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Alan H

Sat Tracking SPOT...tracking not reliable

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I just did a run out to the Farallone Islands from San Francisco this past weekend, on Saturday May 30th. I had a SPOT Gen 3 tracker on board. It's set to send position reports in, every 30 minutes.   My impression was that the tracking function was not reliable during the trip, and so I turned it on , Sunday morning when I was going to sail back from San Francisco to my berth in San Mateo.  Upshot....

Tech support at SPOT tells me that if I power the unit up and push the "Tracking" button, but then later push the "I'm OK / check in" button, that will stop tracking mode. I did a step-by step analysis of my points on the way out and on the way in from the Farallones, and I cannot explain how the various points lined up without imagining that I turned "tracking" on or off FIVE times during the trip, which I did not. I remember turning the unit off once, and starting up tracking once or twice but not five times.  I note that every "I'm OK / Check-in" transmission was received, but the "Tracking" transmissions were spotty.

Since I had a bad feeling about this, on Sunday, I turned the SPOT on when I left the CityFront at 11:33. I pressed the "Tracking" button, put it under the lightweight  plexi hatch cover where it was safe, and let it run for the whole 4 hour run down to San Mateo.  I never touched the "I'm OK / Check in" button.  This is the exact same location on the boat where it sat for the whole trip out to the Farallones, the day before.    Upshot...it sent in a position at 12:33 and then at 1:03, near the Bay Bridge....then nothing until Coyote Point Marina at 3:43.   That's a two and a half hour gap, it missed five tracking points.    SPOT tech support claims  that I passed by SFO, and the airport interfered with the signal. That's bogus, as on Friday on the way up, I hit the "I'm OK/check in" button a couple of times while I wasn't that far from the airport, and it sent signals which were received, logged and showed on the findmespot.com  map for my account.

Upshot is, I no longer trust my SPOT Gen 3 tracker to actually track me reliably.  I believe that it will work reliably if I push the "I'm OK / check in" button, but I do not trust the automatic tracking function.   I remember that on last  summers LongPac race, the SPOT just quit sending signals for no reason, though I didn't know that, at the time..  I powered it off, powered it back on and hit the "Tracking" function again and it still didn't work.    I won't be renewing my yearly account with SPOT in two weeks.

 

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As mentioned elsewhere, I don't trust SPOT much for ocean use.   Iridium based is the way to go.

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SPOT uses only one of their satellites to link to a shore based tower for it's service.  It will not tether to another Globalstar satellite to complete a connection, so at certain distances offshore it won't work at all.  Iridium uses many satellites that tether to each other until they reach a shore based tower.  SPOT's service brags about the clarity of their phone calls when they are within their zones compared to Iridium, but they don't have the range whatsoever.  I'm only interested in data and care about voice calls, so Iridium all day.  Warning, the information above is not 100% accurate, but that's what I remember from using both.

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What flummoxed me was that every single one of the "I'm OK" messages got through.  If they got through, were logged and appeared on the track map pretty quickly, then why didn't the tracking messages?  It's the same flippin' satellite message going to the same constellation of birds.

The SPOT tech support lady I was on the phone with for an hour or more was very nice. She tried hard, I give her an "A" for effort and customer service, but....whoooiiiee.  When she put me on hold to go ask the real "tech" people, and came back with..."it's 'cause you were near the airport" I knew that this was not the service for me.

This might be a perfectly good unit for someone, say going backpacking...or sailing in the Bay where they can just push the button and the family knows you're fine, but for anything where I want to depend on the regular transmission of a tracking signal...where I don't have to remember to push that button every half hour...Nope.

I got the unit for very little money, as there was a Gen II on the boat when I bought it. It didn't work so SPOT sent me this Gen III for, like $40.

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That InReach for sail "elsewhere" is a deal @ less than $200 for the better unit.

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1 hour ago, Alan H said:

What flummoxed me was that every single one of the "I'm OK" messages got through.  If they got through, were logged and appeared on the track map pretty quickly, then why didn't the tracking messages?  It's the same flippin' satellite message going to the same constellation of birds.

The SPOT tech support lady I was on the phone with for an hour or more was very nice. She tried hard, I give her an "A" for effort and customer service, but....whoooiiiee.  When she put me on hold to go ask the real "tech" people, and came back with..."it's 'cause you were near the airport" I knew that this was not the service for me.

This might be a perfectly good unit for someone, say going backpacking...or sailing in the Bay where they can just push the button and the family knows you're fine, but for anything where I want to depend on the regular transmission of a tracking signal...where I don't have to remember to push that button every half hour...Nope.

I got the unit for very little money, as there was a Gen II on the boat when I bought it. It didn't work so SPOT sent me this Gen III for, like $40.

Did your SPOT have a clear view of the sky at all times?  SPOT is quite sensitive to that.  If the satellites are low on the horizon and there isn't line-of-sight they will not connect, and tracking messages will be missed.  

We have a family SPOT Gen II that we loaned to our son to take to Nepal.  He sent an OK message every night but we didn't get the messages until he got above 10000'.  Turns out he was sleeping in villages in the valleys and the signal couldn't get out.  

In contrast we have a SPOT Gen III in our club glider with 5 minute tracking.  I check it after each flying day and the tracks are there and accurate - rarely is there a missed tracking message. 

I suspect that either your unit did not always have a clear view of the sky, or there is a problem with it.

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So, if the SPOT was in my companionway the entire time...above the hatch and every single "I'm OK" message got through, then I have a hard time figuring that it didn't have a clear view of the sky.  Over the course of the weekend I sent about twenty five "I'm OK" messages, every single one was received. It's just the tracking messages with two and three hour gaps.

 

Yes, that offer, somewhere else...solo, I've messaged about it already!

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14 minutes ago, Alan H said:

So, if the SPOT was in my companionway the entire time...above the hatch and every single "I'm OK" message got through, then I have a hard time figuring that it didn't have a clear view of the sky.  Over the course of the weekend I sent about twenty five "I'm OK" messages, every single one was received. It's just the tracking messages with two and three hour gaps.

 

Yes, that offer, somewhere else...solo, I've messaged about it already!

Let me guess, it was hanging from something?  SPOT is designed to be lying flat when it transmits.  This is the orientation we have it in the glider, and it works well.  

The reason the I'm OK messages got through is that occasionally there was a satellite within range with the SPOT hanging vertically, which orients the antenna horizontally.  SPOT tries to transmit the messages over and over until they are received.  Probably a few tracking messages got through at the same time, then nothing when the satellite went out of range.

Not defending SPOT, it is what it is and it is far from perfect, but you do need to know its limitations and know how to use it.  You can't walk around with SPOT in your pocket in tracking mode and expect it to track reliably, unless you are walking around on the top of Mt. Everest.  

From the manual: 

Your SPOT Satellite Messenger is designed to go anywhere. However, like all electronic devices, it has its limits. SPOT relies upon GPS and low earth orbit satellites to fix your location and send your messages. To work, the SPOT logo (which is directly above the transmitter) needs to have an unobstructed view of the sky, either outdoors or in a glass-enclosed area such as in a vehicle. For safety, keep the following in mind regarding the care and usage of SPOT:

• SPOT floats, but the SPOT logo needs to be facing the sky for the unit to work

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The SPOT was lying face up, all the time, out on my companionway hatch under a very light plexiglass and foam hard dodger with a clear view of the sky at all times.

While under that hard dodger, it was able to send "I'm OK" messages...twenty seven of them over the weekend, to be exact. During that time it should have sent about the same number of Tracking messages. It didn't.

 

Why would it be able to send "I'm OK" satellite message, reliably, for two days, and not be able to reliably sent tracking messages, while kept in the exact same position in the exact same place?  I don't know the answer to this, and I'm not going to waste my time trying to find out.  It didn't send them, and the reason given to me by SPOT tech support is nonsensical...I'm done

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The SPOT was/is quite popular amongst paragliders. But has been proven to be as you point out variable reliability. The Garmin inreach seems to be the minimum gold standard handheld, both for two way text comms and accurate location when needed. 

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this is an older article written by a top bloke. There are other chats and articles about the SPOT on Gavin Mclurgs podcast and webpage. But this one still sums up the issues. 
 

https://www.cloudbasemayhem.com/delorme-vs-spot-when-your-life-depends-on-it/

 

delorme was is INREACH. 

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I had a SPOT when I raced WaterTribe and felt they were cheesy at best.  Offshore I have a GO for downloading weather and an inReach for texting wifey and tracking.

The GO tracking is meh.  Using the inReach, I can usuallylay down a good track.  But I use the Earthmate app to confirm all is well.  Over the past 4 months the device required reboots to restart the track.  But then again, it has more miles than most Luton such devices.   The good news is that one can download the track from the Garmin website, use a GPX editor to clean-up the track and then use google to present the tracks (and pics) in a pleasing manner see https://uscgmaster.com/tracking-map

 

 

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I've had a Spot Gen 2 for almost 10 years. As long as I don't do anything wrong and forget to hit the track button and the device is face up with a clear view of the sky, and there isn't a lot of tree cover or I'm down in a deep valley, tracking has worked well 99.9% of the time. There are few times where it zoned out or just could not get a signal, but otherwise it's been good. FWIW, the newer Spots don't seem to be as reliable as the Gen2s, based on anecdotal evidence from friends with later versions. I keep mine in a cell phone drybag at all time, strapped to the deck of my sailing kayak when on the water. 

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Yeah, I did a trip to Bermuda and a friend gave me a spot so my folks and co-workers could track me. It worked sporadically until we were about 100 miles from Bermuda, at which point it stopped and never picked up again, unbeknownst to us. Batteries were fine. When I got back from our adventure, someone had printed out the spot track and it looked like we'd just gone down 4 days into our voyage. 

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We've used services that integrate trackers for offshore race tracking/playback for many years.  Folks with SPOTS do seem to drop out more often than the DeLorme/InReach trackers.  My Gen-2 SPOT occasionally acted up through the years (no rhyme or reason) when other SPOTs had no problem.  I always mounted it outside on the stern rail face-up.  While usually an annoyance, years ago a spouse called the Coast Guard in a panic when their spouses SPOT track stopped... despite clear disclaimers with race tracker web links that the tracks were unreliable and were for entertainment only. That said, I used my SPOT on the 2014 Pac Cup and it worked without missing a beat all the way to Hawaii. Even though the coverage should have been poor on the approach go the islands, I didn't have a problem (except the "as designed" annoyance of having to restart it every 24 hrs).

My old Gen-2 SPOT finally died after over 10 yrs of hard use, so I can't complain.  I ordered an InReach Mini to replace it.  We'll see how it goes.

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18 hours ago, Alan H said:

What flummoxed me was that every single one of the "I'm OK" messages got through.  If they got through, were logged and appeared on the track map pretty quickly, then why didn't the tracking messages?  It's the same flippin' satellite message going to the same constellation of birds.

This probably won't help you but I have some first-hand experience with testing and troubleshooting message success rate on Globalstar network... This to me makes it looks like the tracking message doesn't do any "retries" but the "I'm ok" message does so at least there is a plausible explanation as to why the "ok" message behaves differently from the tracking ones... Basically the network is simplex meaning that the SPOT just sends a message and has no idea if it got through. Typically the message would be sent 3 times to significantly increases the odds of going through, but because the retries are spaced several minutes apart (5-10) this limits how often they can be reported, the hardware isn't smart enough to have message queue so if a new message needs to be sent it will drop any pending retries...

You could also have a case when a retry could end up just before the next point and it makes the time spacing uneven so I am guessing the tracking function doesn't do any "retries" to allow shorter reporting intervals and keep the reporting spacing the same (i.e. you either get your tracking point right on time or you don't get it at all)...

That would be a good question for tech support if you ever talk to them again, surprised they didn't mention anything about it (I would think there would be something in the manual as well about that if the behavior is different for tracking)...

We also found that the message success rate would sometimes drop significantly for several hours on end no apparent reason and get better again. Could be because of satellite position, weather, etc... I wouldn't read too much into it working one day near the airport and not on another day, it is plausible that there is something related to the airport that could affect the signal just enough to make it crap out only sometimes (depending on the other variables)...

Overall it's pretty "normal" to get some missed messages from a SPOT, it's part of the limitations of the system, it's ok for transmitting general info where it's not a big deal if you miss some but not suitable for any "mission critical" type stuff where a duplex system is a must so that it can keep trying until it knows for sure the message went through or at least report an error if it doesn't! 

 

Edit: hadn't seen this:

13 hours ago, Alan H said:

The SPOT was lying face up, all the time, out on my companionway hatch under a very light plexiglass and foam hard dodger with a clear view of the sky at all times.

While under that hard dodger, it was able to send "I'm OK" messages...twenty seven of them over the weekend, to be exact. During that time it should have sent about the same number of Tracking messages. It didn't.

 

Why would it be able to send "I'm OK" satellite message, reliably, for two days, and not be able to reliably sent tracking messages, while kept in the exact same position in the exact same place?  I don't know the answer to this, and I'm not going to waste my time trying to find out.  It didn't send them, and the reason given to me by SPOT tech support is nonsensical...I'm done

This is further evidence for the "retry" theory above... The dodger could have enough impact on the signal to make the difference between good and poor success rate. Even if only 1 in 3 messages make it, you should still statistically get the "ok" ones (assuming 3 retries)... Radio signals is kind of like black magic so it could even be that when you were there pushing the "I'm ok" button, it affected the signal in a way that made it work better or something goofy like this...

Either it's a pretty flaky system!

 

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1 hour ago, Airwick said:

...

Either it's a pretty flaky system!

 

They more or less admit that:  "With a perfect view of the entire sky, the SPOT network is designed to successfully send virtually every message."

You would think that the service would be cheaper given the unreliability, though our experience has been very good in the glider.   We didn't renew our service for the glider this year because we aren't flying due to the virus.  If something better/cheaper comes along in the meantime, we'll probably use it.  I think SPOT knows they are vulnerable on this.

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