The Spot-1 satellite / GPS device

These days GPS trackers are a dime a dozen.  If you want to geotag photos or map favorite hiking trails, there are dozens of sub-$100 solutions that perform well.  But what if you’re an adventurer and want to let family and friends know where you are, and that you’re alive and kicking,  in more or less real time?   What if you frequently find yourself outside of cell coverage, or immersed in whitewater that would make short work of most electronics?

Spot LLC, a subsidiary of Globalstar, thinks they have a solution.  The Spot-1 is a rugged portable GPS receiver and one-way satellite phone transmitter.  The device itself is very simple: it receives GPS signals and can send short messages over Globalstar’s satellite network to Spot’s data center, which will then forward those messages as appropriate.

In normal operation, these messages are limited to “OK”, which lets friends and family know that you’ve survived so far; “Help”, which lets your support network know that you need attention (think broken axle, not broken neck); and “911″, which Spot LLC promises will launch a helicopters-and-all search and rescue operation.  Don’t push that button by mistake.

In addition to the simple messaging, Spot offers a service whereby the Spot-1 transmits its GPS location every 10 minutes.  If a satellite is in view, the location will percolate into Spot’s site, and optionally into Yahoo’s FireEagle location platform (if you’re a hacker and an adventurer, this is where it gets really interesting).

The unit itself is bright orange with rubber grips and much larger than must GPS trackers–about the size of a well-stuffed wallet.  However, it is waterproof and floats, so most people will probably attach it to the top of a pack where size is less of an issue.

If you look around on the Internet, you’ll see some fairly common remarks and complaints about the Spot-1.  Like many other people, I found it to be an adequate but not great GPS receiver and satellite transmitter.  Even slight tree coverage interfered with one or both functions.  However, with clear skies, the unit worked flawlessly.  If you follow these things, it’s important to note that the Spot-1 runs on Globalstar’s simplex data service and is not affected by the fairly serious problems the company is experiencing with voice and duplex data on many of its satellites.

The Spot-1′s exceptional battery life is probably part of the reason for the less than stellar GPS capabilities.  In standby mode, waiting for you to hit “OK”, “Help,”, or “911″, the manufacturer claims a six month battery life from two lithium AA batteries.  In tracking mode, with transmission attempts every 10 minutes, the thing is good for 14 days (though you do have to re-enable tracking mode once every 24 hours).

Spot also offers an interesting free service called Spot Adventures, where people can plan travel in advance and share their current status (and location, of course).   The site’s a little rough, but the basic idea is sound, not unlike Nike’s Nike+ community.   Of course, being a bit of a geek, I hooked up the Spot service to FireEagle, and then added a small widget to my personal blog to show my most-recent reported location in a sidebar.  If you’re a bit of a hacker, the possibilities are endless.

Retail pricing is $199 for the hardware, plus a $99/year subscription fee for the basic service.   The tracking feature is another $49/year, so you’re looking at $350 or so to get set up, plus $150/year.  And Spot cleverly hits you up for an optional $7.95/year for a GEOS search and rescue insurance type benefit, good for up to $50,000 in rescue costs twice a year.   Heck, it’s worth $7.95/year just to be able to drop “search and rescue insurance” into cocktail party conversation.

The Spot-1 definitely appeals to a very niche audience: it is not as hardcore as a personal locator beacon, as carried by mountaineers and pilots.   It’s not as capable of a GPS tracker as numerous smaller and cheaper devices.    But if you happen to be a casual adventurer looking to reassure family and perhaps provide some interesting real-time location updates from remote areas or inclement weather conditions, the Spot-1 may just be the right combination of fun and functional.

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