understood, but S.O.S. is. The button symbology is pretty straightforward and much better than the original SPOT.

SPOT 2 case

SPOT 2 is powered by three AAA-cell lithium batteries (compared to AA-cells for the original SPOT) which will provide a bit over 4.6 days of S.O.S. transmissions every 5 minutes with a full charge. Of course, if you are using the tracking and other features, that will shorten the S.O.S. transmission time. There is a low battery warning, the Power On LED flashes red, when battery capacity reaches 30% remaining. Just like on the original Spot, two screws retain the battery compartment cover on the back of the unit.

SPOT 2 Battery CoverSPOT 2 reportedly meets or exceeds the same environmental and abuse resistance standards as the current PLB standard requires. It is claimed to be significantly more waterproof than the original SPOT. That was rated to one meter for 30 minutes, but we are aware of a number of instances where that appeared not to be the case or insufficient for use while running a river and the like, even when it wasn’t immersed that deep or that long. SPOT 2 is rated to 5 meters (16.4 feet) for 1 hour and that should be adequate for most users.

Pricing will be the same as the current SPOT, with an MSRP of $169.95 and an expected street price of about $149. As before, a subscription is required and cost of that remains the same; $99.99 for distress alerting, HELP and Check OK messages and use of the customizable message button. Tracking adds another $49.99. GEOS insurance for costs incurred in a rescue remains at $7.95 per year. Normally this hasn’t been much of a concern for those adventuring in the U.S., but given all the publicity recently about persons being stupidly charged ridiculous amounts for rescue in some cases, unfortunately, I suspect that will be a strong sales point for SPOT.

As before, if your subscription lapses or the computer loses you, they won’t pass along your distress alert or messages. No money, or record of money, no rescue. I still have a serious issue with this policy.

GEOS continues to provide the distress alerting interface, and my concerns about how they accomplish that remain as well. While they seem to have improved significantly since they first started, often with a push from authorities, I am still not impressed by some of the reports I receive about them stumbling to make contact with the correct SAR service in some instances. Giving credit where due, they have plenty of saves to their credit, but I cannot ignore the issues that remain or the difficulties that have manifested themselves in the reports I get.

GEOS reportedly provide a generally responsive interface with the listed emergency contacts during the search and rescue phase, but they still need to improve how they interface with SAR, based on reports, and they need to become more proactive in doing so. Their proprietary position towards their system and performance and lack of openness makes it even more difficult to both access their performance and service and to come up with better solutions. This continues to be the subject of much discussion in the SAR alerting community. GEOS remains an issue and question mark for me with regards to using SPOT for distress alerting.

SPOT 2, like the original SPOT, is assembled in China.

SPOT 2 is scheduled to be available “later this fall” according to SPOT. All SPOT was showing at Outdoor Retailer was a non-functional model. We have been promised one of the first units manufactured and we’ll bring you an initial evaluation as soon as possible, once we have it in hand.

Initial Hands-on Report – Second Generation SPOT

May 10, 2009

Update on Canadian 406 ELT Requirements

Filed in Musings

Here’s an update on the previous post, “Canada Backs Off on 406 MHz ELT Rule

In speaking with members of Canada’s National Search and Rescue Secretariat at the 2009 RTCM Annual Conference, they indicated that the regulation is still in the Canadian Minister of Transport, John Baird’s, office and still under consideration. Government agencies are still discussing the implications and means of moving forward.

Canadian Owners and Pilots Association (COPA) President Kevin Psutka’s interpretation of what this all means as reported in AVweb may not necessarily represent the entire picture, as you would expect from any organization pushing for their agenda. There is obviously another side to the story that my sources are not at liberty to discuss in detail for public dissemination. Aircraft operators should not necessarily count on major changes to the proposed regulation. May happen; may not.

Stay tuned…