This September, Apple announced that its new iPhone 14 includes a satellite Emergency SOS feature. The iPhone 14 combines custom components and sensors deeply integrated with new software to allow the iPhone’s antennas to connect directly to a satellite, enabling messaging with emergency services when outside of cellular or Wi-Fi coverage.
In our view, this belt-and-suspender rescue tool could offer sizable utility to the GA market, which has long embraced the iPad for the cockpit and seems willing to invest in satellite tracking systems.
Moreover, Apple’s latest breakthrough tech also allows users to manually share their location over satellite (it’s partnering with Globalstar) with the Find My utility when there is no cellular or Wi-Fi connection, providing a sense of security when flying in remote areas. Pilots pay a premium for standalone satcomms for this capability. Better yet, unlike pay-for satcomm data, the Emergency SOS feature, which will be available to users in the U.S. and Canada in November, will be free for two years.
IPHONE 14: THE NEXT LEVEL
As we all know, Apple’s iPad has become the de facto standard for aviators, and apps like ForeFlight Mobile, Garmin Pilot and FlyQ, to name a few, changed the way we access inflight nav and weather data.
And it would appear that Apple’s new iPhone 14 could be taking the standard to the next level. As with all new iPhones, it’s bigger, faster, has a better display, awesome cameras and is water resistant. With 5G and 802.3ax Wi-Fi 6 radios, an iPhone can communicate with IP infrastructures with blazing speeds. With the right mobility plans, 5G can stream live video feeds like Zoom, back up to iCloud and synchronize copious amounts of data, like that created by video recordings.
But what if you find yourself in the middle of nowhere? I recall a vacation to California, where my wife and I drove to a park at the edge of town. After 10 minutes of walking, we found ourselves in the middle of the desert with absolutely no cellular connectivity. We didn’t see another person for a good hour. I was thinking to myself, what would happen if I twisted an ankle and couldn’t walk? From an aviation perspective, we’re constantly in the middle of nowhere, but we have several options, from ELTs, personal locator beacons (PLBs) to personal locating devices (PLDs), designed to summon search and rescue. All these cost money—for the hardware and ongoing annual or monthly service contracts. Until now that is.
Apple has been quietly implementing satellite connectivity in iPhone 14, so if you’re not near a satellite tower, your iPhone 14 can communicate with Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite constellations. Consider that the previous versions of Apple’s iPhones and iOS have supported a variety of lifesaving technologies, including fall-down notification and SOS (or 911) calling. But in comes Apple’s newest tech.
With vehicle crash detection in mind, Apple’s iPhone 14 has two new sensors: an accelerometer capable of measuring up to 256 Gs and an advanced gyro. With the barometer sensing, the iPhone 14 knows your altitude. With new algorithms in the new iOS 16 software, Apple’s Crash Detection will pop an SOS call on your display when the algorithms and sensors have determined that you have been in a car crash. Like Apple’s fall-down technology, you can cancel the SOS call or if you are unresponsive, the iPhone 14 will place a call to your phone carrier’s 911 provider. The iPhone will play audio recordings to provide the 911 center with information—like your exact location using the built-in GPS.
Sound like good utility for flying in the sticks? Of course it does, and it will be interesting to see how Apple’s Crash Detection technology will operate in small aircraft wrecks. At first blush, the tech makes a good belt-and-suspender backup to a PLB and ELT, if not a more reliable and data-rich rescue strategy.
If you crash or put down in a remote area, with no cellular or Wi-Fi (Wi-Fi calling) connectivity, the iPhone 14 will attempt to send the SOS call through Globalstar’s Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite connection. There’s a rub, however. To maintain the size of iPhone 14, Apple engineers had to make a few sacrifices as it comes to satellite communications. First is the satellite antenna.
You might have noticed that some satcomms are relatively large (as compared to an iPhone) and some of them have bulbous antennas (like Garmin’s inReach products or Globalstar’s SPOTx). We covered PLDs (personal locator devices) that are small enough for the cockpit, and how you might choose one, in a market scan article in the April 2022 Aviation Consumer. In a nutshell, we found that PLDs have the battery power and antennas to be able to reliably communicate with LEO satellites, with the user simply turning it on. There’s no antenna alignment required, it just works. While we weren’t looking, the LEO satellite network has gotten better.
Currently there are 4852 satellites in orbit, up from 2200 in 2020. First- and second-generation LEO satellite networks deliver connectivity upward of 1.4 Mbps, making LEO perfect for voice calls, text messages and short emails. PLD manufacturers purchase satellite connectivity from Iridium on a wholesale basis, add margin and bundle their services into their service plan subscriptions. SPOT is unique, and as a division of Globalstar, they own the satellite network. Globalstar’s LEO satellites are 876 miles up and orbit the Earth every 128 minutes.
SAT COVERAGE MATTERS
Globalstar began upgrading its LEO network with second-generation satellites launched between 2010 and 2013. With redesigned satellites, Globalstar says the second-gen satellites should last twice as long in space, will have 40 percent greater capacity and be built at a significantly lower cost. The company’s second-gen satellite network required $1.3 billion in investment, and yet Globalstar’s network does not provide 100 percent coverage of the globe. In February 2022, it was announced that Globalstar purchased 17 new satellites to continue its constellation at a cost of $327 million. The satellites are expected to be launched by 2025. Globalstar’s network transmits more than 1.8 billion messages a year in over 100 countries and six contents.
Check out the coverage map at https://tinyurl.com/3cdek3n5. Coverage is not so good for flights over the poles, the high Arctic and Greenland. This is probably not the typical customer that Apple and Globalstar are designing the new technology for. Other satellite providers, including Iridium, have larger constellations. This satellite constellation is made up of a fully meshed network of 66 cross-linked satellites that orbit 485 miles above the Earth. In 2019, Iridium upgraded the network with next-gen satellites. Traveling at more than 18,000 MPH, each satellite makes a full orbit of the planet every 1.5 hours. That means one passes overhead every 10 minutes, and there is generally worldwide coverage. Hot on the heels of Globalstar and Iridium are OneWeb and Starlink (a division of SpaceX), whose disruptive satellite plans will increase the number of satellites from the current 4852 to north of 28,000 with the goal of providing ubiquitous planet-wide access to the open internet at modest (as far as satellite connectivity goes) prices.
For this SOS tech, there’s big money in play. In early September 2022, Reuters reported, in part, that Apple was dedicating $450 million from its advanced manufacturing fund toward satellite infrastructure to support the feature. Globalstar will receive the majority of the funding, but the iPhone maker did not specify which other players will receive the rest and in what form. According to Reuters, while Apple will pay for 95 percent of the approved capital expenditure for the new Globalstar satellites needed to support the service, Globalstar said it would still need to raise additional debt to construct and deploy the satellites.
An SEC filing by Globalstar documented that Globalstar will allocate 85 percent of its current and future network capacity to support Apple’s Emergency SOS offering. Apple may utilize other satellite providers (like Iridium or Starlink) to expand the coverage map. As such, Globalstar is not the exclusive satellite connectivity partner. Interesting developments to say the least.
NEW PHONE TECH
In its current form, it’s worth considering how well the iPhone 14 can realistically operate in a small-cabin environment. The satellite antenna built into the new iPhone 14 is tiny (as satellite antennas go). And, the iPhone 14 needs a little human interaction (or help) to point the iPhone 14 at the LEO satellite that is whizzing by the horizon. In iOS 16, Apple has added a Satellite SOS screen to the SOS app (found within iPhone) to help the user point the iPhone in the right direction and create a strong connection. That may not work well for folks trapped in the wreckage after a nasty crash.
On the other hand, for users who are off-grid and need medical assistance or help from other first responders, an iPhone 14’s SOS capability over satellite is priceless (I couldn’t figure out what my life is worth without asking my wife or kids).
The amount of satellite bandwidth provided to the iPhone is similar to a slow dial-up modem of years gone by. No, you’re not going to be watching Netflix or Apple TV while you’re waiting for first responders. However, as in any survival event, you’ll be focusing on shelter, fire, first aid and food/water.
When the satellite service launches in November 2022, the messaging will be limited to SOS messages. So don’t expect to be able to message friends, family, business contacts and the office. That will likely come in the future, and on a subscription basis.
Apple’s new technology is designed for short text messages. Canadian Armed Forces SAR technicians believe that establishing two-way communications with first responders during a SAR event improves your chances of survival by more than 95 percent. Empirically that makes sense. Knowing that first responders are on their way, with updates as to their progress and position, enables a positive mental attitude. Survival in a hostile environment has a technical component but also a mental element. So like the tech from Globalstar’s SPOTx, Garmin’s inReach and other portable devices, Apple’s new iPhone 14 can send short emails and SMS text messages to first responders, maintaining a two-way dialog.
If you haven’t been following the big announcement, there are four versions of the new iPhone 14. There’s the iPhone 14 (base model, which starts at $799), iPhone 14 Plus, iPhone 14 Pro and iPhone Pro Max ($1599 for 1000 GB). The iPhone 14 and 14 Plus are similar with 6.1-inch and 6.7-inch screens, respectively. All iPhone 14 and Plus models have the latest A15 Bionic chip and are available with 128, 256 or 512 MB of storage. The iPhone 14 Pro and Pro Max have Apple’s latest camera technology, A16 Bionic chip, 6.1- or 6.7-inch screen and 128 GB, 256 GB, 512 GB or 1 TB of storage. The Super Retina XDR OLED screens have different resolutions, based upon the model, but use the iPhone 13’s OLED screens as a jumping-off point. The new iPhone 14s have a lightning port, which means that your older Apple cables and chargers (from older iPhones and iPads) are compatible with iPhone 14. Apple includes a USB-C to lightning charging cable for use with their newer USB chargers, Macs and iPads. I’m curious when Apple will replace the lightning port on the iPhone with USB-C (as with their new iPads and Macs).
USING THE SOS FUNCTION
A critical component to Apple’s satellite communications system is the SOS/911 software on the iPhone. As noted, due to the satellite antenna limitations (size), the iPhone 14 needs human intervention to get a “lock” on a Globalstar LEO satellite as it passes across the horizon. To utilize the SOS and SMS texting capabilities over satellite you simply start an SOS emergency call. This can be done several ways.
Press and hold the iPhone’s Side button and one of the Volume buttons, open the Phone app and dial 911 or press the Side button five times (you call with five presses in Settings, Emergency SOS). This will take the iPhone into a screen illustrating Slide to Power Off, Medical ID, SOS and Cancel. Drag the SOS Emergency Call slider to call emergency services. This will initiate the Phone app and with no Wi-Fi or cellular connection, the Phone app will display “No Connection. Try Emergency Text via Satellite.” At the bottom right-hand of the Phone app, tap the Emergency Text via Satellite. Tap Report Emergency. Using simple taps, answer the emergency questions to best describe your situation.
You can also choose to notify your emergency contacts that you contacted emergency services, along with your location and the nature of your emergency. A screen will be displayed to connect to a satellite and follow the onscreen instructions, i.e., “Turn Left to Stay Connected to Satellite.” After you are connected, continue following the onscreen instructions to stay connected while you send your message to emergency services. Once connected, the iPhone will transmit a bunch of information including Apple Medical ID information, emergency contacts, the emergency questionnaire that you just completed, geographic information including altitude and remaining battery life of your iPhone. At launch time, this service supports American English, American Spanish and Canadian French languages only.
Pro tip: If your cellular mobility carrier has a network-wide outage, simply remove the SIM card from your iPhone. The iPhone’s cellular radio will still connect to any carrier’s cellular towers to facilitate a 911 call.
To contact emergency services, Apple says to hold the phone naturally in the hand. You don’t need to raise your arm or hold the phone up, but don’t put it in a pocket or backpack. Make sure that it has a clear view of the sky and the horizon. Be aware that trees with light foliage might slow down the connection, and dense foliage might block it. Hills or mountains, canyons and tall structures can also block the connection. In case you need to turn left or right or move to avoid a blocked signal, the iPhone provides guidance—just follow the onscreen instructions. The satellite connection can be maintained even if the phone screen is locked. The SOS service is provided by Apple for free for two years after activation of your new iPhone 14.
APPLE WATCH 8, ULTRA
Worth mentioning is that the Apple Watch 8 and Ultra have two new and improved sensors: an accelerometer good to 256 Gs and a gyroscope. These two new sensors enable the new Crash Detection distress feature. With the built-in microphones, new sensors and advanced algorithms, Crash Detection can detect a crash and initiate an Emergency SOS call using the cellular capability of the watch or the cellular/satellite capabilities of iPhone (iPhone 14 for satellite connectivity). Currently, Watch 8 and Ultra’s crash detection have limitations built in, which focuses the technology to cars. Perhaps over the course of time, Apple will open this capability, as a perfect augmentation to an ELT.
STAFFED BY APPLE
When you initiate an SOS satellite service request, text messages are encrypted and sent to Apple’s data center and relay sites, which are staffed with Apple employees. The relay sites then will route the satellite-delivered SOS message to a local emergency service provider, including your location.
It will be interesting to see how Apple will be able to discern the use of an iPhone in aviation and subsequently forward the distress information to the appropriate SAR organization. Emergency SOS via satellite will be available with an iOS 16 software update coming in November 2022. The service will launch in November 2022 and is available only in the U.S. and Canada. International travelers who visit the U.S. and Canada should be able to use Emergency SOS via satellite, except if they bought their phone in mainland China, Hong Kong or Macao, where Emergency SOS via satellite is not offered. Emergency SOS via satellite might not work in places above 62 degrees latitude, such as northern parts of Canada and Alaska.
What’s the experience of a satellite SOS or cellular 911 interaction? In many jurisdictions placing a 911 call without a legitimate cause may incur penalties and fines. Like insurance, calling 911 is not something that the average person does every day. I’ve only had to call 911 once when a prowler was in our backyard.
With little information from Apple at press time, I’m curious if the Satellite SOS will work if you put the iPhone 14 into Airplane Mode. Pro tip: Update your SOS Emergency contacts on your cellular Apple devices (Settings, Emergency SOS, Set Up Emergency Contacts in Health). These contacts will receive an email or SMS text notification when you initiate an SOS/911 call, either over a cellular or satellite connection.
LOTS OF LEARNING TO DO
The past 30 years have seen exponential changes to people, process and technology. Apple is no exception, delivering a quantum leap in iPhone technology with the incorporation of advanced sensors and satellite communications. With the satellite-delivered SOS capability, the sky is the limit as Apple gains more experience with the delivery of SOS features and functionality. How well it will work in airplane crashes is anyone’s guess.
As always, Apple can be a bit secretive until a product or service is launched and in the hands of consumers. Historically, Apple did not sell cellular connectivity, not wanting to compete against their mobile-phone service partners. However, Apple’s move into streaming services like Apple TV Plus and Apple Music created the billing and support mechanisms to leverage their customer base. During the next two years, Apple will learn about satellite communications from an operator’s perspective. Opening up the satellite communication link to support messaging and emails to all of your contacts should be as simple as throwing a switch (with the exception of billing).
No doubt, after the launch of the Satellite SOS service in November 2022, Apple will learn quickly from the experiences of the customers, satellite providers and emergency response routing personnel, tweaking the service to meet real-world expectations. More to come as we get past the November launch date, and we’re working on an in-depth real-world demo of the iPhone’s SOS functions for a future article in Aviation Consumer magazine.
Phil Lightstone is a regular Aviation Consumer magazine contributor and an aviation journalist who flies a Rockwell Commander 114.