Two years ago, a group of Stanford University students launched a weather balloon to capture images of the Grand Canyon from the edge of space. Through sheer luck, they have only just been reunited with their experiment. It lay in the desert for two years until a hiker stumbled across the remains and returned them to the owners.
Why did it take two years? Because the team did what so many others do and went for the DIY solution to a simple problem. They devised a system in which a smartphone would be placed inside a payload to pull GPS data from the phone's sensors and send the data string through a cell phone network. The only issue with this? There was no cell coverage where the payload was.
GSM tracking for aircraft works much the same way: a device pulls GPS data from an onboard GPS antenna and then sends that data back to a ground server through cell towers, where it is decoded and displayed on a website in real-time. GSM tracking can be great if you're flying in an urban area, but what happens when you leave the safety of your fixed cell tower? Some providers have dual GSM and satellite products that are able to switch over if a GSM signal is lost, but sometimes units can take a while to effectively switch networks and can encounter blackout periods during this time.
Satellite networks have much greater coverage and particularly the Iridium network which spidertracks operates on has full global coverage, pole to pole, which means no matter where the device is, you will always be connected. To test this, we launched our own balloon to the edge of space. Our test simulated a 'rescue' to an unknown location where the balloon would come down in a random location. We then had to find it using only the location data provided by our onboard device called a Spider.
The balloon reached a total height of 104,000 ft and came down in a remote area east of Las Vegas. We tracked the whole flight in real-time and received an automated alert through email and SMS when the Spider’s rate of descent exceeded normal operations. When the payload came to rest, it was upside down in the middle of nowhere but still sending position data. We punched the Lat/Long data from the Spider into our helicopter's GPS and flew a direct track to the rescue site in 15 minutes; despite its tiny 3sqM surface area, we spotted the payload on the first pass.
There's a well-established principle in trauma medicine called the golden hour. The concept is that the probability of survival is dramatically higher if medical treatment can be administered within the first 60 minutes of an accident. Search and rescue outfits both civil and military apply this concept to their operations and do everything possible to reduce the response time to an accident. If you had the chance to navigate directly to the site of an accident as soon as it happens, how much higher would your survival rate be?
Ultimately it comes down to this: two years versus 13 minutes.
It's your call.