Delorme One Ups the PLB Race

Post by blogger | August 7, 2011      

If you track these sorts of things, you probably heard Delorme is coming out with a personal locator beacon (PLB) that’s based on satphone technology and allows some form of 2-way comm. The unit is called inReach. First impressions:

Delorme Inreach is a good idea for back country skiers.

Delorme inReach is a good idea for back country skiers.

A couple of positives stand out with this rig. First, inReach does two-way communication. As a stand-alone, if you trigger the “SOS” button you’ll get an indicator light coming back to you showing your help request was received. In my view this is super important, as in an emergency situation one needs to reduce the fiddle factor, and pressing the help button over and over again on a PLB “just to be sure” is yet another distraction. With the inReach, press it once, wait for the return signal to come back, and you’re done (and, I suspect, press it one more time anyway for good fortune if nothing else.)

More good, inReach does allow brief (160 character) two-way text messaging when coupled with either an Android smartphone or DeLorme GPS. The unit also does tracking, though functionality of that needs extensive testing since we’re not exactly big fans of DeLorme’s previous user interfaces we’ve experienced with their mapping software and GPS units.

While bulky (4.78 inches high including antenna, x 2.85 inches x depth of 1.73 inches) the inReach does float and is of course waterproof enough for anything but diving. Front panel switches look intuitive, and DeLorme actually had the Einsteinien intelligence to include a physical and obvious lock so false triggering will be impossible. The controls do look a bit vulnerable as they’re not recessed or otherwise protected. Seems like these things should be designed to be beat, as in rolled down a scree field or tumbled in a backpack with a rock climbing hardware rack. Recessing or otherwise protecting the controls and indicators would seem to be logical in that sense. Perhaps in next generation.

Weight is unknown, once production units are out we’ll add a real-world weight here. I’d estimate it to be around 6 ounces. The display unit I handled felt light for its bulk. It does have to float.

I guess we owe Apple for making folks want to name their products with capital letters in the middle of the word. So inReach it shall be, la-De-dah.

Inquiring minds out there will want to know what satellite system the inReach uses. Yes, Iridium, which is pretty good. In my experience as an Iridium satphone owner, their swirling constellation of satellites are nearly always available (they’re said to cover the whole planet.) Yet be it known that unless you’ve got a level horizon and no vegetation or structures blocking the sky, Iridium connectivity can be spotty. That’s where texting comes in, which is done in data bursts instead of a constant duplexing flow like trying to use voice comm. Thus, texting and sending SOS with the inReach should be fairly reliable, but texting might occasionally require a wait up to 4 minutes or so if you’re in a canyon (you have to wait for a sat to sail overhead), and I suppose the SOS function could take just as long to trigger.

In all, a good effort by DeLorme which we look forward to working with.

The inReach is said to start shipping in October. Service plans start at $9.95 a month, MSRP $249.95.

Delorme blog has a good Q&A regarding the inReach.


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9 Responses to “Delorme One Ups the PLB Race”

  1. Jonathan Shefftz August 7th, 2011 8:57 am

    I’m all in favor of competition, but seems like a variation (or combination?) of the already available Spot Connect and Spot Communicator devices?
    Also, this part confused me:
    “As a stand-alone, if you trigger the “SOS” button you’ll get an indicator light coming back to you showing your help request was received. In my view this is super important, as in an emergency situation one needs to reduce the fiddle factor, and pressing the help button over and over again on a PLB “just to be sure” is yet another distraction.”
    – My understanding with the various devices I’ve owned (first-generation ACR PLB, first-generation Spot, and now Spot 2.0) is that there’s never any need to press the SOS button more than once, since it will keep trying automatically until the signal gets through.

  2. Lou August 8th, 2011 9:14 am

    Jonathan, my understanding is that most devices simply do not have a good feedback loop, so you’re not certain they work which can cause a lot of worry and uncertainty. Perhaps I made too big a deal out of this feature of the inReach. It’s all a big mess these days, actually super confusing as unless you study each device in detail it’s hard to know what, if any, even rudimentary two-way communication they do. For example, I always thought the basic SPOT did some kind of somewhat hidden and rudimentary two-way with the Globalstar sat system, but now I’m not so sure.

    Main thing is that due to false alarms and inability of authorities to do triage, ALL beacons will eventually have to have some sort of basic two-way communication capability such as 160 character texting. Anything else is simply not sustainable. My view, anyhow.

  3. Jonathan Shefftz August 8th, 2011 9:20 am

    Right, but there’s a difference between knowing for sure whether the signal got through vs. having to keep pressing the button over & over again. I don’t think there’s ever been a PLB or Spot on which pressing the SOS button more than once would accomplish anything, since the device will keep trying on its own with any additional action from the user.

  4. Lou August 8th, 2011 9:21 am

    Oh, and the difference with inReach is it’s designed to work with a phone for the communication keyboard and LCD, and works with the Iridium sat system which has better coverage than the Globalstar. Iridium covers the whole earth, Globalstar does not cover the poles, does not cover far southern Africa nor the southern tip of South America.

    Satphone users have told me, anecdotal, that the Iridium system tends to be overall more reliable. That said, in my experience Iridium is difficult for voice communication unless you’ve got a somewhat level horizon. But it works great for texting. Very reliable.

  5. Jonathan Shefftz August 8th, 2011 10:21 am

    Spot Connect already works with a phone.
    Polar coverage + southern Africa & S. America for inReach certainly will appeal to anyone going there.
    But my understanding is that experience with voice reliability on the two competing satellite companies isn’t relevant b/c voice vs data are on different networks?

  6. Lou August 8th, 2011 11:00 am

    Jonathan, that’s getting too technical for me at my level of knowledge about the sat phone systems. If you find out anything let us know. Thanks, Lou

  7. Tom S August 8th, 2011 11:51 am

    The inReach appears to be the first of these devices that actually **RECEIVES** data. The SPOT transmits in the BLIND, so the user has no idea whether the message got through. There are *many* reasons for a failure to occur.

    So, with a SPOT, if you hurt yourself out in the boonies, there’s no confirmation that help is on the way.

    With inReach, if an acknowledgement doesn’t arrive, then you at least know you’re on your own and need to expend all energy on getting yourself to safety. If you do get the response, then all you need to do is just survive at your location and someone will come to you. Quite a big deal, IMHO.

  8. Lou August 8th, 2011 11:58 am

    Yes, I agree is indeed very important! But some kind of language communication is where it all needs to head beyond a flashing green light. In my view, all the PLBs should have an LCD, along with perhaps a mini keyboard or touch screen keyboard. Then the rescue folks can text the victims, and victims can at least give a brief idea of their problem rather than the rescue folks having to respond to every, single, request.

    Devices that pair and allow above are a terrific step. But eventually they need to be stand-along, IMHO.

  9. Eric December 31st, 2012 1:06 am

    What is the update following the release of DeLorme InReach a year ago? Are there now competing PBL products (which are more realiable and faster, sattelite-wise) that offer 2-way communication?

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