Ever since the satcom company Iridium began wholesale distribution of a transceiver the size of a soda cracker, the race has been on to develop new products around it. The DeLorme InReach sitting on my desk is clearly an early winner in that contest. Described as a two-way satellite communicator with GPS, the InReach belongs to an exciting and relatively new category; it’s a Satellite Early Notification Device (SEND).
Boaters and outdoorsmen may be familiar with the original mass-market SEND, an emergency beacon and tracker called SPOT, which uses the Globalstar satellite network. InReach takes the technology to a far more useful level. Like SPOT, InReach has a tracking feature that allows selected friends and family to follow a boat’s progress via the Web, as well as through Facebook and Twitter for the social networkers among us. It has an SOS function that relays a distress call to local rescue authorities, and it can send a variety of canned messages. Like SPOT, InReach contracts with GEOS, a private dispatch center that handles SOS signals and notifies the appropriate rescue authorities.
Like still another product, SPOT Connect, InReach pairs with a smartphone via Bluetooth, allowing users to send short text messages. But unlike SPOT devices, which were designed to be send-only because of a partial failure in the Globalstar satellite constellation, InReach can also receive text messages, which means an InReach subscriber at the South Pole can send a message to another subscriber at the North Pole in about 60 seconds. And designated followers can go to the InReach Web site and “ping” your device to prompt an immediate position report, rather than having to wait for the programmed update.
But InReach is more than just another way to stay in touch—the implications of two-way messaging are huge. Authorities say that transmit-only rescue beacons such as EPIRBs and PLBs (and SPOT devices) exhibit a collective false alarm rate of around 90 percent. With InReach, the emergency center can respond to a distress call by shooting back a text message to determine whether the SOS is bona fide and, if so, to provide reassurance that help is on the way. With messaging as the norm, the Coast Guard could determine the nature of each SOS and tailor its response accordingly. Two-way GPS messaging is the basis for a far more efficient worldwide search-and-rescue model than what now exists.
Service subscriptions start at $10 a month for the Annual Safety plan, which provides unlimited SOS activations (for the accident prone) and ten free messages. After that messages cost $1.50 each. Tracking points are 25 cents each. At the other end of the spectrum is the Annual Expedition plan at $50 a month, which includes 120 free messages and 25 cents for every message after that. In between is a $25-per-month Annual Recreation plan, and there are also monthly plans.
My test of the InReach produced positive results once I’d cleared some initial hurdles. My phone was an early version Android, and I could not get it to connect. No big deal, it was time for an upgrade anyway. (By the time you read this the iPhone app will have been released.) My new phone worked fine with the device, but I misunderstood the prompts for Bluetooth pairing and had to get tech support on the line.
Assuming there are other knuckleheads like me out there, DeLorme should clarify the process a bit. The Earthmate phone app works fine, but the associated website seems a little clunky. I really like the fact that DeLorme cartography—soon to include nautical charts—comes with the free app.
Even without a paired phone, the InReach can send an SOS and three canned messages that you compose on your Earthmate web account, transmitted at the press of a button to preprogrammed recipients. With a phone, however, you can text like a teenager in love.
Since texting has replaced much of the talking we used to do on the telephone, the InReach raises an interesting question: Does everyone who ventures offshore really need a satellite phone if they have a far less expensive messaging device? My opinion is that the current incarnation of InReach is not quite good enough to substitute for a satellite handset, and for some of us it never will be—not all of us, but some.
As it stands, many mariners outside cellular range and absent Wi-Fi tend to use the data capability of their satellite phones to get weather forecasts. Weather features would add to the value of InReach tremendously, but I see even greater possibilities, as I’m sure others do.
With nearly 90 companies developing products around the Iridium transceiver, DeLorme can expect competition in the very near future, and some of it will no doubt come from the makers of Personal Locator Beacons and EPIRBs. That makes sense because two-way messaging technology has the potential to supplant both as the SOS beacon of choice for mariners.
Every once in a while, an inexpensive piece of equipment changes the game. It took thousands of years of warfare before cavalry supplanted chariots because it took that long for someone to invent the simple stirrup. Change happens far more quickly nowadays, to be sure, but Iridium’s little transceiver may have an effect nearly as profound.
This article originally appeared in the July 2012 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.