Old beacon beats high-tech GPS

GN report finds flaws with fancy tracking units



If you’re lost on the land, don’t count on fancy gadgets that use global positioning satellites to lead rescuers to you.

Instead, you’d be a lot safer packing a device that’s more than 20 years old, called a personal locator beacon.

That’s according to a report published in May by the Government of Nunavut’s Department of Community and Government Services.

The report evaluates two tracking units that use global positioning satellites, or GPS, as replacements for the tried-and-true personal locator beacons.

That includes one made-in-Nunavut product, the Sedna Satellite tracker, developed by Coral Harbour resident Leonard Netser and sold through his company, Inuit Nunaani Wireless.

The Sedna tracker’s bright orange, heavy-duty plastic shell houses a satellite phone and GPS tracker rolled into one. Besides sending out an emergency distress signal, the product promised to let anyone with an Internet connection and computer look up your exact location on a map, and the path you’ve followed.

But the Sedna tracker flunked the government’s tests.

The report’s authors found the gadget only worked well as far as 65 degrees north, which means it wouldn’t be much use in the more northerly areas of Nunavut.

They also found the device’s batteries drained far more quickly compared to other tracking products.

At an average temperature of 26.6 degrees Celsius, the Sedna tracker ran for two days. In comparison, a rival unit lasted for seven days with alkaline batteries, and 43 days with lithium batteries.

Netser told government staff the Sedna tracker is designed to be connected to a constant power supply, such as a snowmobile or ATV electrical system.

But the Sedna tracker’s biggest flaws were revealed during tests in Grise Fiord, and when the Canadian military packed a few Sedna tracking devices with them during a sovereignty operation conducted this spring in the High Arctic.

Those tests revealed a distress call could face delays as long as 14 hours.

That’s because the satellites used by the Sedna tracker, owned by a company called Orbcomm, were never designed for receiving emergency transmissions that far north.

After satellites receive information from transmitters like the Sedna tracker, they bounce the message back to a ground station on Earth. But when Orbcomm’s satellites move over the far North, and out of range of the company’s ground stations, they stop transmitting, and save that message for when they move back into range.

That’s what causes the delay. It’s also the reason why the Sedna tracker isn’t much good beyond 65 degrees North.

During an interview last Thursday, Netser said he is no longer selling the product.

The report also evaluated another product, the Guardian Mobility Sentinel, which first came into use to track trucking fleets across North America. The company later launched a modified version of the product as a search and rescue tool.

Unlike the Sedna tracker, the Sentinel gives no confirmation that an alert has been successfully sent.

That could be a worry, because during tests, seven transmissions did not go through, the report says, and the manufacturer couldn’t offer any explanation.

As well, the unit’s battery holder is exposed to the elements, the GN’s report warns.

And the Sentinel only provides coverage below a latitude of 70 degrees, with coverage further reduced anywhere near mountains.

That led the report’s author to note the product’s usefulness as a search-and-rescue tool in Nunavut is “questionable.”

Another drawback of the Sedna and Sentinel trackers is they both need a clear view of the sky to work consistently, the report said.

No surprise, then, the report recommends the government keeps using personal locator beacons.

Personal locator beacons use a satellite system called COSPAS-SARSAT, launched in 1982 by the Soviet Union, the United States, Canada and France to provide an emergency alert system for ships at sea, aircraft and wilderness travellers.
Distress alerts are received almost instantaneously through the system, from any corner of Nunavut, the GN’s report says. A total of 39 countries use the system.

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