Select Page

I recently gained some insight into what it is like to be an animal taking part in a tracking survey. We have all watched a documentary or read an article about a GPS getting strapped around the neck of a cow, glued to the head of a seal or even the back of a bee.  While there are likely to be enormous benefits to those doing the observing, or to the tracked species collectively; the direct benefits for those wearing the device are less convincing.

Not appreciating the benefit of the GPS

The insight was brought about by a skyline traverse of the Western Arthurs with a group of good friends. We all left our families behind for a “boy’s own” adventure in the south west wilderness of Tasmania. The sad thing was that we were no longer boys but spritely quinquagenarians with concerned wives back at home.

The track is very rough and at times dangerous. It ascends and descends many steep gullies which are at times more like a rockclimb than a walk. There are no handrails, ladders or any safety aids as this is a wilderness area and such improvements are contrary to the area. The distances may seem short but a typical 4km day will take from 4 to 7 hours to walk.  (John Chapman)

Many experienced bushwalkers rank this as Tasmania’s greatest walk. It is undoubtedly the most spectacular but it is also one of the most dangerous walks in Tasmania. (John Chapman)

The quinquagenarians . Thanks to NSW couple for taking photo on Gary’s camera

Safety was clearly an important consideration so I volunteered to carry a Spot Gen 3 tracking device.  This is a small “orange box” device that easily fits in your pocket (8.72×6.5×2.54cm) although it needs to be facing up on top of you backpack.  Fortunately it wasn’t glued to the top of my head .  The SPOT uses satellites to communicate your current location, it doesn’t require mobile phone towers, so it will work wherever you are or wherever you travel.  You don’t need a mobile phone subscription but you do need to subscribe to the SPOT service.  Fortunately this is a world-wide service so one subscription covers you for the globe.

The tracking mode allows you to broadcast your location at regular time intervals. The basic service allows you to track at programmable intervals down to 5 minutes.  Extreme tracking allows you to track at intervals of 2.5 minutes.  We set our tracking interval to 30 minutes which seemed ideal given the distance and rate of travel and concerns about battery life.  This meant that our location was automatically sent to the SPOT service every 30 minutes.  The SPOT service includes a web map capability that shows our track locations plotted on top of a google base map.  Our partners, and anybody else with the link, could view this map of our locations using their favourite web browser.  This web map can also be password protected for those secret expeditions.

Lake Uranus beneath Mount Capricorn on left. Track shown winding up to ridge then over Mount Capricorn

The SPOT has 5 buttons in addition to the on off button.  There is a light for each button as well as a power, GPS and message light. Turning it on creates a truly wonderful light display.

Each button needs to be held down for 1 or 2 seconds until their corresponding light flashes to confirm activation.

The track button turns track mode on or off.  We had tracked mode turned on while we walked during the day.

The OK button sends a pre-programmed message when pressed.  We used this button when we set up camp at night and broke camp in the morning.  Our pre-programmed message was set to “we are happy campers”. When the button was pressed a message was sent by email to our list of email recipients to indicate that we were all OK.  A text message could also be sent to a list of pre-programmed mobile phone numbers but there is an additional cost for each message.

The message button works like the OK button but with a different pre-programmed message. We set our message to “We have been delayed for a day. All is OK”.

The assistance button also works like the OK button but is designed for assistance requests like “meet us at the pick up point in 4 hours”.  Only someone with a helicopter could assist us in the Western Arthurs so we could only realistically expect assistance in an emergency, this brings us to the next button.

The S.O.S. button sends a help request to an international emergency service (ref: GEOS).  It is not clear who it will be relayed to or how much it will cost.  As part of the subscription setup it is possible to purchase rescue insurance for up to $10,000.  We decided to avoid this button and use an EPIRB fitted with a GPS for emergency situations.  In Australia EPIRBs are reliably monitored by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority and the response is predictable.

Both the assistance button and the SOS buttons are hidden behind a protective flap on the device.  The flaps needs to be opened before the button can be pressed.  The buttons need to be held down until the relevant light flashes.

The tracking time interval, messages and message recipients are set via the SPOT portal before you leave home.  You need an internet connection to do this; it can’t be done from the SPOT.

To conserve battery the device was turned off after sending the OK message each night and turned on again next day when the morning OK message was sent.

After clicking the OK button, the GPS light flashes green while your position is obtained, a message is then sent and the message light flashes green.  The message is sent 3 times over a 20 minute period to the SPOT network.  This ensure maximum reliability however only one message is sent to your recipients.  If the message is not sent then the message light flashes red.

I was never certain that a message was actually sent unless I waited 20 minutes for the message light to turn off (or turn red if there was failure).  Therefore the device is not ideal for intermittent use, that is, in situations where you turn it on to send a message and then turn it off.  If you do operate in this way then you need to turn it on, let it establish you location, press the relevant button and wait for a suitable amount of time to be sure the message was sent. Ideally it should be left on all the time.

Also, the location delivered is your location when the message was sent, not when you pressed the button (there can be a few minutes delay).  This has interesting outcomes if you are moving quickly and disturbing if you are trying to map specific locations.  However it does make sense in a rescue scenario because if you need to find someone then you need their last known location.

Lake Oberon Panorama. Photo taken by John DJ on iPhone 6

Our walk was a great success although very exhausting.  I lost a couple of kilograms and it took me weeks to recover.  It took us 5 days, it was exhilarating, overwhelming at all levels and terrifying (for someone with an inbuilt fear of heights). Most people are glad they did it once but would never do it again.  I would do it again if I had the opportunity, it is simply an amazing place with awesome views wherever you look (up, down, left, right and behind – truly a 36o degree experience).

The SPOT gen 3 was also a great success.  Not for me as it was just an orange box that I carried on the walk.  It didn’t keep me warm, it didn’t feed me, and it didn’t give me my coordinates (that would have been very handy).  However it provided positive reassurance to our partners who were relieved to see the spot locations move along the track during the course of the day.  Some even became addicted!  In that sense I did begin to understand what it was like to be like a cow with a GPS strapped around my neck.  Just like on a research project which monitors feeding and sleeping activities of milking cows in a herd (ref Sense-T) I could be monitored for the same activities.  (“Why did you start late on the second day – did you sleep in” or “why did you stop for so long at lunch on the third day?”).

One problem we did have was the sparseness of detail in the Google base map of the Western Arthurs.  Unfortunately SPOT does not offer any alternative to Google maps.  However we  developed a work around which enabled us to use our more detailed Tasmanian State Government on line base maps (LISTmap).  Although we did need to set up a number of cloud services to make this happen.  Easy if you are a specialist in on line Geographic Information Systems but a bit more challenging for the everyday hiker.

Map of Western Arthurs showing SPOT GPS points, LISTmap base map

The SPOT device is robust and coped with the weather conditions although it was inside the top flap of my pack.  It needs to be high and facing upwards to guarantee reception.  I carried it in the pocket of my shorts on runs when I was trialling it and it missed a significant number of track logs.  I repeated the same run with it strapped to the top of my head and it worked perfectly, although it was not a good look (very geeky).

Battery life was excellent.  We turned it off overnight and had it turned on during the day with tracking set to 30 minute intervals.  After 6 days of this (and all preceding testing activities) the battery life was not dented. We used the recommended Lithium Ion batteries which are ideal for these devices, lighter, last longer, no memory effect and environmentally friendly.

In all a great device to take away on a hike, not for the person that is carrying it, but for the people left safely at home.  That is unless  something goes wrong.

Interested in using the SPOT Gen 3 for the safety of your people when working in remote areas?  Want to integrate this device into your work practices and systems?  Then contact us for a free consultation.