Many pilots can’t stand to be disconnected from their smartphones and tablets for longer than a few minutes. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing can be debated, but there are certainly times when it would be helpful to send a quick text message or make a phone call from the air. That’s especially true for passengers, who don’t have their hands full like the pilot. Unfortunately, that always-on connection just isn’t available in most general aviation airplanes–unless you spend tens of thousands of dollars on a certified system.
But the new Iridium GO! portable satellite hotspot goes some way towards fixing this problem. It may not be full broadband internet in the cockpit, but it at least offers a reliable way to stay connected in flight.
This small, rugged device weighs less than 11 ounces, and fits easily on the glare shield of an airplane. To use it, simply flip up the antenna and connect it to your smartphone via WiFi (Android and iPhone compatible). Once connected, you have access to a number of features:
- Send and receive text messages
- Make and receive phone calls
- Send GPS position reports so friends and family can track your flight
- Send Twitter updates
- Send and receive email (although this feature is limited; see below)
- Browse the web (also limited)
- Alert emergency responders with its SOS feature
This is a fairly extensive list of features for a portable device that costs less than $1000, and all of them work anywhere in the world at any altitude. Iridium’s satellite constellation has truly global coverage, so this device is never outside a coverage area. It will work in the cockpit at 10,000 ft., on a boat in the ocean or in a remote region.
The email and web browsing is limited because Iridium GO! simply doesn’t have the bandwidth to support traditional internet usage. Pilots must use the Iridium Mail & Web app (free to download) for the functions, since the app is designed to compress data. Even still, don’t expect to browse standard websites with big images–it’s just not fast enough. For the text messaging, position reports and phone calls, pilots use the free Iridium GO! app.
We’ve flown with the device, and it’s a useful tool in the cockpit. The device itself is sturdy and well-made, so it will survive quite well in a flight bag. With a built-in 7-hour battery, Iridium GO! is totally wireless, so we simply turn it on and forget about it. Text messaging, tracking and phone calls work quite well. We’ve used it to update an ETA and call ahead to an FBO that was out of radio range. The email and web features are limited, but they do work and would have value for passengers in particular.
Like all Iridium devices, this requires a data plan to work. The good news is, though, that such plans have become a lot more affordable over the past few years. A 6-month prepaid plan is available for pilots who may fly irregularly or only during the summer, and two monthly plans are available for more regular flyers. Of note, the $150/mo. Platinum Monthly plan offers unlimited text and web/email usage–a first for an Iridium device.
Iridium GO! is available from Sporty’s for $875.