A Motorcyclist’s Guide to the Galaxy: Dealing with Murphy, Part 2

Feb 13, 2018 View Comments by

A Motorcyclist’s Guide to the GalaxyWhen we’re riding and running into emergencies, it could be extremely valuable to carry a smartphone or an asset tracker. But the smartphones don’t always have coverage and the asset trackers, as the SPOT3, have limited one-way functionality. Murphy comes in all kinds of unpleasant forms, yet not all of them are life-threatening situations. Hitting the SOS button and calling the cavalry for an engine not starting in the middle of nowhere is wrong and probably won’t be covered—be prepared to apologize and pay a lot for the rescue team. On the other hand, for life-threatening emergencies and other less severe cases, being able to discuss a situation with a knowledgeable person who can perform diagnosis and recommend actions may quickly solve the issue or at least reduce its severity. The remote person can be a doctor, expert mechanic, family, friend, or even an online forum member. The ADVRider community, for example, is full of devoted and passionate members who will go out of their way to help a fellow rider in distress. The ability to hold voice conversations is one primary application but sending text messages, photos, videos, or using the internet can often make a huge difference.

The questions are: What are the available tools for such communications and how do they work?

Bidirectional Communication
In the previous article, I explained how SPOT3 unidirectional asset trackers communicate with the GlobalStar constellation using a bent pipe architecture. Such devices are one-way radio transmitters; they cannot receive any information. Bidirectional, or two-way, communication radio devices are transceivers; they can transmit or receive radio signals.
Typical usage is sending and receiving text messages, audio conversations with satellite phones (or sat phones), and Sat-Fi data transmission. Satellite phones are similar to cell phones but instead of cell towers on the ground they communicate with communication satellites. Similarly, Sat-Fi can conceptually be compared to using a 4G data plan but over satellite communication. With a Sat-Fi router one can browse the internet with a standard device, such as a laptop, smartphone, or tablet.

The GlobalStar constellation supports bidirectional communication with the same bent pipe architecture, but unlike SPOT devices that just transmit outgoing communication up to the satellite, the GlobalStar sat phones also receive data in a reverse direction; data is sent from the ground station up to the satellite and then down to the sat phone.

A Motorcyclist’s Guide to the GalaxyIridium
The Iridium satellite communication constellation is also LEO (Low Earth Orbit) and composed of 66 satellites. Originally the system was designed to have 77 satellites in orbit, hence the name Iridium, which designates that chemical element’s atomic number. To transfer data, it uses a technology quite different from bent pipe. The Iridium satellites form a mesh network in which each satellite can communicate directly with its neighbor satellites, either in the same or adjacent orbital planes.

Information sent from a communication device on any point of Earth’s surface is received by a nearby satellite. The receiving satellite then relays the information to a neighboring satellite, then that satellite relays the info to yet another neighboring satellite and so on, until one of the satellites transmits the data down to the targeted Iridium satellite communicator. No dedicated ground station is needed when two Iridium devices are communicating directly. If the targets or sources are landline phones or cell phones, then some ground station needs to be used, but it is not necessarily a fixed station. This advanced method gives Iridium a big advantage over GlobalStar. Its coverage of planet Earth is complete, on land or at sea, and the ground station doesn’t have to be under the receiving satellite but can be on any another part of Earth. The redundancy of Iridium satellites also ensures very high availability. With GlobalStar, a major storm could damage a ground station and thereby disrupt communications in that area; but that storm cannot affect any of the Iridium satellites as they are entirely in space, out of harm’s way.

A Motorcyclist’s Guide to the GalaxyGarmin InReach
Garmin’s InReach satellite communicators, originally developed by DeLorme, which Garmin recently acquired, are powered by the Iridium constellation. The InReach devices are not Sat Phones (audio conversations are not possible), but they do provide two-way text messaging. Specifically, SOS communication is two-way and interactive, meaning that it allows a back and forth dialogue with the search and rescue center while waiting for help. This feature can actually save lives and is a big improvement over one-way non-interactive SOS devices such as the SPOT3. The SOS button is also protected from accidental pressing.

GPS Tracking, similar to SPOT3, is also available with two- or ten-minute intervals, depending on the plan. A cool feature named Location Pinging lets someone else learn the device’s location immediately and in real time. IP67 water resistance proofing protects from rain, but not from full submerging.

The higher-end Explorer model comes with topo maps which can be used as a backup GPS device to identify the current location and navigate to waypoints using tracks (not turn-by-turn directions). On-demand basic or premium weather reports are available as text messages.

With devices selling at $399.99-$499.99, and monthly plans in the $11.95-$99.95 range, Garmin provides an economical and affordable solution. Some of the plans come with just a 30-day commitment period which saves a lot of money if usage is limited to riding seasons or a long trip that requires extra protection.

There are many choices today when preparing for worst-case scenarios. From simple tracking beacons, to beacons with single-way SOS, to more advanced communicators with bidirectional text messaging, followed by full Sat Phones, and even Sat-Fi.

These are all good emergency tools to keep a rider always prepared for those times Murphy decides to visit—when plans fall through and the unexpected happens.

Text and Illustrations: Yuval Naveh
Photography: GlobalStar, Iridium, Garmin and Anton Saputro/flaticon.com

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