Pilots are, by their nature, adventurers – how else might you find yourself several thousand feet above the channel relying on a single engine, or soaring high above the mountains of Scotland with no engine at all? Landing away from an airfield is something that all pilots prepare for in their training. Less well understood is what to do afterwards, especially if you’re unable to communicate.
Favoured by the military, adventure sports participants, outdoor enthusiasts and many others, SPOT LLC has been manufacturing GPS tracking and emergency location products for the general public since 2007. We reviewed the unit that currently sits at the top of the product range; the Messenger Gen (Generation) 3.
SPOT products all offer the same basic feature-set; GPS tracking backed up with an SOS button which will summon the local Search And Rescue unit wherever you are in the world, regardless of cell phone coverage. Pressing the button takes a GPS fix and sends your location to GEOS; the global rescue coordinator, who will either notify local emergency responders or if required, organise a private response. This has the potential to cost a fortune if you’re not a member of the GEOS scheme, which will cover you for rescue costs of up to $100,000, and costs only €1.99 per month or €15 annually.
When tracking, the unit takes GPS fixes at pre-defined intervals and then transmits them to SPOT via the Globalstar communication satellite service. They are then uploaded to a map on SPOT’s server, showing everyone with the URL a trail of breadcrumbs along your route.
A basic subscription also allows you to send ‘check-in/OK’ and custom messages to your contact list, as well as providing the ‘help’ function which sends a request for non-emergency assistance to selected contacts. All of these are set up using the online tool.
The SPOT Messenger Gen 3 achieves a slightly smaller form factor than its forebears, being about the same size as a deck of cards. The blaze orange colour seems to be more about branding than observability; if you’re waving it around in the hope of being spotted, you’re really not exploring the unit’s potential. It fits neatly in pockets, weighs hardly anything and has handy attachment points top and bottom for lanyards or small karabiners.
Four AAA batteries power the unit and although you can use rechargeables, the USB line won’t top them up; it simply provides line power and firmware updates which is a shame as it means carrying spares or a dedicated charger. That said, as long as the GPS antenna has a clear view of the sky a fresh set of lithium batteries will keep you tracking at 2.5 minute intervals for 7 days, or transmit SOS signals for 13 days straight.
Ease of Use
Setup and use is simple. SPOT’s online configuration tool is pretty easy to use, but as with any tool designed to help you in a worst-case scenario, preparation is key. It goes without saying that you should read the manual to ensure that when you really need it, you know what you’re doing.
The buttons on the unit engage with a positive click, with a simple set of LED lights that tells you what the unit is doing (sending a message, getting a GPS fix, etc). Each light seems to have two LEDs behind it so a single light failure shouldn’t be misinterpreted as a unit fault. Those buttons that result in expensive action on the part of others; your contacts, or in particular GEOS, are guarded so that you don’t suddenly find yourself being winched into a helicopter (and presented with the resulting invoice) because of finger trouble.
I’ve been using my unit for a year now. It’s put up with everything I’ve thrown at it, and everything I’ve dropped it onto in that time. I’ve not tested its watertight integrity but I’ll take SPOT’s word about it being IPX-7 waterproof; that’s submersed at 1m for 30 minutes. If you’re flying over the sea, put it in a water-tight container just to be on the safe side.
At €179 the SPOT Messenger Gen 3 is not a cheap addition to your nav bag. That said, for just over £126 at today’s exchange rate, it could be a small price to pay when you really need it. Of course as the unit uses the Globalstar satellite network to send messages, you’ll need a subscription to that service, and SPOT makes this easy through their website. A basic package would include tracking, with the option to have more frequent track points (up to one every 2.5mins) by spending a little more.
Keep your personal data and messages up to date. If the worst should happen, you need those coming to your aid to have accurate information. Also GEOS will use your emergency contact details to provide information about your planed route or activity.
Think about the content of your messages. You’re very limited in the number of characters that you can use, so think carefully about what information might be useful, like allergies, description and the likely circumstances – such as “I may be trapped in a small aircraft”.