Gear test: SPOT Gen 3 tracker

The inaugural Fundy Adventure Rally welcomed riders of all levels.  To accommodate the variety of riding levels the Rally offered two routes to choose from: the A Route or the B Route. Each of the two routes were about 500 kms long and riders and teams were allotted 12 hours within which to complete the rally. For the more experienced riders, we included a competitive element where they could join a team and access the “B route” options to collect points.

The B route options were often in areas unreachable by our sweep truck (which could easily take care of riders in need of mechanical or medical assistance on the A Route), and had much more challenging terrain including gravel and mud. There were eight options in the B Route and the Teams were presented with the decision at every option start of which route to continue on with and this decision largely had to do with how much time was left to complete the Rally.

The challenge at Rally HQ was to ensure safety communication for those teams on the B route who were out cell range and out of sweep vehicle range,we also needed a way to track the whereabouts and progress of the riders. Enter SPOT Gen 3 tracker.

WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT?

Ram-mount
The Gen3 is pretty small and rugged. Here it is with the RAM Mount that enables it to be mounted to the bike’s bars.

A pocket-sized, rugged and waterproof device, the Gen 3 sends a signal of your GPS coordinates in intervals of 2.5, 5, 10, 30 or 60 minutes, which can then be tracked privately or publicly on a live Google map in your designated account in the SPOT website.

The unit needs to have a clear view of the sky in order to be able to talk to the satellites, and to aid this set up we received brackets for each SPOT device from another sponsor, RAM Mounts. The riders could attach the RAM Mounts to the bike’s handlebars and the SPOT device fit securely therein, as long as it was mounted at least 12 inches away from any GPS unit to prevent interference.

We set up the units pre-rally to ping its location every 2.5 minutes, the idea being that we would effectively be able to track the team’s progress in real time and to confirm which options they took. This would enable us to calculate each team’s points tally during the rally, instead of trying to do it all, once they got back to base.

In order for the units to activate, the user must purchase and register an account and SPOT offers several options depending on which functions you require from the device. The Basic Service ($149.99/year) is the minimal requirement and includes unlimited predefined Custom, Check In, Tracking, Help and S.O.S. messages, but only allows a tracking signal to be transmitted once every 10 minutes for up to 24 hours (after which the tracking must be reactivated).

spot-how-it-works
It all works well providing you get a clear view of the sky.

You can increase the choice of updates to every 5, 10, 30, or 60 minutes using Unlimited Tracking (an additional $49.99/year), that will also continue to track your progress beyond 24 hours. However, to get the 2.5 minute update (what we wanted), you need the Extreme Tracking option (plus $149.99/year on the basic package). Fortunately, SPOT was able to provide the Rally with 15 units with the Extreme Tracking activated.

button_detailsBut what about the option to call for assistance? Well, the Gen 3 can do that too, with several options to send  in pre-determined messages. The Check In button sends  a simple “I’m ok” message that lets anyone logged in know that you’re ok. Although we didn’t request the rallyists to use during the rally, some did and it was good to hear from them.

The Custom Message sends a message of your own liking that you can set up by plugging the device into a computer and typing in what you would like it to say ahead of time – for our purposes it sent a non-urgent email message to HQ that the team “Require the sweep truck to pick them up on the nearest exit” to the A Route.

The Help button (located under a cover to prevent accidental operation) was set up to send a message to HQ that there is a non-life-threatening  injury so that we could call an ambulance to pick-up the rider on the nearest exit to the A Route.

spot-gen3-buttonsAnd the big daddy of them all, the S.O.S. button (also under a protective flap), sent a request for life-threatening rescue at their location. Unlike the other options, this sends a message directly to GEOS International Emergency Response Coordination Center, who then deploys local Search and Rescue and was only to be used in case of life threatening emergency (we did not need to use this option but we understood fully what the emergency plan and process was).

It was unclear as to whether any costs would be associated with deploying the S.O.S. (and who would bear those costs ), as there seem to be a lot of cost variables depending on where you are in the world. However, SPOT does offer an insurance policy to all SPOT subscribers for an additional $17.95 USD, and provides up to $50,000 USD per occurrence in reimbursement for any associated search and rescue fees, up to two events per year.

HOW THEY WORKED

Starting was done by teams first and then solo riders last.
Teams were instructed to activate the SPOTs at the starting line.

Just prior to Rally start at the crack of dawn, each team captain was asked to turn on the unit by pressing and holding the power button until the power light illuminated. Then they had to press the “TRACK” button (boot symbol), until the light above it flashed green (indicating that the unit was now sending its coordinates). Once SPOT established satellite communication, the riders were cleared for departure and access to the B Route.

HQ2
Tracks could be followed in real time at Rally HQ

We were tracking about 12 SPOT devices/teams simultaneously on a single screen, and this proved to be a little tricky as each device pings a single spot every 2.5 minutes, creating a ‘bread crumb’ trail. Ideally we’d like to have had them all join up so that we could more easily track each team’s route, but this was not an option.

While we could click on each spot to identify the user, we still had a screen full of spots that were indistinguishable, unless you clicked on one to identify the SPOT device team name. This issue required significant logistical precision and we ended up using a print out map of the route and sticky notes for each team that we moved around the map every 15 minutes – a proper mix of old and new technology! Ideally there would be an option in the set-up to name or colour the pings.

SPOTGen3_map-sample
This is what you see

Another issue that arose was the amount of tree coverage in the Rally trails, which meant that the unit did not always get a clear view of the sky. Thus there were periods when we lost the real time map view of the riders and they would reappear further down the route in clearer areas. This wasn’t a big enough problem to prevent us from determining which route they were on, but could have proven problematic should an injury have occurred in the low/no reception area.

Spot claims that the Gen3 has twice the battery life of its previous Messenger device and the four batteries (AAA) lasted the whole day, but SPOT requires the more expensive Lithium type, though you can cut costs int he long run by using rechargables. To aid in battery life the Gen3 only sends signals when it is moving, going into sleep mode if there has been no movement for the last 5 minutes.

CONCLUSIONS

HQ
We found that using stickies of team names on a map poster helped to keep a track of where everyone was.

Despite a few issues the Gen3s did exactly what we wanted them to do and we were able to track which teams did which routes, when they decided to drop out of the rally and come back on the bail route, or even when they got lost or went the wrong way! It was a great tool to give us the reassurance that riders could check to let us know they were “ok” and that they had the option of deploying emergency rescue.

map
The route went counter-clockwise. Some teams were markedly slower than others …

The remaining issue is the one-way only communication.  When one team sent a message to HQ that they needed the sweep truck (Custom Message button) it would have been ideal to be able to communicate back to them to find out what the issue was. In the end it turned out to be a false alarm – the rider had the unit in a sleeve pocket and the button was pressed when he bumped his arm (which is why they emergency buttons have the flaps), but it was a while before we cleared that up.

As far as non-rally usage goes, I had a test unit for the whole summer that I used whenever I found myself scouting the rally route alone. This is something I don’t normally do as it’s easy to get stuck in the middle of the woods and no-one would have a clue of where you were. With the Spot device as my virtual riding buddy, I felt that that risk was covered.

This was marked as "ATV" and resulted in a 27 point turn on the GSA.
I took a SPOT with me during solo scouts and was grateful to have a virtual riding buddy.

SPOT is currently offering the Gen3 at $84.95, that’s 50% off the regular price, though the device can’t be activated until you select the account and pay the annual activation fee, which is pretty reasonable at the basic $149.99 per year package. However, I do feel that only offering a transmission every 10 minutes and for up to 24 hours is a limitation at this price. The next level options cost an additional $49.99, which isn’t too steep, but another $100 on top of that for the 2.5 minute level seems a big leap to me.

In a nutshell, the only difference we can see between the Basic + Unlimited $200 and the Extreme $300 is the jump from pings every 5 minutes to 2.5 minutes – the 2.5 was great in the Rally context, but I’m not sure why you’d need this level of minutiae tracking for an individual user.


GALLERY

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