Space. Our next frontier. Not literally, of course, but we’re investigating several new satellite-based technologies that can help us achieve greater resilience.
This article is a personal opinion article and its contents may therefore not represent Kent County RAYNET’s current policies.
For years, like so many RAYNET groups, we’ve been using Automatic Packet Reporting Service (APRS) to track vehicles and people at events. Used in conjunction with SARTrack, we often display large maps with the locations for Lead, Tail, Sweep and even, if required, Race Director in event control. No more taking the time to ask where they are on the voice-net; it’s just there on the screen.
It does have a drawback, namely that it often requires a lot of additional radio infrastructure around the course to be installed. This can be difficult to achieve, especially on some of the half-marathons that go out into the wilds of Kent, and even with pre-built trackers there have been times when the event’s vehicle fleet has been made available later than expected, creating installation issues.
That’s rigging that we can do without.
For the last six months, we have been testing SPOT Trackers, usually alongside our APRS system. SPOT Trackers are a tiny (really tiny) black boxes that turn on with a single button press. They acquire a GPS lock and then transmit their location every few minutes up to the GlobalStar satellite.
Receiving the data can still be done within SARTrack, allowing us to continue to combine it with APRS if needed, but it also allows us to view it on a public website (so long as you have the address). This means that the entire race management team can view it from their smartphones, regardless of their location. It does require an internet connection, but that’s provided at the event control by either 4G or satellite broadband (see below!) since we are likely also running a phone system for other event marshals to report in.
Rigging cars and people, especially the latter, is now so much simpler. The radio licence requirements go away, meaning a Sweep walker no longer needs to be shadowed by a licensed operator, allowing our members to be allocated more appropriately. Most importantly, we only need seconds to place a SPOT Tracker in a race vehicle. This also removes the APRS radio infrastructure from around the course.
Top tip on this: don’t put anything with GPS in the front windshield. Too many cars have an invisible metal film sandwiched in the glass that can interfere with a GPS signal. SPOT Trackers can be powered either by AA batteries, which seem to last forever, or from a USB cable (preferably both).
Downside? Well, there’s an annual service charge. The charge is all-inclusive of every message it sends back and so, when used over several events in the year, it doesn’t feel too bad. Balanced against the cost and time of installing a rock-solid APRS network, it’s incredibly cheap, but it’d be remiss of me not to mention that they exist.
As a side note, we don’t use 144.800 for APRS, as we have adjusted the transmission frequency to every 20 seconds on each tracker to provide frequent updates. We feel that the extra strain on the national APRS frequency would be too much, even with the understanding nature of other amateurs.
Tooway Satellite Internet
Okay, this one’s a bit of a cheat, as we’ve been using the Tooway Service for a few years now to deliver broadband internet anywhere we can see a southern sky. You’ve probably seen the pictures on Twitter and Facebook but, just in case, here’s our lakeside operation from Exercise SURGE.
The system is fairly simple. Take what looks like a slightly large Sky dish, point it just east of south and use a cable to connect it to a satellite modem (where you’d usually find the Sky Box). Nudge it left and right a bit until the thing gives a continuous beep and wait a few minutes for the system to synchronise and acquire an IP address. Almost instant internet, almost anywhere, although there is some inherent latency as it’s satellite-based – about 700ms in addition to what a cable broadband would add.
Tooway have a video that goes through a full install for those that want the nuts and bolts (be warned, it’s lengthy). Since our purchase, we’ve made a number of refinements to ease deployments. Perhaps they’re a subject for a future article but, in short, we’ve attached a sleeve to the clamps on the back of the dish. The sleeve has a spirit level on the top to ensure the system is perfectly straight. This cuts deployment time from twenty minutes down to about five.
Why include it in this series if it’s not new? Because there’s a new price plan. We currently have the strategy of paying for the cheapest package (approximately £30 a month with a 25Gb data cap) with the intent of calling up to our service provider and improving the amount of bundled data, dramatically, in the event of a call-out. In other words, we pay as little as possible to keep the system on standby, knowing we can pay for the best when it’s needed.
Our service provider (the company we pay to provide us with airtime; you can’t buy it directly from Tooway) has recently decided to offer a real disaster recovery price plan, and it’s very interesting. Essentially, it’s a tiny monthly cost until you use it and, from the moment of activation, it does get quite pricey. The key difference is that nobody needs to ring the service provider with a credit card handy at the point of use, and we might pay less to keep it on standby.
We don’t plan any changes at the moment, as it would be one that impacts on our agreements with our clients, but it’s something we are investigating at the very least.
As always, I welcome your comments and suggestions for other solutions below.