In todays always-connected environment, the light airplane cabin is almost uniquely cut off from the world. For some, the sneaky workaround has been to simply use a smartphone for texting and talking at lower altitudes, but that violates an FCC ban.
There are several new portable products that aim to reduce this airborne isolation and bring the Internet to the cabin. Some of these devices serve double duty for personal flight tracking and SOS broadcast.
We went hands-on with the De-Lorme InReach Explorer, the Iridium Go! and the Globalstar Sat-Fi to see if the products are a viable solution for acceptable Internet on the fly.
How they work
The systems operate via constellations of satellites that provide coverage well beyond that available with terrestrial cellular networks, but require a clear view of the sky.
All of these devices have extremely wide coverage areas. Both the InReach Explorer and the Go use Iridiums satellite network, while the Sat-Fi uses Globalstars constellation, which greatly differs from Iridium.
Iridiums satellites orbit the planet in six polar orbits at 485 miles, hopping satellite to satellite before reaching a ground station for worldwide coverage. Globalstar uses about half as many satellites orbiting at 875 miles, angled about 52 degrees from the equator, leaving coverage gaps at the Poles and in a few other places such as southern Africa and southeast Asia as ground stations populate. In the U.S., both providers offer full coverage.
We tried the devices on the ground and in the air while paired with various iOS devices running versions 7 and 8.
The Iridium Go is Iridiums mobile voice, text and data hotspot. Contained in a 4.5 by 3.25 by 1.25-inch box, it has a flip-up antenna that also powers the unit on. The device is simple-just a power button, two function keys and a small monochrome screen. Theres an SOS button on the side for emergency use, a USB port for charging and an external antenna port. Unlike the Explorer product, the battery is user-accessible and replaceable. The Go has a rugged feel and is splashproof. It comes with AC and vehicle chargers, as well as a cover that shields the device from direct sunlight. We wish it had more mounting options other than the $40 RAM window suction mount.
Prior to use, an account must be established with Iridium and various options configured, particularly the Emergency SOS function. Custom emergency contacts can be configured, and the worldwide GEOS network is also available (but must be configured in advance).
All functionality offered by the Go must be accessed using apps connected via WiFi. Iridium itself provides two apps, Iridium Go and Iridium Mail, compatible with iOS and Android. An API allows third-party apps to interact with the Go, but the only aviation app currently available is the FlyCast mobile weather app.
The Go app allows voice calls, SMS messaging, sending tweets and tracking information, plus activating the SOS feature. All contacts require the country code, but texting to and from e-mail addresses is supported. A phone number in Iridiums virtual country code (8816) is permanently assigned, so calls or text messages to the Go may cost extra, if it can be called at all. During evaluation, one Verizon Wireless customer was not able to call the Go without adding an international plan to the account. The Iridium website can also be used to send messages to the Go.
With the Go on the airplanes glareshield, sending and receiving text messages was quite reliable in straight-and-level and maneuvering flight. Messages can be extremely long; we successfully sent single messages of 999 characters to SMS numbers and 980 characters to e-mail. E-mail recipients get a message from an address like email@example.com, and can reply normally. Sending an SMS from the Go takes about 10 seconds, but receiving one seems to take closer to a minute. A tweet is posted in around 30 seconds.
We tried airborne voice calls using the app and a Bluetooth connection to a Bose headset. Voice quality was comprehensible, but tended to drop off during turns. The call connection was reasonably reliable and dropped only once. Voice calls were unable to be placed or maintained during aggressive maneuvering. There is about a second of latency when using voice calls, so we found ourselves occasionally talking over the other party. While on a voice call, other apps can be used without dropping the call. The Go app advises of an incoming call with a standard iOS alert.
A tracking button in the app sends the recipient a link to an online mapping application showing the users location. The Go app sends tweets via SMS. The second app, Iridium Mail, provides weather, Facebook, Twitter, mail, web and photos. For e-mail, Iridium provides an address at @myiridium.net. The app must be explicitly told to send any queued mail and receive any waiting mail. Received mail that is too large will not be downloaded unless specifically requested. As the Go operates at only 2400 bps, sending or receiving large mail can be extremely slow. An e-mailed picture (36k size), took almost 10 minutes to send successfully, after four failed attempts. Failures dont restart, so the Go had to do the entire send again. That said, for sending and receiving ordinary text e-mail of modest length (up to a few kilobytes), the Mail app worked quite well. It would be best to use Mail only in straight and level flight, though. You can send pictures from your camera roll, but they will be resized, perhaps too small for your liking.
Finally, the Mail app offers web browsing, subject to a large number of caveats. First, all background apps and e-mail should be disabled. Then, the Opera Mini web browser must be downloaded and configured. Iridium provides a list of mobile-optimized sites that should work. Finally, enable the Gos web browsing and, in theory, browse the web, albeit slowly due to that 2400 bps link. We couldnt get it to work.
The battery life seems to be better than the iPad Airs endurance, although not remotely as long as the DeLorme Explorer. Up to five devices can use to the Go simultaneously.
The Go has a number of quirks to it and its apps and website did not have the polish of the Explorer. For example, the initial Iridium account password had an ampersand in it. After several frustrating hours of failed tests, the password was changed to have just letters and things started working. Sometimes SMS messages would be received late or out of order, and sometimes the Go app would crash when attempting to use GPS tracking. Some of these issues may be related to the recent release of iOS 8, and Iridium posted an extensive advisory in mid-September 2014 to expect a new version of the software in mid-October (which, as of press time in late October 2014, hasnt been released).
The unit is $815, plus a $50 activation fee. Service plans are offered by resellers (including Sportys) and are based upon included data minutes, starting at $50 per month for five minutes of data and up to $120 per month for unlimited data. Text messaging starts at 50 cents and is free in the higher plans, while voice calls start at $1.49 per minute and decrease to $1.10 per minute.
The DeLorme InReach Explorer is an all-in-one satellite tracking and text messaging device that easily fits in a shirt pocket. Its around the size of an Apple iPhone 5. Three buttons and a four-way rocker control the small color screen built into a ruggedized and waterproof case. The Explorer is entirely self-contained and all of its features are usable from the device itself.
During our evaluation, the battery never dropped below 25 percent and didnt quit when we forgot to power it down overnight after a four- hour flight, with two-minute tracking intervals. DeLorme claims an endurance of 100 hours at 10-minute tracking intervals.
It is necessary to set up an account to activate the Explorer. At this time you can also set up emergency contacts, regular contacts and add Facebook and Twitter accounts. Three predefined messages can be configured, which can be sent for free. We think the website is easy to use, and changes made on the website are synched to the device by USB cable.
The Explorer can send and receive short text messages to any cellular phone or e-mail address. Its necessary to include the country code by adding 1 for a U.S. number. Four basic types of messages are available: an ad-hoc message, a pre-defined message, a location message and an online tracking message. SMS messages appear to come from a domestic phone number and email comes from DeLorme inReach.
Emails include a link to a mobile-optimized site which displays the location where the message was sent as well as for sending a reply. SMS messages also include a link for replying, but if someone replies directly instead of using the link, it appears to come from unknown. This is quite confusing if youre corresponding with more than one person.
Although messaging from the Explorer itself is possible, and made faster by predictive typing, using an iOS device running the Earthmate app improves the experience. The app connects via Bluetooth, so the iOS device can remain connected to WiFi, such as when using an ADS-B receiver like the Appareo Stratus.
The Earthmate app allows easy sending and receiving of text messages similarly to the built-in Messages app. Received messages cause an alert sound and banner. Online GPS tracking is toggled with a tap, and recipients get a link to tracking by e-mail or SMS. All previous sent and received messages and tracks can be reviewed broken down by date.
A large SOS slider activates the Explorers emergency functions. There is also a built-in map for reviewing the current position and old tracks. NOAA and DeLorme charts can be downloaded and stored in the iOS device for offline use. Finally, the apps data can be synched with a DeLorme account.
The Explorer itself has a few additional options not exposed in the Earthmate app. Direct postings to Twitter and Facebook are possible. In addition to GPS, the Explorer has an integral altimeter and compass.
The user interface is responsive and, except for typing messages, the input buttons make quick work of all functions. The LCD has several brightness settings and is usable in sunlight. It is easy to turn on and off location tracking, and its easy to send a message to preconfigured recipients about your location.
In the air, the Explorer works perfectly. The device was placed on the side of the glareshield with the antenna pointing mostly upward. There were no problems with signal strength observed in any of the evaluation flights, and GPS tracking and messaging were always available. The device even worked on a commercial flight to Europe (with careful antenna aiming), and functioned normally on the ground in Iceland and in England.
The unit itself retails for $379 and requires a service plan. Two types of plans are available: annual and month-by-month. There is a $25 per-year fee for the monthly plans, or a one-time $20 fee for the annual plans. The annual plans range from $12 to $80 per month with additional messages and tracking points included, with the top plan including unlimited messages and two-minute tracking. Monthly plans cost $3 to $20 more.
The GlobalStar Sat-Fi is not battery-powered. Instead, it connects to the aircrafts power receptacle using an included cable. It has an external mag-mount antenna with extension cable, allowing the main unit to be placed remotely. For aviation use, its a simple matter to remove the magnet and place the antenna on the glareshield. The unit is about four times the size of the Iridium Go.
Up to eight devices can connect to the Sat-Fi simultaneously. Unlike the Go, the Sat-Fi uses a domestic phone number for calls and texting. When a call comes in, all connected devices will ring. Calls have priority over data, so if a call comes in or starts, any data session in progress will drop.
Like the Go, the Sat-Fi must be used with compatible apps for iOS and Android. Theres Sat-Fi Voice and Sat-Fi, plus desktop apps for Windows and soon for Mac.
To make calls or send and receive text messages, the Sat-Fi Voice app is used. After configuration, it is extremely simple, like the iOS Phone app. We think the application is the nicest of the three and has an elegant user interface. Unlike the Iridium Go, text messages can only be sent via SMS and not to email addresses.
The second app, Sat-Fi, allows access to email, Facebook, Twitter, photos, weather and the web. This app is suspiciously similar to the Iridium Mail app, right down to the icons used for mail folders, ports used for proxy servers and the options available in settings, so we suspect they designed by the same developer. As the functionality is nearly identical, refer to the Iridium Mail details explained earlier.
The Sat-Fi provides an @globalstarmail.com address and transfers at a data rate is 9600 bps, much faster than the Go. We sent a 26.5k photo message in about 30 seconds, which felt blindingly fast after the Gos 10-minute marathon.
Unique among these three units is the Sat-Fis ability to be used as a WiFi hotspot with full Internet access. The Sat-Fi app can be set to allow all Internet traffic-not just email and web traffic-to flow through the Sat-Fi, making it a true WiFi hotspot. To best take advantage of this, however, the connected devices should be configured to minimize data use so as not to clog up the connection.
While GlobalStar has done limited airborne testing, we couldnt get the unit to work after starting the engines in a light twin. In a small helicopter, we could send some text messages, but the connection was unreliable. Globalstar sent a replacement with no improvement.
The Sat-Fi is $1000 with a $50 activation fee, minus a $250 rebate for the rest of 2014. Service plans are simple and available on a monthly or annual basis. Annual subscriptions allow the included minutes to be spread across the year. Except for the unlimited plan, the main difference is in the minutes included, with all plans having extra minutes priced at $1. Monthly plans are $40 for 40 minutes, $65 for 100 minutes, $100 for 200 minutes and $150 for unlimited. Annual plans are 12 times as costly for 12 times the minutes.
Unless there is an overriding need for voice connectivity, we think the DeLorme InReach Explorer makes the most sense for pilots. Its tracking capability is a sizable benefit, plus its the least expensive to buy and to operate with an unlimited usage plan. Its well-suited for emergency use due to its long battery life and pocket size. Its main drawback is that some incoming messages wont identify the sender.
We think the Iridium Go is elegant, but hobbled by pricey plans. Callers bear the cost of International dialing. Its slow data means only the smallest emails are practical and Web browsing could be intolerable.
Disappointing is the Globalstars airborne performance, despite its well-done apps, relatively fast speed and decent user interface. Based on our evaluation, we cant recommend it for airborne use.