Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Review: FASTFIND PLB vs SPOT Personal Tracker

Imagine that you just had a bad landing. You're lying in a field with a busted leg, a mere hour's drive from home but in an area with poor or non-existant cell coverage. You might be surprised to learn that over 50-percent of the US is like that. And the percentage is higher, that is to say, worse up here in Canada.

What to do?

Like an EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon) for maritime distress, or an ELT (Emergency Location Transmitter) for aircraft emergencies, a PLB (Personal Location Beacon) can be activated by individuals anywhere. These units transmit on the 406 MHz international distress band, via GEOSAR satellites on the Cospas-Sarsat system which covers pretty much the entirety of the planet.  See: http://cospas-sarsat.org/en/home

If you happen to fly alone on occasion, outside of reliable cellular range, over rough and hilly terrain, forested areas, or over water, you can't expect to always rely on your cellular phone to work in the event of an emergency. You just might want to invest in one of these gizmos and carry it with you when you fly.

406 beacons must be registered with the official government Search and Rescue authorities (SAR) of each owner's home country, either the NOAA in the United States, or through the NSS (The National Search and Rescue Secretariat in Canada.) Registering is easy, and can be done online. You can add notification contact numbers, and whatever personal info you like, including medical info, such as allergies to meds, and etc. I mentioned that I was an ultralight pilot flying PPG, and PLB activation may be a result of an aviation mishap.

Activating a 406 beacon SAR will have a GEO alert within five minutes, and position accurate to within 100 meters, which a huge improvement over the old 121.5 MHz beacon system. Your unique serial number will identify you, and liasse with your contact numbers, and local SAR and emergency resources.

TheFastFind 210 beacon (US version) is available on Amazon for USD $265.00 http://www.amazon.com/Fast-Find-Personal-Locator-Beacon/dp/B008M64COO

It weighs a mere 5.3 ounces. (150 grams) and about the size of a typical cell phone.

It features a manually operated LED SOS light for night signalling.

It requires NO subscription free. It is basically a one-time-use only unit, after which, the unit must be returned to a service technician who can fit a new antenna cover, and if necessary, replace the battery. Units are transferrable, but are programmed with among other things, a country code, wherever sold, and this code might have to be reprogrammed in Canada, that is, for a unit originally purchased in the US. (No worries for a unit purchased and registered in the same country however.)

The FastFind is submersible, although not bouyant.

The battery is good for five years, with a 24-hour lifespan when activated.

The SPOT Personal Tracker is available here, for USD $86.00

The SPOT tracker is less expensive out of the box, but does requires an annual subscription fee of $99.00 (In June of 2010) SPOT will not send 911 assistance if you are not a paid up subscriber - bad news if your last payment was declined/canceled, or in the event of a computer glitch.

It is slightly larger, and slightly heavier than the FastFind (206 grams) operating on 2 AA batteries.

It is waterproof to 5 meters.

SPOT's S.O.S. function is monitored by a private company, called The GEOS International Emergency Response Center, which is responsible for alerting the appropriate agencies worldwide – for example contacting 9-1-1 responders in North America, and 1-1-2 responders in Europe.

One thing SPOT can do which a 406 beacon cannot, is send alerts to friends and family, even allowing them to track your location/route in real time. Alternatively, you can request help from any of up to four contact persons, via a pre-programmed text message, rather than alerting 911. Sending an actual text message is possible with a more expensive SPOT model, but SPOT admits it has some reception and performance issues with all SPOT models, and may not operate in some locations including dense woods, or where the view of the sky is blocked by hills, buildings, or other obstructions. SPOT recommends when necessary, "experimenting with placement."

Because the normal SPOT signal is one way only, a SPOT user unfortunately has no way of knowing whether or not the signal was successfully sent, or if relocation is necessary. Furthermore, in the event of a Powered paragliding calamity, moving locations may not be possible since an inability to move location MAY BE the problem.

Poor performance outside of line of sight to sky has mostly to do with SPOT's weak frequency, 1.6 gHz, (the same as GPS) and low power, 400 milliWatt (less than half of a Watt) signal strength.) Fastfind on the other hand, kicks out its signal at a full five Watts, and has a much better chance of penetrating tree cover and unfavourable atmospheric conditions, and connecting with not only the low earth orbiting GPS satellites, but also the geosynchronous stationary satellites way, way up.

The difficulty is with SPOT's lower power, is that SPOT is designed to only communicates with the low orbit communication/GPS satellites, and must confirm your GPS location when the closest satellite passes over you before notifying 911. This may take significant time that you may not have. Fastfind, on the other hand, will immediately read your alert on the high Geostationary Search And Rescue system, and begin SAR whether or not the low GPS satellites have your exact pinpoint location or not.

Neither unit is particularly intuitive in terms of first-time use, but someone not instructed in the PLB's use, (like perhaps a companion of an incapacitated PLB owner), could at least figure out the PLB from the minimalist instructions provided. Less so with SPOT. The SPOT company really should put clear and legible instructions on their unit's, along with an explanation of how to orient the antenna, and the importance of not blocking its signal.

ADVANTAGE = FASTFIND I decided that it was advantage (overwhelmingly) to Fastfind. More expensive initially, but cheaper by far in the long-term in subscription fee savings. I figure that if I go two or three years without ever needing it, its all pretty much free after that, and if I ever do need to open it up to send an emergency signal, that single 300-dollar one-time charge will be considered a bargain.

TRAC ME There is an new item recently been made available in North America, called the TracMe at around $150.00 has been thoroughly explained and reviewed here below:
Suffice to say that it's next to useless. There are legal challenges by the US Coastguard underway to stop the manufacturers from calling it a PLB, and clear up misconceptions about its capabilities, (or lack thereof.)

Monday, September 6, 2010


My Youtube Video Link here:

This project turns your screen hood into a mount for a LANC style remote controller, using the remote commander that comes with the Vixia line of cameras.

A LANC controller is a way of remotely commanding certain functions like on/off, zoom, and focus, without actually touching the camera. Canon, for some reason opted not to set their Vixias up with LANC capability, except in the high-end range of their newest models, and charge a severe price premium for the option.

This system can be put together for five or six bucks, however, and while Vixia's won't let you mess with focus, the other LANC functions can be made available to PPG pilots, many of whom like to pole mount their cameras to get trick shots, not to mention isolate the camera somewhat from engine vibration.

The position of the remote sensor varies on different Vixia cameras. On the early version Vixias: the HF series, of which there were are some 16 variants, it is on the top left corner beside the LCD screen, as it is on the high end HG20 and HG21 models. (Not so on the HG10)

Inexplicably, on the HG10 it is on the front of the camera, just to the left and below the lens, as it is also on the HR10, HV20, HV30, and HV40 models. Because it is on the front of these camera, the remote can only work if you are also in front of the camera facing the lens. Dumb idea, but there is a work-around solution to use this wired LANC for these cameras .

You need the remote that came with the camera, so in case you lost it, or tossed it, the model # of the remote is WL-D88. I see them on ebay, now and again, for 15 - 20 dollars, and you can also order them direct from Canon camera dealers.

I used SC snap-in connectors, for singlemode systems that latch with a simple push-pull motion, from here:

I bought a 1/2 meter (36") length of TOSLink fibre optic cable from here:
First, I epoxied a strip of 1" x 4" plastic to the controller's back surface. I used plastic from an old VHS tape box, this plastic being a little stiffer, and more rigid than the plastic that DVD cases are made out of. I just cut the plastic with a ruler and a razor knife. NOTE: Since this new plastic base will now be permanently attached, you'll want it to be positioned a bit above the battery compartment, so you can still access the batteries.

Then, I epoxied a male-to-male TOSLink coupler in front of the infrared bulb on the remote. The coupler's centre-line is exactly in line with the IR bulb. When the mod is complete, the coupler will still function normally without cables, and with the lens hood detached. So anytime you want, you can go back to waving the remote at the sensor from across the room as you did before. And with the same indifferent results. This mod, unquestionably IMPROVES performance.
As you can see in the picture above, that I sanded a slant onto one end of the coupler to better conform to the curved shape of the remote. When the epoxy dried, I filled the gap between the controller and the coupler with JB Weld just to make a nice, neat job of it, but this last step is purely cosmetic. (As is the eyelet I popped into the corner, ostensibly to attach a bit of safety wire.)

With the remote done, I mounted the my homemade LCD screen hood on the camera, and marked with pencil crayon where the other couple would fit, so it would be directly in front of the sensor. On my camera, (the HF200) the sensor is a 1/4" circle, at the top left hand corner of the screen. I then cemented it in place with two-part epoxy and let it dry overnight.

I wasn't sure how well the epoxy would grip the coupler to the Cordura, so in the video you see that I use a cut-0ff wheel to groove three sides of the coupler, and wire it to the side of the hood for extra security. I then smoothed a bead of J-B Weld over the wire, sanded it smooth, and repainted.

(I don't mind using homemade kit, but I don't like it to look homemade.)

This last step with the wiring, in retrospect, I don't think is actually necessary. The 2-part epoxy, (the regular kind that takes 60-minutes to cure, as opposed to the 5-minute kind) holds like a virus, and next hood I built for a colleague, was epoxy only, (no wire) and is going strong.

The connector ends are now ready to cable. The coupler connections are very solid, push and pull to attach and disconnect, and fasten with a clear and distinct "click".

The remote will work with absolute reliability, even in bright sunlight where these IR remotes are known to function sketchily.

The zoom function is pleasingly smooth, and by virtue of never actally touching the camera body, there is no danger of imparting camera shake.

I have two cables, the longer one for monopod use in the air, and a shorter 12" one to fasten to the pan lever on ground tripods.

For the afore mentioned Vixias, with the sensors at the front, you'll need a small metal plate, about the size of, and not much thicker than, a playing card.

Plastic, and aluminum are too bendy, so you'll want to use steel, but a piece this small and thin weighs next to nothing. I used a bit of metal off an old computer component, (a DVD drive, as I recall), and carved out a piece 2 3/8" x 3 5/8" with a Dremel style tool and a cut-off wheel. Then I drilled two holes for the tripod screw and post for tripod/monopod quick-release plate.

With this done, simply sandwich this metal plate between the quick-release plate and the camera, epoxy the TOSLink connector in front of the sensor, and away you go.

The idea of using fibre optic cable to run an IR signal to a camera sensor is original, but not new, and there are posts detailing various ways to do it dating back ten years. While researching how to go about making my system, I came upon a fellow in a DV forum who did it differently. He cracked open the remote, removed the IR bulb, and connected it to the end of a length of electrical wire that he mounted directly in front of the sensor itself.

If you're not handy with DIY, he sells the kit with a mounting plate and a prepped remote for thirty dollars.


LCD Hood for 2.7" screen (Vixia) PART ONE


My Youtube link for the video of this project: http://www.youtube.com/user/whiteknight38cdn?feature=mhum#p/a/u/2/0F3_UQXBNUQ

This foldable, screen hood, is made out of a bit of scrap Cordura type vinyl fabric, (although other fabrics will work too) a little contact cement, some plastic cut from a DVD case, and a bit of velcro.

The view screen on cameras don't read very well in bright sunlight, so these screens are a big help. Canon sells their own version for around twenty bucks, but you can make one for basically free out of salvaged material, with the aded advantage of being the right size to mount a connection to your remote commander.

I started with a case to hold a single DVD.
The narrow box ridges get scored with a craft knife and snapped off.

The lens-hood box is made out of the single flat piece that remains.

I coated one side of the pieces with contact cement, and the shiny side of a piece of Cordura. You need a piece about 12 1/2" x 5".

Cordura is a brand name for a type of fabric often used in the making of bags and cases. Its very rugged, and the choice of many military contractors for making Milspec gear. Cordura fabrics sell in the ten to fifteen bucks-a-yard range, so recycling old bags, is often a significant saving if you only need a little.

The first few Cordura projects I made, were out of material salvaged from old bags and cases from thrift shops. These bags are also good sources for collecting nylon clops and buckles and small bits of velcro.

I found one fabric store that carries a version they called 'plastic coated cotton'. I also found some from a findings wholesaler that supplies leather workers and bag manufacturers. You can buy it online from diyactical.com, which is a great resource forum for bag and case making.

For this project you'll also need two strips of 3/4" velcro 2 3/4" long.

Part Two of this tutorial, shows how you can use this lens cover to mount an infrared fibre-optic cable to temporarily "hard wire" your remote controller and remotely command on, off, and zoom functions if your camera is mounted on a tripod, a pole, or a flying helmet.