A Motorcyclist’s Guide to the Galaxy: Dealing with Murphy, Part 1

Nov 13, 2017 View Comments by

It was a warm spring day when Mr. Roland Howard Goff, of southern Georgia, started up his Honda VTX 1300. He couldn’t have imagined the chain of events that would result in him spending the next eight days lying trapped in a ditch under the heavy bike, fighting for his life with one leg crushed, drinking rain water off the ground to survive. Mr. Goff had no cell phone and lived by himself, but luckily a friend noticed that for several days there was an uncharacteristic amount of social media inactivity. The friend searched and found him not far from his home. This story had a happy ending but an alternative, darker one wasn’t far from materializing.
Ideally, the best defensive strategy is prevention. Avoid such situations by riding with friends or leaving a detailed ride plan behind. Realistically, that is not always feasible, and even with the most careful behavior Murphy is always lurking around the next corner. If something can go wrong, it will, and fast.

What technologies can help us get rescued in such life-threatening circumstances?

Cell Phones
Carrying a cell phone is surely a wise move. It is a mobile radio transceiver (transmitter and receiver) that periodically communicates with the surrounding cellular towers to maintain a connection. All cell phone carriers, whether you like it or not, keep detailed records of those communications, which are then converted into ground positions, similarly to, but not as accurate as, GPS signal trilateration. The cellular positions can be used by emergency responders as breadcrumbs to help locate and track the phone even if the rider is unresponsive or the phone isn’t working. A smartphone with a GPS receiver can only receive GPS signals but is incapable of sending any data back to GPS satellites. You may know where you are even without cellular reception but you can’t use the phone to request for help. Although cellular coverage is improving every day, there are still many places with no reception. The cell phone is therefore not a completely reliable solution for emergencies.

Another issue for many riders is whether to leave the cell phone on the motorcycle instead of carrying it on them, typically in a tankbag for stowing convenience or mounted on the handlebar as a GPS receiver. The phone might not be reachable when needed, unless there is a wireless helmet communication system that allows starting or accepting calls from the helmet—though it has limited battery life.

Global Mobile Satellite Systems
What about satellites? They orbit over us in space all the time and provide excellent coverage. Alas, all GNSS (Global Navigation Satellite Systems, such as GPS, GLONASS, etc.) are operating in “simplex” mode, or one-way communication. Similarly to cell phones, standalone GPS receivers are devices can only receive GPS messages, but cannot send any information back to the GPS satellite.

But there are other solutions. Global Mobile Satellite Systems, or GMSS, are satellite constellations that were designed operating both ways; they can send and receive information to and from the ground.
There are two categories of satellite communication devices.

The first category is simplex tracking beacons that periodically report the device’s ground location to the communication satellite and may include a distress signal or some predefined text message code. No display is available, though some models have buttons. The leading products today are SPOT Gen3 and SPOT TRACE.

The second category is full “duplex,” or two-way, satellite phones that can be used for voice, text, or Sat-Fi (internet data communications over satellite). Globalstar sat phones also provide voice calls, but Garmin’s InReach phones, which utilize the Iridium GMSS, are one of the most well-known products in this category. Garmin recently acquired DeLorme, the original producer of these phones.
Both simplex and duplex products have gained popularity in recent years thanks to low prices, functionality, reliability, coverage, and ease of usage.

SPOT, a subsidiary of Globalstar, produces asset management tracking devices. We, riders and our motorcycles, are the assets to be tracked. Globalstar is a GMSS composed of 24 satellites that reside in a Low Earth Orbit (LEO). LEOs have inherent advantages, attributed to the short distance from ground to satellite. Low latency, small devices, low energy consumption, and a long battery life are some known virtues. The constellation uses a “bent-pipe” architecture designed for simplicity, as shown in the diagram.

A SPOT device gets accurate location readings every few minutes from the GPS constellation, similar to how smartphones and standalone GPS receivers operate. The device then transmits a message to nearby Globalstar satellites. A SPOT message contains the message type, the device-unique identifier that is linked to the rider’s account, a time stamp, and the GPS location. The satellite receives the message and beams it back down to a Globalstar ground station. A ground station, connected to the internet with fast terrestrial lines, must be available below the satellite in order to receive the message and then resend it to the cloud infrastructure, where the message is processed and stored on the SPOT servers. Family and friends can use a smartphone application or website to view and track the rider’s position on a map, in near-real-time.

The Gen3 device has a few buttons that can be pressed by the rider. Each button emits a message with a different code. With the push of the SOS button, the GEOS International Emergency Response Coordination Center is notified with ground coordinates, which it passes to local response teams for immediate handling of the rescue request (for example, to dispatch a helicopter to the rider).

In hindsight, had Mr. Goff carried a cell phone or a satellite tracking device in his pocket, it would have most likely saved him a lot of pain and misery. In the next article, we will examine other, more advanced satellite solutions and compare the pros and cons of these different options.


Text: Yuval Naveh
Photography: GlobalStar Inc., FindMeSpot.com, Freepik/Flaticon.com
Illustration: Yuval Naveh

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