Satellite communicator setup for ultralight pilots
by Had Robinson
updated January 24, 2021
Why this page? The official SPOT help page, for example, is not particularly helpful in setting up the SPOT if you are a paragliding or hang glider pilot. Below is a simple plan that will help both the pilot and those he wishes to keep informed of his whereabouts and safety. Always remember that a satellite communicator like 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 access or press buttons on the SPOT. Emergency procedures who are monitoring a pilot's flights should take this in mind. The routine discussed here addresses this inherent weakness in any satellite communicator system. Single point of failure is a serious problem in a communications loop and we pilots should always have backup means of contacting others.
If you mainly want the communicator to be used by others to track your location and you do not fly in remote areas with unreliable cell phone or 2-way radio service, a communicator is adequate. However, if you want it for primarily safety reasons, the InReach is better. This is because it has 2-way communications with the satellite system. However, the InReach costs 3X more to purchase and has a greater subscription cost. InReach users are able to send a limited number of ordinary text messages to anyone. There are important advantages of two-way communication but, with some planning, the SPOT can do almost the same thing but only if there is reliable cell phone or 2-way radio service. If you can afford it, the Inreach tracker is better.
Warning: Extensive testing in controlled conditions has revealed that there are rare times when the satellite system will not receive transmissions from the SPOT (or any satellite tracking device including the InReach), 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%. Resending messages until the system receives them seems to be the only method that works. 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.
While the information given below is specifically for the SPOT, other communicators are similar. Pay close attention to how those who are monitoring your flights should react if anything out of the ordinary happens e.g. they don't hear a "all is well, landed safely" signal.
SOS response from local S&R not 100% reliable The SOS button may successfully communicate the emergency to GEOS and GEOS will contact the appropriate emergency responders but the local emergency responders may not respond. It is 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. We already have an example of non-response and, hopefully, it will always be a rare problem
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 after SPOT issued the emergency call to the appropriate authorities. 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. As often as not, local medical care will make things worse, not better. If S & R locals think they can profit from rescuing an injured pilot, they will help. If you are able to waive a credit card around, do it. 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/crazy. "I'll never get hurt! I'm a good pilot!" – only a fool would think this way.
Others must 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. 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. The SPOT setup page gives this extremely important advice,
Let your emergency contacts know when you are planning a trip. When GEOS receives an S.O.S. message, they will first call your contacts asking for pertinent details like your itinerary, planned route, or other identifiers. This information helps GEOS in working with local authorities to evaluate the appropriate response team needed and send rescue personnel fast.
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 anyone handle your SPOT, especially some kid!
B. Initial Setup
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:
- Those who need or want to know when you launch and when you have landed. This must include at least one "critical person" or coordinator who will keep track of your launches and landings. If you get seriously hurt and cannot activate your SPOT, will there be someone out there who will wonder why there was no "landed safely" message? Or who will keep track of your launches and landings? If you get seriously hurt and cannot activate your SPOT, will there be someone out there who will wonder why there was no "landed safely" message?
- Those who need to know or can provide help in non-critical situations. Ordinarily this would be another pilot who is flying with you or a traveling companion. This should also include the "critical person" above.
- Those who need to know or can assist with a rescue if you need emergency help. This can include outfits like Global Rescue who can be a backup in case the locals cannot do it. The SOS message received by SPOT can include details of the rescue outfit. You will also need to specify an emergency contact and telephone number and a backup.
3. Activate your SPOT (You must have an account to activate your SPOT.) Note: 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. The screen should look like the one here except for the photo of the actual SPOT device which may be different. Older SPOT models may not have as many "Device Settings". 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.
C. Messages 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., email@example.com.
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 because SAT system may truncate the message or charge extra to send it. 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. Older SPOT models may not have some of the features listed below.
- Give your device a name – "Joe Pilot"
- Social Networks – complete as needed
- Tracking frequency – as desired
- Movement Alerts – this is not generally used by ultralight pilots
- Dock Mode – this is not generally used by ultralight pilots
- Third Party GPS Forwarding – complete if you have another way of reporting your movements
- Active Message Profile – you must create at least one profile. Additional profiles may be completed, as needed, for different flying areas, special events, or different
- Check in/OK – “SPOT msg JoeP launching”|
- Custom Message – “SPOT msg JoeP landed All OK”
- Help – “SPOT msg JoeP activated need help function. Call Susan at 999-888-1234” (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.)
- S.O.S – e.g. "Contact Global Rescue 617-459-4200 firstname.lastname@example.org Member ID: 12345678 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 Gen 4 model can test the SOS function by choosing "SOS Test Mode" in "Device Settings". Follow the instructions on the page(!)
The SOS function (except in "test mode") should only be used for life threatening emergencies.
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. Note that most south and central American countries have *unreliable* S&R.
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 (5) or (10) minutes (depending on the plan), the SPOT will report your position on the earth and altitude (some models will not report 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 Gen3/4 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:
- Check in/OK when about to launch.
- Track Progress
- 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. Setting up the shared page
- Login to your SPOT account
- Click on the "Maps" tab/icon (If this is the 1st time this page has been accessed the following steps will be different – just follow the prompts and reference the info below if help is needed.)
- On the left column click on the "+" icon
- Click on "Add shared view"
- Details page: give the shared view a name e.g. "John's adventures", a description if desired, and click "next"
- Sharing page: choose a default "Date Range of Data" This is the maximum date range you want to share. On the shared page, the user can click various ranges up to one month or click on the custom icon. On this page you must also choose the "asset". This is the code word for your SPOT device name e.g. "Joe Pilot". Click "next"
- Access Controls page: This page allows your reporting data to be shared in various ways e.g. sharing enabled or disabled, public or private, expiration date. Two messaging is usually not necessary. Click "next"
- Map Modes page: choose a default. If your SPOT is for others to see your progress then choose "history" mode. If it is for safety choose "live" mode. History mode will populate the shared page with track points. Click "next"
- Map Settings page is self-explanatory. I just use the defaults. Click "next"
- Preferences page is self-explanatory. Use the values that your audience/rescuers know well.
- Once the page is complete, click on "Create Shared View". There are various options on how you can share the page. Underneath the options is a block with the shared page link which may be copied and pasted somewhere. Make sure all persons who need or want access to your location have this link.
E. Emergency procedures
Whoever receives the shared page will need instruction on how to access the data. If any shared point is clicked on the shared page, a data window will pop up with various choices like "First", "Last", and "Play" including the date and time of the point. This can be handy for finding where you might be. If there is an accident, it would be the wrong time for a rescuer to have to figure out how the page works for first time. This is why training is important. Don't expect others to be able to make sense of the shared page if they are upset and worried....
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.
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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. As often as not, you may be better off having a local taxi get you to a hospital than an ambulance.