Talking to the Stars

One of the big advantages of going walking in somewhere remote like the Galloway Forest Park is that during the entire day you can meet no-one.  This is also the main disadvantage because if something nasty should happen to you, e.g. break a leg, then it could be a long wait before someone comes along and you end up as Raven-food.   And don’t even think about trying to get a mobile phone signal here either. 1  Obviously we leave a note of where we are going but that is usually the car park and who knows where we end up (certainly not me or my trusty navigator). 2  So when I heard about the SPOT Messenger device it sounded ideal and would mean Cathy didn’t worry. So here is a quick review of using it.

Jazz and Spot

So what is this device?  Well, it’s a palm-sized piece of geeky gadget coolness.  The picture on the right shows it lying on Jazz during her afternoon doze to give an idea of its size.  It is a pretty simple device with a few buttons and lights.   Pressing a button sends a message to your contacts via email and text message, and they mean increasingly serious things 3:  We’re OK; Just saying Hi; Could you help me; and SOS – my life is in danger.  Now here are the cool bits:

  1. When you send a message it first gets your current location from the GPS constellation and includes that in the message.  Your contacts can then see your location on Google Maps as well as get the message.
  2. If you send the SOS message it gets handled by an emergency response centre who then coordinates and manages your rescue – anywhere in the world.  Obviously this isn’t a function I intend to be using but it is a great insurance policy.
  3. And the clincher: it doesn’t need a mobile phone signal.  That’s because this little beauty talks to the stars!  Your message gets sent to a communication satellite who passes it on to the control centre and then onto your contacts.

I tested it out: 2 minutes after pressing the OK button I got a text with my message.  The email I got contained a link to Google Maps with Street View with the pin sticking exactly where I had been standing.  Totally gob-smacking technology!

So how will we use it?  At the start of a walk we’ll send a Check-in message that says we are leaving the car. Then during the walk we’ll send the occasional OK message, e.g. at the lunch stop or the various hill tops. 4  The GPS timestamps will let us know afterwards how long the different sections took.  Then when we get back to the car we send another Check-in message to show we are off the hills.  This means Cathy doesn’t worry and we don’t feel guilty.  Pure magic.  I must just remember to put it in the rucksack… We are going to try it out on the next walk.

Some Issues

Having lived with the device for a few days and used it “for real” there are a few negatives that I’d like to point out.

  1. When I set up my contacts list on the SPOT web-site I entered Cathy’s mobile number as “O7xxxxxxxxx” assuming that since my settings were UK that it would get through.  Unfortunately they disappeared without comment or reported error.  It is only when I changed the number to “+447xxxxxxxxx” (i.e. an explicit international code prefix) did they get through.  There was no mention of this in the User Guide or the web-site FAQ.  If I hadn’t experimented I would be annoyed at the dead mobile notification.
  2. When I first started setting up my online account (needed to activate the device) my personal email address (which has a .biz extension) was deemed invalid and wouldn’t let me proceed: I had to use another, more standard one.  Their web site needs to get a spring clean to handle the new TLDs.
  3. I (politely) mentioned both points in emails to SPOT’s customer service department and despite assurances that they would deal with it quickly I never heard from them again.  So, if you want help I suggest you phone their call centre in Ireland (more expensive but probably faster).
  4. The paper User Guide is pretty basic and if all goes well you should be fine.  But then it uses terms like “message cycle” without explaining what they mean.
  5. It also assumes you are American.  Details on the FAQ talk about cellphone providers and things that just don’t apply to European users.  The closest the FAQ gets to non-American is Australian!
  6. The link to Google Maps in the notification email is fine.  The problem is with the maps and satellite coverage itself.  Where we go in deepest Galloway the coverage is poor (old maps, cloud cover, poor resolution).  The solution I now use is to take the latitude/longitude values from Google Maps (it’s in the search box) and paste it straight into streetmap.co.uk who take you straight to an OS map (1:25000 and 1:50000) with the arrow pointing nicely at the place you pressed the button (remember to play with the zoom control to get something sensible displayed).  I’d recommend this indirect route when using SPOT in areas that don’t get updated that often – in Scotland that means anything outside a city.

However, these issues have nothing to do with the device or service itself. This I’ve found to be nothing other than gob-smacking and would thoroughly recommend it.

Notes:

  1. I’ve tried training Jazz but the “go to the nearest house and bring help” command is still a bit beyond her.
  2. And we’ve been known to change our minds, e.g. if the weather is looking iffy.
  3. You get to setup the contacts and the text messages.
  4. You can buy an additional service option that allows a tracking mode that sends your position every 15 minutes so your nearest and dearest can follow your progress in near real-time.  That might be useful if I wanted Jazz to have her own one so I could see where she disappeared to!  It would easily attach to her collar.