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SPOT setup for ultralight pilots

by Had Robinson

A. Introduction

More info needed  The official SPOT help page is not that helpful in setting up the SPOT details if you are a soaring pilot.  Here is a simple plan that will help both the pilot and those he wishes to keep informed of his whereabouts and safety.  While studying the information below, please refer to the print screen below that I took of my shared SPOT web page.  Always remember that the SPOT has to be activated by the pilot.  No news from the SPOT does not necessarily mean things are OK.  Injured pilots may not be able to press buttons on the SPOT.  Emergency procedures should take this in mind.  The routine discussed here addresses this inherent weakness in the SPOT system.  Single point of failure is a serious problem in a communications loop and we pilots should always have backup means of contacting others.

Warning:  Extensive testing in controlled conditions has revealed that there are rare times when the satellite system will not receive transmissions from the SPOT, especially when outside the U.S.  It is advisable that pilots not launch until they have verified that the SPOT has communicated with the satellite system.  This can be easily done by sending the SPOT messages to your own cell or satellite phone.  In a word, the SPOT system is not 100% reliable and pilots should have alternate means of communicating with the outside world.  I estimate that the time when SPOT communications are "blacked out" is approximately 0.5% of the time.  Resending messages until the system receives them seems to be the only method that works at this time.  I have been in locations outside the U.S. when the SPOT system was unavailable for hours.

If something goes wrong, you want those who can help to be as informed as possible – and why I created this documentation.

SOS response not 100% reliable  The SOS button may not get a response after the SPOT center contacts the local S&R authority – much like car alarms going off in the night.  Maybe it is a real alarm?  Maybe not?  It can be the latter response in backward countries.  They often do not have trained people manning the phones at their search and rescue (S&R) operation centers.  Instead, these positions are often filled with relatives and friends, sad to say, who do not know what they are doing.

Do not travel alone in non-western countries  An example of incompetence at this level was the Malaysian Airlines disaster.  This was a commercial passenger jet full of people that just disappeared.  Recently, a pilot buddy of mine had a serious accident in a South American country, pushed his SPOT SOS button, but never got a response from the locals.  Thankfully, a friend was nearby who was able to call for an ambulance.  Getting hurt can be dicey – especially if you are alone.  In too many places, an injured stranger is prey for thieves.  If people think they can profit from rescuing an injured pilot, they will help.  If you are able to waive a credit card around, you will probably be OK.  If you are unconscious and alone, it may be another story.  You may be transported to some care center where the ride may cause more injuries than your accident (this happened in Turkey recently).  It is another reason why traveling and flying alone outside of western countries is dangerous.

Others can know your whereabouts and condition  Authorized persons can get various text messages from the SPOT system sent to their cell phones and/or to email.  If an authorized person receives an email, he will also have a link to your SPOT location on Google Maps.  These messages and the Track Progress messages are visible on the shared SPOT web page that the user created.  There is also a smart-phone application called "The SPOT App" that is available for the Android and iPhone.

SPOT needs your credit card  A user was upset why SPOT must have his active credit card on file at all times.  The reason: if your SPOT is misused (a rogue SOS message sent), SPOT and the appropriate agencies will bill that credit card e.g. you will be fined.  Think about it:  do not let your kid play with your SPOT, for example.

B. Initial Setup

1. Take a look at the SPOT guides:   SPOT GEN3 User's Guide  SPOT GEN2 User's Guide  SPOT also has a quick user's guide.

2. Make a list of the names, the mobile numbers (including the carrier's name), and emails of the people who need to be contacted by the SPOT system.  The people you list should all be aware of each other and have each other's contact info in case it is needed. This list should be further categorized as follows:

3.  Activate your SPOT.  Use only lithium AAA batteries or NiMh rechargeable batteries in your SPOT.  Always carry a spare set of batteries with you.

4. Login to the SPOT website, click on the "My Devices" tab and setup your SPOT messages.  Start with the "Check In/OK" box.  The screen should look something like the one here.  See the next section for the suggested messages to enter on your SPOT.  If you fly in different places that have different contact info, you can create additional profiles.

sample SPOT My Device setup page

5.  When you are all done with the setup be sure to test your SPOT once you have set it up.  All features can be tested EXCEPT the SOS function.

6.  Setup your SPOT shared page and be sure to send the link to those who might need it i.e. the people you listed in #2 above.

C. Test message that SPOT can send

Below are sample text messages that can be sent to the authorized cell phone numbers and/or email addresses. It is relatively simple to setup a profile on the "my SPOT devices" page.  What is helpful is that SPOT can send text messages to any cell phone, e.g., 222-333-4444@txt.att.net.

The SPOT messages need to be simple, short, and to the point, as here in these examples.  You must have your name in the message.  You want to let your contacts know that you are about to fly and then you MUST let them know you have safely landed.  If these messages go to a satellite phone, they must be as short as possible so as not to get truncated by the SAT system.  The user name should be FirstnameLastnameInitial e.g. JoeP.

Here are some samples (within quotes) which can be created by the SPOT user.  For each message include the mobile number(s) that can receive text messages and/or email addresses noted in the categories you created above.

  1. Check in/OK – “SPOT msg JoeP launching”
  2. Custom Message – “SPOT msg JoeP landed All OK”
  3. Help – “SPOT msg JoeP activated need help function. Call [somebody + number]”.  Sending the "need help" message should be used if you need help and it is NOT an emergency.  An example would be if you sprained your ankle and cannot move about well.
  4. S.O.S – e.g. "Contact Global Rescue 617-459-4200 ops@globalrescue.com Member ID: XXxxxxxxxx Name: Joe Smith for both medical & security evacuation.  No medical conditions, no allergies, not taking any prescription medication."  The SOS message is sent to the local search and rescue authorities, as well as to those who are authorized, such as a family member or close friend.

The SOS function should only be used for life threatening emergencies or serious injuries.

In the U.S., Australia, New Zeeland, and the EU, the SOS message will be processed and teams sent out.  However, nearly everywhere else, maybe it will happen, maybe not.  If anyone receives the SOS message, he should check to be sure S&R has been activated.  The more backward/corrupt the country, the less likely the SPOT people will be able to ensure you get help.

Pilots should invest in search and rescue insurance e.g. Global Rescue, especially if they travel outside the U.S.  It is a minimal investment if you ever have a problem.  If you activate the SOS message and do not have such insurance, be prepared to pay a hefty bill for your rescue no matter where you are.  You may be abandoned by local S&R in some countries if you cannot produce a credit card or refuse to pay up-front.  Note: GEOS Search and Rescue specifically excludes any expense for reimbursement that results from an accident while paragliding or hang gliding!

Every ten minutes (this can be changed on some plans), the SPOT will report your position on the earth (but not altitude).  This type of message is “Track Progress”.  Depending on conditions, the satellite may receive all or most of your transmitted positions.  The moment I land I press (if I am able) the custom message button and it gives the custom message and says “HR safely landed All OK.”

If a pilot is unable to press the custom message button, the SPOT will continue sending “track progress” messages until the batteries go dead or for (24) hours, whichever happens first.  Unless the pilot is carried off (or forced to move), the location should stay the same.  That is, the track progress messages will have the same coordinates until the batteries go dead or the pilot (or someone) shuts off the SPOT … or the pilot is moved.  The Gen3 SPOT, however, only sends coordinates if it is moved.  For this reason its batteries will last longer.

I highly recommend that pilots send messages in this order:

  1. Check in/OK when about to launch.
  2. Track Progress (which may not exist if I have a very short flight).
  3. Custom Message immediately after landing indicating all is OK.

If, for some reason, the pilot reverses #1 and #3 messages, it will be obvious to those who receive the messages.  That is, the time of landing will be before the time of launch – an impossibility.

D. Emergency procedures

It is important that your contacts, especially your coordinator, study these emergency procedures carefully.  (Here is a PDF copy of these emergency procedures, if needed, that can be printed out or emailed to others.)  If you have more than one contact, you should authorize just one person (and a backup) to coordinate things.  If there are any problems, the pilot must do everything possible to contact the coordinator.

If the SPOT goes dead where the pilot cannot send the custom message indicating all is OK, he should do everything possible to let everyone know that he is OK.  However, a pilot should always carry spare batteries for the SPOT so this should not happen.

  1. If your contacts receive (or see) a “Check in/OK” message but nothing more after about (4) hours (pilots rarely fly longer than that), something has happened – probably not good.  Here is what the coordinator should now do.
  2. Access the SPOT shared web site of the pilot.  Keep any tracking information available.  Attempt to determine the time and coordinates of the pilot's last location.  Study the tracking information carefully.  (At the end of this page is a section on how to read the shared web site.)
  3. If the track messages show a continual change in location with no two locations the same, things are probably OK and the pilot is flying a very long time.  Everything is OK if the tracking information makes sense = continually moving with no breaks in time and with the location constantly changing.  If there are breaks in the location or the location does not change, it may mean that the pilot is not in the air or has crashed.  It is critical that rescue contacts know this.  If things do not appear normal, proceed.
  4. Attempt to contact the pilot via radio, cell phone, or satellite phone. How long should someone attempt to contact the pilot?  It is hard to say but probably until contact is made one way or another.  If there is someone handy/local, he can go to the last known location of the pilot using the coordinates given by the SPOT and/or a GPS.  If all is OK, the pilot can be rebuked for being a hazard and very irritating for causing a false alarm because he did not check in.  Attempt to contact friends or the host that the pilot is traveling with. If it is not possible to contact the pilot, proceed.
  5. If there are track messages with the same location as the Check in/OK message, there has probably been an accident at launch. Initiate search and rescue (S&R) but only if the pilot does not have a rescue service (e.g. Global Rescue).  If he does, contact the service immediately and let them take over the rescue.  Global Rescue and firms that do similar things are not search organizations.  If they have to search for the pilot, he will be charged accordingly.  Be sure to tell the service everything you know.  If the pilot has no rescue service, proceed.
  6. If the track messages show a change in location and, at some point, show the same location for over 30 minutes, the pilot has crashed.  Initiate S&R with the authorities in the pilot's location.
  7. If the track messages are as in #3 above but there are time breaks not compatible with orderly movement and the location starts changing again, the pilot has been rescued or, perhaps, seized. Something is wrong.  Initiate S&R with the local authorities.  They may already be helping and will know about the rescue.  It does not hurt to contact them for instructions and other help, if possible.

E. Shared SPOT web page explanation

Note: If you have not used your SPOT recently, the shared page will throw an error because there is no data.  Do not be alarmed.

It is a bit difficult to learn how to read the shared page but if you do, you will be able to explain it to those who need to know.

Track Progress messages are only visible on the web page and cannot be sent to a cell phone.  However, the smart-phone app for the SPOT can display Track Progress messages.

The map section of the shared SPOT page is not much help, at least for pilot use.  As a pilot switches from on the earth to in the air, it makes the map even less helpful.  The map section is only useful if whoever needs the info knows which track point to use.  For the non-pilot, significant other, etc. it can be a puzzle.

The “messages” part of the info on the shared web site is the valuable section.

Note the sample screenshot below, lower left, where it is says “Hadley Robinson is about to launch”. The type of message is “check in/OK”. In the live screen, you would click the “+” to see the details.  This is the beginning of my flying activity for that day.  I always send that message when I am at launch and will be launching into the air shortly.  I also verify that the messages have been received by the SPOT system via my own cell or satellite phone.

The screenshot shows a jumble of points connected by lines. These points are not useful without analyzing the messages section. It shows a (30) minute flight with the launch and landing points. You know that I have landed because I pressed the custom message button.  However, I did not turn off tracking.  Why was this?  I was in the middle of nowhere and, in case I might be attacked or be injured, I wanted the tracking going while I was on the ground.

The track points become jammed together because I am walking. If you were on the actual web site you could zoom in and see how far I walked in ten minutes. But then the points appear to jump from 36 to 41. The reason is that I am stationary from points 36 to 40, about 40 minutes.  (The new Gen3 SPOT stops sending track points if you stop moving.) Then point 41 appears a long way from point 36. This indicates I am moving fast (in a truck) so the points are way apart. The last point is 42 and there are no more. This means that is the location where I turned off the SPOT or stopped tracking. In the case here I was back at my truck and on my way home. There is no worry because I sent the Custom Message that I am safely landed. If something were to happen after I had landed, I would push the help or SOS button, if I could.

On the live screen, if you move your mouse over a message in the message section, the relevant track point on the map will radiate out curved lines, like a radio beacon. There is no way to match the numbers next to the track point and the message in the messages section. The track point numbers are consecutive over time. However, clicking on a track point will pop up a screen with the details (see the screen shot below) as follows:

  1. User name
  2. ID of the SPOT
  3. Type of message
  4. Global coordinates of the location of the SPOT
  5. Exact time the message was sent in LOCAL TIME
  6. State of the SPOT batteries

The SPOT is a useful device to help keep others informed if you are engaging in activities away from civilization.  It is a good investment to get help quickly.  However, everyone should have backup means to contact people on the outside e.g., a two-way radio, cellphone, or a satellite phone. Single point of failure in any communications scheme should be avoided, especially since the SPOT has proven not to be 100% reliable.

sample SPOT web page

IT IS DANGEROUS TO TRAVEL AND FLY ALONE OUTSIDE OF WESTERN COUNTRIES, EVEN WITH A SPOT.  If you do, you assume significant risk.  Life is cheap in most places in the world.

vulture