“Helped initiate more than 550 rescues in 51 countries on land and at sea”
Whilst GPS messengers have been around for a while now, they have only recently (in the last couple of years) become commercially viable for the masses. In line with this new found availability, many Duke of Edinburgh’s Award groups have purchased these systems to allow them to keep track of groups on the hill. But how effective are they? Are they worth the large price tag and annual subscriptions?
My Air Cadet Wing recently purchased 8 SPOT trackers and the associated licences. I was therefore given the chance to test these extensively over the expedition season. This is a short review of the functionality of these devices for use on expeditions with young people.
The way the units work is simple; they broadcast the position of the unit to a piece of mapping software such as Mapyx, allowing the instructors to track the group’s location. The unit also allows the group to send simple pre-programmed messages via the buttons on the front, request emergency help from the instructor, and request external search and rescue directly. The unit uses GPS satellites to send messages and therefore don’t rely on mobile signal. The SPOT units are small and easy to explain to groups. The units themselves have 4 front buttons, plus 2 buttons that have ‘safety catches’ to prevent accidental triggering. The 4 front buttons (clockwise from the top):
1. The Power Button; turns the unit on
2. The track button; broadcasts the unit’s position
3. Message button; sends a pre-programmed message, such as “we are at our checkpoint”
4. OK button; broadcasts a check in.
The software that comes with the units can be used to program what the message button sends. The unit interfaces with the Mapyx software, which has a web based interfaced, allowing instructors to log in to the website and view (on a 1:25,000 OS Map) where the group are.
The SPOT GPS unit itself will cost you £160 (RRP although they can be found for cheaper)
On top of the cost of the unit you need to pay an annual subscription. Subscriptions vary depending on how often you want the unit to broadcast the position of the unit, the more frequent the location updates, the higher the cost. You must pay £99 per year for the basic service and tracking, this can then be upgraded by paying the appropriate upgrade fee. Prices can be found below:
1. Basic Service and Tracking (Required)
Costing £99 Per Year – Required for all Spot devices. Package include unlimited predefined Custom, Check In, Tracking, Help and SOS messages. Basic tracking automatically transmits your GPS location every 10 minutes for 24 hours so you can share your adventures in near real time via SPOT Adventures or a SPOT shared page. You can track as long as you like, but after 24 hours, you will need to re-set your tracking.
2. Unlimited Tracking (Optional)
Costing £28 Per Year on top of the Basic cost- SPOT Gen3’s enhanced tracking features allow you to choose your rate of tracking. Pre-set your SPOT Gen3 to send your GPS coordinates every 5, 10, 30, or 60 minutes to suit the speed of your adventures. In addition, Unlimited Tracking will continue to track your progress beyond 24 hours, allowing you to set it and forget it (no need to re-set after 24 hours).
3. Extreme Tracking (Optional)
Costing £72 Per Year on top of the basic cost- Get all of the great features of Basic and Unlimited Tracking but with the added ability to vary your track rate down to every 2.5 minutes. Perfect for pilots and the ultra outdoor enthusiast.
GEOS Search and Rescue Benefit (Optional)
Costing £8 Per Year – The GEOS Search and Rescue member benefit covers up to £50k in search and rescue expenses, even coordinating a private rescue contractor, if needed.
The units use Mapyx mapping software (although they can be programmed to use others). The software is web based allowing instructors to log in from any web based device; tablets, phones, laptops etc. Any alerts sent from the unit i.e. Distress calls will also be sent to a pre-configured mobile number.
There are some quite big drawbacks to this system:
1. Unless you have access to the internet where you are (which will usually be remote areas), then the system is generally useless from a tracking point of view. Whilst the alerts will come through to a mobile, the tracking relies on the web based internet.
2. The web based net system on 3G internet requires a good connection, quite often you won’t have this in the outdoors. As a result trying to view locations on the internet system is difficult (ties into the point above).
3. Cost – £160 + £99 per year is expensive, simple! Is it worth it for peace of mind?
If multiple instructors are trying to access the web system to view the groups locations, it will log out the person who is logged into the web system when the next instructor tries to log in. The instructor who got kicked off will invariably try and log back in thus logging out the person who just logged in. This happened to me during an expedition, and was honestly one of the most frustrating experiences of my life.
There also some quite big positives to this system:
1. If you are in an area with good internet it’s an excellent way of keeping tabs on a group without smothering them with attention.
2. The group will ALWAYS have a means of contacting help in an emergency, which can provide peace of mind, although my worst nightmare is seeing Mountain Rescue storming past a checkpoint where I’m waiting for a group, and not realise they are running to the aid of one of my groups!
3. If you have someone at a “base” location, with steady WiFi, they can act as a point of contact and relay grid references and other information to the team in the field.
Expensive, but potentially worth it. They provide a means of contacting emergency services regardless of mobile signal, for leaders in the field the tracking can be quite ineffective due to poor internet signal, however if using a base location can provide an excellent means of keeping track of groups.