While some pilots enjoy the peace and solitude of flying without a cell phone connection, others are increasingly interested in staying connected during long flights. For those pilots, there have never been more options, from basic devices starting under $200 to deluxe messengers that even enable phone calls. This variety is good, but it can cause some confusion because many of these devices use different technology. Let’s review the various types of satellite communicators available today for smartphones and tablets.
The bright orange SPOT was one of the very first satellite communicators available for less than $500, and it did much to popularize the concept of an “I’m OK” message. SPOT uses the Globalstar satellite network, which covers most of the world’s land masses, but not everywhere. When you press the “I’m OK” button, your brief message and your GPS coordinates are automatically sent (via the satellites) to any contacts that you choose. This is great for letting friends or family know you’ve made it to a remote destination. There’s also a Track option that allows others to watch your flight in near real-time, whether you’re on a flight plan or not. Finally, SPOT offers an SOS or 911 option to alert emergency services that you need help. This isn’t a guaranteed thing (see PLBs below), but in a pinch we would take any help we can get.
The current model, the Gen3, has longer battery life and more tracking options compared to earlier SPOTs, but for smartphone users the SPOT Connect is a better option. This connects to your iPhone or Android via Bluetooth and, with the free SPOT app, allows you to compose your own custom messages. It’s a more intuitive way to operate the device. Basic subscription plans for SPOT start at $99.99/year and there are add-ons for tracking and SOS monitoring.
- Coverage: good, but not global
- Hardware price: under $150
- Subscriptions: $10-15/month
- Best for: affordable tracking and one-way messaging
A few years ago, mapping company DeLorme jumped into the satellite messenger field with their inReach product, which uses the Iridium satellite network to send and receive messages. While some of the differences are subjective, most experts agree that Iridium offers better coverage and faster data speeds compared to Globalstar. You do pay for that performance (both hardware and subscriptions are more expensive than SPOT), but the inReach offers a critical feature for pilots: two-way messaging. This is really useful for those long trips to remote areas, since you have the peace of mind that comes with knowing your recipients received the message.
When using either the inReach SE or the latest generation inReach Explorer, connect to your smartphone via Bluetooth and open the Earthmate app. From here you can easily send and receive text messages (up to 160 characters), set up tracking features or send an SOS message. The inReach has also been approved for use in the eSRA program in Alaska and the Lockheed Martin ACAS program. There are a number of subscription options, including annual contracts and month-to-month plans.
- Coverage: excellent (pole to pole)
- Hardware price: $300-400
- Subscriptions: $12-80/month
- Best for: two-way messaging from anywhere
For the ultimate in connectivity, Iridium itself recently introduced the Go! Satellite Hotspot. This portable device acts like a WiFi network, allowing up to five phones or tablets to connect simultaneously and access the worldwide Iridium satellite constellation. Using the free Iridium Go! app, you can send and receive text messages, turn on automatic tracking using the built-in GPS and even make phone calls. There are also options to download text weather forecasts for select cities, post to Twitter and send an SOS message. While Iridium says the unit offers email and web browsing, we found both to be pretty slow. Email works, but only for text and you must use a unique Iridium email address – don’t expect to open up Apple’s Mail app and start reading your newsletters. Web browsing was too unreliable for us to use with any regularity. The data rate is not anywhere close to broadband, so it’s just not fast enough for anything more than text.
We do know some corporate flight departments that use Iridium Go! for light passenger use – text messages and the occasional phone call – but like all of these satellite messengers you must have the right app downloaded to use it. The key differentiator between Iridium Go! and the inReach is the phone feature. We’ve used it to call US Customs on international flights as well as FBOs while en route. If this feature is important, it’s easy to use and affordably priced.
- Coverage: excellent (pole to pole)
- Hardware price: $$800-850
- Subscriptions: $100-150/month, or $500 for 6 months prepaid
- Best for: full-featured two way text and phone; some email
Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs)
It’s also worth mentioning Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs) like the ACR ResQLink+. Although these offer some basic “I’m OK” messaging features, it’s pretty limited and PLBs really aren’t messengers. Rather, they are life-saving devices that are meant to be used when your life is in danger. Press the button and emergency responders are alerted, complete with your GPS coordinates. PLBs use a network of military satellites and send out a much more powerful signal than any of the messengers above, so they are more reliable when your life is on the line. Coverage is worldwide and is unaffected by foliage or bad weather. One final difference to note is that PLBs do not require a subscription for normal operations (“I’m OK” messages may cost extra). We like PLBs a lot, and carry one anytime we’re traveling far from home, but they really aren’t a replacement for a SPOT or an inReach.
- Coverage: excellent
- Hardware price: $275-$500
- Subscriptions: none for distress signals
- Best for: alerting rescuers in case of grave danger
It’s worth remembering some limitations that affect all of these devices. Most importantly, they do not simply open up an internet connection for your phone or tablet. You can’t download the latest weather graphics in Garmin Pilot or update your chart databases in ForeFlight. To work with SPOT, inReach or Iridium Go!, you must use the company’s specific app. But with that in mind, we’ve found all of them to be useful companions in the air. In particular, it’s nice to have your favorite EFB app on your tablet and use your phone as a communicator. Once you fly with a satellite messenger, it’s hard to go back.
So which one is best? There’s no easy answer. It really depends on what type of flying you do and what you need a satellite messenger to do for you. The SPOT Connect is basic, but it’s a good value at $99. If you want to track flights and be able to send basic text messages to friends or family, it’s hard to beat. Just don’t expect a response. For two-way messaging, we like the inReach Explorer for its ease of use and improved coverage compared to SPOT. On the high end, Iridium Go! is a good choice mostly if the phone feature is important. While the ability to do email is there, it’s not full-featured or fast. Think of it more as a flexible and less expensive version of a satellite phone.