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.)

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