For some time now, since I started doing some solo backpacks in fact, I’ve been keeping an eye on the available technology for personal tracking. Having very little knowledge or experience of portable electronics doesn’t help at all, and getting to grips with all this is uphill work. After much investigation and internet fatigue I gave up on a feasible solution a while ago, but the SPOT Satellite Personal Tracker is a very interesting development and it reawakened my interest.
Ideally the best solution would meet these requirements:-
- Allows the track to be displayed in real time on OS digital mapping back home on the PC
- The battery must last at least a week
- Affordable internet service, preferably Pay-As-You-Go
- Tracks me in real time by transmitting my coordinates to a web server at specified intervals
- Works anywhere in mainland UK (which rules out any idea based on the cellphone network)
Point #1: the easy one. Memory Map, my mapping software of choice, has provided the web server and map display components of a solution for a long time. They have sensibly split the functionality in exactly the right place, leaving the choice of hardware and mobile internet service to the user. The SPOT is tied to a personal web account that uses GoogleMaps, which is pretty crap really for the wild parts of the UK compared to OS mapping, but it’s a start.
Point #2: the SPOT device succeeds admirably on this one, overcoming a major problem that plagued all the previous technologies I looked at. Its sole purpose is to send quick low volume packets of information periodically and it consumes little power, lasting 14 days in tracking mode.
Point #3: The SPOT has a fixed unlimited sub of £75 pa which is pretty good, but the tracking facility is extra (I can’t find any mention of the price on the site).
Points #4 and #5: related points that encompass all the problems. In my naivety I had assumed that satellite technology would be able to lock and transmit just about anywhere in the open air, thus overcoming the crap cellphone coverage problem, but it seems I was wrong. After some digging I came across a couple of websites that gave some very disappointing reports. One specific point was reported by several people and a question about it was subsequently added to the Q&A that left me speechless:-
Q: Many of the ‘con’ responses indicate SPOT won’t track in overcast weather. Why?.
A: This unit may experience difficulty tracking in overcast weather due to not being able to ’see’ the sky (as with any other GPS device).
There was another blog report by a canoeist who emphasized the need for a clear unobstructed view of the southern sky, otherwise many of the transmissions would simply not get through. In his case it was a screen of mangroves in the line of sight. To quote a snippet from his report:-
This being ‘in the open’ concerns me though. Its important to recognize this up front. I must first understand that if I’m in a tree covered area (any sky obstruction) that I must first get out to an open view of the sky before relying on rescue or even a sent message.
Does this apply to all Sat devices, like SatPhones?. Their advertising trumpets the claim that they work ‘anywhere - even where cellphones don’t', but they are obviously talking on a very large scale, not ‘anywhere’ as in ‘at the bottom of a steep sided valley’ or ‘in a forest’.
So much for my enthusiasm, at least for now.