SPOT, SPOT X, inReach, or PLB: Which One?
Small Craft Advisor|May - June 2020
SPOT, SPOT X, inReach, or PLB: Which One?
I like to row, and I even learned how to use a yuloh to move my Potter.
Jerry Culik

But I consider a reliable outboard motor to be an important component of my on-water safety plan—as well as a convenience when the wind dies and the tide is against me. I don’t need technology to have great adventures, but sometimes I’m really happy I’ve got it. Now that personal locator beacons and various “messenger” devices are available, shouldn’t we consider taking one along on the voyage? Recent news reports of missing (and eventually found) hikers strongly suggest that the answer is “Yes.” My question is: What are the differences between SPOT, SPOT X, Garmin’s inReach-enabled devices— and a PLB? And how do I choose the best one?

Personal Locator Beacon

A Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) is a “worst-case” device and has only one purpose: to locate and deliver emergency services to the person who triggers the distress signal. PLBs are small and light enough to attach to your PFD, and they use the same international Cospas-Sarsat search-and-rescue satellite systems that the big boat EPIRBs (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon) use. PLBs are also made by many of the same companies that manufacture EPIRBs, for example: ACR (acrartex.com), Ocean Signal (oceansignal.com), and McMurdo (oroliamaritime.com). Each device is a little different, but their operation is similar. First a small compact antenna is released. Then, since PLBs are not water activated, they are triggered by holding down a protected “Send” button for a couple of seconds. An internal GPS receiver will determine your location, and then send the distress message. While the PLB will indicate that it is trying to transmit your S-O-S, and activate a homing beacon and strobe, there is no acknowledgement that the distress message was received until you see the ‘chopper overhead. Once triggered the PLB will continue to transmit the S-O-S and homing beacon for at least 24 hours, or until the battery is dead.

Like many electronic devices, PLBs get updates and additional features, and you should check for the latest models. For example, ACR’s current models are the ResQLink 400 and the ResQLink View, which has the same functions plus a digital display. They are significantly smaller and lighter than ACR’s previous PLBs. With PLBs the only cost is what you pay for the device itself. There is no annual service fee, but you do need to re-register the device (through U.S. Boat or NOAA) every two years. With a sealed long-life battery, a PLB is good for at least five years after the date of manufacture.

What are the differences..and how do I choose the best one?

SPOT

The SPOT messenger/rescue system (findmespot.com), which uses GPS and SPOT’s proprietary Globalstar communication satellite system, has been operational for more than a decade and proven on many well-known adventure races and raids. Unlike PLBs, which only transmit an emergency “S-O-S” message, SPOT devices can also send an “OK” message and, if you choose, it can transmit your GPS location to selected contacts, who can then track your progress. The current SPOT Gen3 device can also call for help in non-emergency situations (“Save Our Vehicle”), similar to calling AAA if you get a flat; and it can send a “pre-recorded” custom message (“I need…”) to a personal contact. Like PLBs, SPOT devices are “one-way” messengers—they cannot receive messages or indicate whether a sent message was actually received.

SPOT devices are compact (3.4 x 2.) and weigh four ounces with four AAA batteries installed, about the same as the ResQLink 400 PLB. While the Gen3 devices can also be line-powered from a USB source, they can’t recharge the batteries. Gen3 devices are more efficient than previous SPOTs and now have “motion sensing” to turn off tracking when stationary, but the actual battery lifetime depends on the tracking interval and on signal obscuration (the internal antenna needs a fairly clear view of the sky, and more trees equals more power needed). Under the best signal conditions and at the slowest tracking interval (60 minutes), the Gen3’s runtime is spec’d at up to 52 days using high-capacity lithium batteries. For comparison to other devices, use the runtime of the SPOT Gen3 with a typical 10-minute tracking interval—17 days (400 hours). In emergency mode, SPOT claims that a Gen3 device can transmit its S-O-S beacon for up to six days even with the signal degraded by 50%.

While SPOT devices are designed for exposure to rough conditions (they are rated IP67—submersion to one meter for 30 minutes), SPOT cautions that Gen3 devices are NOT waterproof when powered using the micro-USB port. And reports from the field are that the port plug does a poor job of sealing out water. For that reason, many expedition kayakers still prefer to carry the previous generation SPOT devices that are more resistant to water damage.

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May - June 2020