SPOT Personal Tracker.

N.B. There are better solutions to this problem now. Some of the newer devices have two way communications, unlike SPOT.

Please consider devices like the DeLorme inReach Explorer (as well as newer versions of SPOT).

Stephen Stewart. 2014-12-05

The SPOT personal tracker is a hand-held, battery operated device that incorporates a GPS receiver and a transmitter. The transmitter is able to send one of three predetermined messages via satellite. One message (991) is sent to the emergency services, the other two (OK and Help) to a predetermined list of email addresses and/or GSM phone numbers. All messages include the current location of the SPOT device.

SPOT will operate from most places on earth with a good view of the sky, it does not require a phone signal. Note that SPOT does not work in Africa south of the equator, nor at the southern tip of South America. SPOT may not operate reliably in India. See here for SPOT coverage. SPOT will not operate inside a building.

The question is why should a SilkRoute Network member want or need one?

To understand what SPOT is and does it is necessary to consider both the device itself (the hardware) and the service it uses. The hardware is of no use at all without the service. Although SPOT is advertised as costing around €130 this is not the full story. To be useful SPOT also costs €99 per year for the basic service and up to €150 per year for the full service.

The SPOT hardware is well made and reassuringly heavy and rugged for a "domestic" device. It is not however built to the same standards as say a Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB).

Note that the standard advertising picture (above) makes SPOT look considerably smaller than it is. It is not something you carry easily in a your pocket.

SPOT uses two lithium AA cells and the instructions make it clear that only lithium cells should be used (in emergency it does work with alkaline cells).

Before using SPOT you have to logon to the SPOT website and register your particular unit (and pay your annual fee). For each of the three types of message you register the people you wish to be contacted.

The three types of message that SPOT can send are:

911 Emergency: When activated in 911 mode SPOT continually sends messages every five minutes along with your location to a company called GEOs in Houston, USA. They will attempt to contact the two phone numbers you have registered to establish if there is any reason to doubt that the emergency is real. Unless this is established GEOs will then contact the appropriate emergency services.

When you register your SPOT you can provide GEOs with additional information (for example your vehicle registration number, your nationality and passport number along with a request to contact your embassy in the appropriate country.) Exactly who GEOs will contact if you are in central Mongolia is not clear, nor how persistent they will be. If you have paid for the "full" service then the cost of your rescue may be partially insured.

Because SPOT does not incorporate a radio receiver you have no confirmation that your message has actually been sent, far less that it has been received and acted upon. It is very difficult to gauge how effective GEOs would be in any particular location. Presumably the two contacts that you register to be informed of an emergency could act as back up to GEOs if they felt that the appropriate level of urgency was not being used.

OK: When activated in OK mode SPOT sends three messages at five minute intervals. The first of these messages received generates a predefined email and/or SMS (Text) to your list of recipients. The main use of the OK message is to send a reassuring message to say you are OK and where you are. The downside of sending this sort of message regularly is that if for some reason a message is missed then this may cause more worry that not having any messages!

OK email messages include a link to your location on Google Maps.

If you want to send this message (by email) to a large number of people and allow them to opt-in or opt-out of receiving it, you could form a private group/forum (on Yahoo! for example).

Help: When activated in Help mode SPOT sends messages every five minutes for one hour. The first of these messages received generates a predefined email and/or SMS (Text) to your list of recipients. It is harder to see the use of the Help message. Perhaps if you were travelling with other vehicles you could send Help messages to all the group's mobile phones. This might be of value if you had gone off walking (with your SPOT) or if your vehicle had become separated from other group members. Of course to be useful it requires your recipients to have GSM phone reception and to be able to guess what help you need.

Those functions of SPOT that I can test seem to work as described. However to be sure that a message is sent it is best to leave SPOT with a good view of the sky for 20 minutes.

Stephen Stewart.

Home - This page last changed on 2014-12-05.