It can be said that 406 MHz ELT technology evolved too late to be the huge seller that industry leaders predicted. While 406 ELT systems were stuck in a lengthy certification process, satellite tracking systems emerged from the transportation industry and into aviation applications.
New Zealand-based Spidertracks was an early player with the Spider S3 (there’s also the competing Spot line of products that we’ll look at in another article). The new $1795 Spider S5 sends and receives SMS messages through a smartphone. It also interfaces with Lockheed Martin’s surveillance-enhanced search and rescue (SE-SAR) system.
If you haven’t been following satellite tracking technology, trackers make ELT technology seem archaic. Trackers are arguably a better way to follow aircraft because they lay down a real-time path of digital bread crumbs that can be monitored on the Internet by anyone who cares about your whereabouts.
The Spidertracks works with Iridium—a 66-satellite communications network—and uses an integral GPS receiver for communicating position.
Operation is seamless. Plop it on the glare shield, plug it in to power (10 to 32 volts) and wait for it to establish a satellite lock-on. Once it’s up and running, the system reports a position every two minutes with speed, track, altitude, time and lat/long data. The Iridium satellites transmit the location back to the Iridium servers on the ground. From there, the Spidertracks computer servers send the data to the Spidertracks website for online tracking. Spidertracks says the system can’t effectively work with a cell phone network because there would be sizable holes in coverage.
The Spider S5 has minimal and simple controls (there isn’t even a on/off switch). The low-profile unit weighs under a half-pound and measures roughly 4 inches by 3 inches. We like the self-contained design, which doesn’t require external antennas. This means less clutter.
The “SOS” button on the keypad can be used in an emergency to send instant alert messages to your pre-set emergency contacts. The “watch” key enables tracking by sending position reports to the website. If the Spider loses power, the website will automatically send an SOS message after 12 minutes of no communication. You’ll need to be vigilant in minding power losses because the Spidertracks’ servers will treat a loss of power as a crash.
The “mark” button can be used to send position reports manually or for setting automatic takeoff and landing notifications. The custom messages are configured on the Spidertracks website and are triggered with the “mark” button. For instance, three button pushes could indicate that you’ve landed, two pushes might indicate you are established enroute and so on.
Speaking of messages, the Spidertxt feature allows you to connect your smartphone wirelessly to the Spider S5 via a Bluetooth connection. Once connected, you can send and receive SMS messages to and from any mobile phone on the ground or from the website. You can also send messages to email. The service is far from free. Each SMS message sent from the Spider to a cellphone is $1.00 and each SMS or email sent to the Spider is $0.50, plus a $250 activation fee. As you can see in the pricing chart, there are various plan options to choose from, based on the amount of flying you do.
Last fall, Lockheed Martin Flight Services launched a new website as part of an effort to offer more useful services to pilots. According to Jim Derr, who heads the Lockheed Flight services department, Lockheed is taking advantage of smartphone and tablet technology.
“Some pilots may not even be aware of the benefits they’re receiving from Lockheed’s systems,” said Derr. This includes a search and rescue feature with the Spidertracks device.
Lockheed added the surveillance-enhanced search and rescue (SE-SAR) feature with Spidertracks in hopes of improving search response time for downed aircraft. It’s simple. You register with the AFSS system and enable the tracking as you would for family members and colleagues. If the Spidertracks stops transmitting, stops moving or is manually activated to send a real-time SOS, AFSS is instantly alerted and initiates the search and rescue process.
According to Derr, a Spidertrack-triggered response can be initiated within minutes, rather than the hours it might otherwise take.
Lockheed Martin said they went with the Spidertracks platform because the Iridium-based system was a lower cost option to implement the first of many planned additional services. They also plan to utilize ADS-B in the near future.
Anticipated to begin launching in 2015, Iridium NEXT will recreate the existing Iridium constellation architecture of 66 cross-linked low-earth orbiting satellites, covering 100 percent of the globe. According to Iridium, NEXT will enhance the Iridium mobile communications services—which includes Spidertracks.
In our view, higher data speeds, reliability and enhanced tracking could be compelling enough to retire old-school ELT technology for good. Moreover, with Lockheed Martin on board, we think satellite tracking technology has legs. Whether or not consumers will pay the fees—and the FAA recognizes the system as a replacement for ELT technology—remains to be seen. Contact: www.spidertracks.com, 800-491-2895.