Musings of Captain Justice a/k/a Gil Jones

Personal locator beacons

Artist Interpretation of GPS satellite, image ...

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I wrote about one of these previously and when doing a long of long-distance motorcycle touring, had given the idea of a personal emergency device some real thought. The long-distance (relatively speaking) cycling has brought that back to mind. 

With the advent of smartphones containing GPS receivers the personal tracking programs have become pretty good. The problem is they rely on a cell signal for sending the data. I will discuss a smartphone option plus a commercial satellite-based option.

Here is the link to an Android phone tracker:

Looking back at the main site I see that it is ONLY an Android app. Sorry iPhone users.
Here is the way it works:
  • Turn on the phone’s GPS
  • Start the app
  • Set up a password
  • Set the frequency of updates (it does a digital transmission over your cell phone — need to have a data package or make the updates infrequent). I usually use 180 seconds)
  • Send the link to whomever is tracking you.

The person tracking you just clicks on the link sent from the app. It looks like the link you see above.

The app is free but if you want someone to be able to see your tracks (as opposed to just current position) you need to donate. They want $1 per month — I just did $12 to make it easy. Like to help support developers.

I like this approach because it does not hit the phone’s battery hard. The other approach is to use Google maps and the Latitude function (which I’m guessing can be done on an iPhone). Read about Latitude here.

The pricey approach is the SPOT personal locator. There is a fairly plain tracker for $99 and the GPS Messenger which is a tracker that can also send a message, and is on special for $99 as well.

There are several service packages that appear mostly to be $99 / year. Then there are “additional services” such as realtime tracking for $49 / year.  But think about it:  For a one-time purchase of $99 and $149 per year ($12.42 per month), you have satellite-based tracking and limited messaging — and not dependent on cell signals. Dang, I’m about to talk myself into one.  On amazon.com is an exhaustive review of the SPOT GPS messenger model. Only a 1-star rating is given, but the information is thorough. The negative reviews appear to have been back in 2010, including a mass recall of units, so hopefully things have smoothed out some. I personally know one person who has one which was used while in South America and he likes it.

I have found no viable alternatives other than more pricey ELB’s that just send distress signals, not the “I’m OK” or tracking capability. The advantage of SPOT or of a smartphone approach (assuming you are in an area of good cell coverage) is (a) the ability for (almost) realtime tracking and (b) a way to give an ongoing assurance to your spouse, your boss, or whomever else keeps track of you.   😉

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2 thoughts on “Personal locator beacons

  1. Jim Wreyford

    I know a lot of guys who use the SPOT for cross country plane trips in the REAL middle of nowhere. It is nice to click on link and see where they are at and how the trip is going. They use 10 minute update times so little detail but will do the job if there is a problem. Certainly narrows down the area to look in if they do not make it to next scheduled stop (which OFTEN changes due to weather winds or just wanting to see the sights). 10 minutes at 200 mph is a big area still …

    Here is a guys cross country in a Cessna 182 on SPOT http://www.cruik.org/blog/spot/spot1.JPG

    There are some ACR (brand) units that use the 406 MHz and allow tracking too. Those are $399 and $599 without and with GPS built in.

    I have found 2 of the ACR’s that were going off and it is NICE as they give position within 30 feet of less (as do all 406’s with GPS not just that brand). Found one plane with 406 MHz and no GPS (plus they had NOT registered it) That is a BIGGY YOU MUST REGISTER with COSPAS-SARSAT for it to do you much good.

    SPOT is pretty good bet for the money and the piece of mind.

    1. Gil Jones Post author

      Good info, Jim. I like the SPOT idea for the ability to track, and the OK button as opposed to the sole function of notification in an emergency. The ACR brand with tracking sounds worth looking at albeit at a price.

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