Friday, March 22, 2019

InReach Devices (Satellite Based Texting)

It’s been interesting to see advances in technology in tree planting over the past decade, with the proliferation of smart phones and other powerful mobile devices.  Various apps such as Avenza, Dropbox, GeoCam, and CamScanner have revolutionized the way that we find blocks, and improved our processing of paperwork and maps.  However, although there has been a small amount of progress during this same time frame in terms of communications capabilities (slight expansions of cellular grids), most aspects of communication haven’t changed.  For instance, we’re still using the same old VHF radios that were used since the modern tree planting industry began in the 1970’s.

Due to the relatively recent advent of satellites designed for consumer communications, satellite phones have become more ubiquitous.  The GlobalStar satellite network was unreliable for several years, which was a significant concern with respect to relying on that network for safety-related or emergency communications.  The Iridium network seemed to work quite well (and still does), but using a satellite phone on either of these networks is pricy.  However, there’s a “new” kid on the block, which has already become indispensable to a number of planting companies:  InReach devices.

An InReach is a device that is a stand-alone handheld satellite-based GPS device, but it also has the ability to send very simple messages via a separate satellite system (it uses the Iridium satellite network).  For those of you in the central British Columbia area, the two main models of InReach that I'm aware of are currently priced at $480 (Garmin InReach SE+) and $549 (Garmin InReach Explorer+) at IRL in Prince George.  I also checked the prices at GPS Central in Calgary, where the SE+ was cheaper than IRL, and the Explorer+ was more expensive than IRL.  Of course, those prices are just for the devices, but you still need a subscription to use them.  There’s also a new budget version InReach Mini, although I haven’t played with this model yet.  Incidentally, the InReach devices were originally created by a company called DeLorme, but DeLorme was acquired by Garmin in 2016.

A very basic subscription called the “Safety Plan” is around $20 per month ($15/month if you lock in an annual contract).  It's useless except for emergencies.  The medium plan is called the “Recreational Plan” and it costs $45 per month ($35/month if you lock in an annual contract).  Again, this mid-tier plan is not much good unless you're very careful with your communications.  The top tier is called the “Expedition Plan.”  If you’re a serious user, this is the plan for you.  It costs $80 per month ($65/month if you lock in an annual contract), and it's fantastic because it allows unlimited texts.  The two lower-end plans charge $1.25 per text, which would quickly become prohibitive if you were using the device to its full capabilities.

As noted, there are discounts on annual plans.  An annual plan may not be suitable for everyone, but that’s ok because you don't have to lock in for twelve months.  For tree planters in Canada, it makes sense to turn our subscriptions on at the start of the season, and once the season ends a few months later, we turn the subscriptions back off.  For more information on rate plans in Canada, visit:

For communication, it is possible to input a simple text message via the device, although that approach is quite slow and painful (and I don’t think the InReach Mini has this capability).  The InReach then transmits your message via satellite, so you don’t need to be within cell range to use it.  It sends up to 160 characters per message, just text.  No graphics or anything like that, so it’s similar to SMS messaging (not MMS).  If the device is sitting out in the open and talking to the satellites, I find that it usually sends and receives within 10-15 seconds, so you can actually have a functional conversation.  My InReach devices rarely take more than a full minute to send or receive, unless I’m really blocked in by mountains or trees.  Line of sight to the sky definitely helps improve response time.

The best thing is that you can interface any of the InReach devices with any smart phone via Bluetooth.  This lets you do your text sending/receiving using the keypad on your phone, which is obviously so much faster than punching it in on the InReach itself.  The only drawback is that it is still the InReach device which does the sending/receiving.  So if I have a friend out on a block with no cell service, and I’m in town, when I text him/her (using my regular texting app on my phone), I have to remember to send the text to his/her device's phone number rather than to the personal cell number.  To be safe, if I’m not sure where he is, I often send the message to both numbers at the same time.  You get used to this very quickly.

Imagine this situation:  You’re a supervisor who is taking a couple of crews out to plant a couple of helicopter blocks.  There is no cell service at Staging, and no cell service on the blocks, so everyones’ cell phones are useless.  Even worse, the blocks are four kilometers away from Staging, on the wrong side of a mountain, so the handhelds aren’t strong enough to talk to the person back at Staging (we almost always have someone on standby at Staging for the full duration of any helicopter operations, to help facilitate regular operations such as loading or unloading slings, and to be on standby to assist in the case of a first aid emergency).  In this type of situation, the InReach devices are incredibly valuable.  The foremen on the block and the supervisor at Staging can communicate easily, all day long, via satellite text messages.  Helicopters are expensive, and any “wrong moves” (inefficiencies) can be quite costly when you sign the flight ticket at the end of the day.  An InReach device can sometimes pay for itself in one day when running helicopter operations.  I’ve had days where I’ve been supervising over fifty planters spread out across six or seven blocks, with two A-Stars in the air for the entire day, and no VHF handheld communication capabilities between the blocks and Staging.  On days like that, I’ll often end up sending and receiving as many as four to five hundred texts during the day, keeping on top of what’s happening everywhere, so you can quickly see how essential it is to be able to remain in constant communication.  And if you’re curious about the cost of running such an operation, the helicopter time for a day like that can approach forty thousand dollars.

Incidentally, the InReach devices are very easy on their batteries.  It takes several days to run the battery down from a full charge.  However, your smart phone may not be so lucky, especially since you’ll presumably be outside of cell coverage, so your phone burns through extra battery capacity very quickly trying to search for a cell connection every minute or so.  There are two ways to mitigate this.  The first is to go to Airplane mode, then turn Bluetooth back on.  The device can then talk to the InReach via Bluetooth even though it’s still in airplane mode and not trying to sniff a cell signal.  A second useful idea is to bring a “power bank” charger, so you can top up your smart phone (and InReach) batteries while on the block.  If you aren’t familiar with power bank chargers, watch this video:

As a small side benefit, you can set your InReach device up for tracking as long as you're on the $75/month plan.  It does this at no extra cost, sending out a ping once every ten minutes that communicates the location and speed of the device.  I can keep my InReach on the dash of my truck for weeks at a time, and any time someone in the office wonders where I am, they just log in to a special URL that I give them, and they can see my location on a map (and how fast I'm moving).  It would be really helpful if I was ever in an accident and went missing, because they could just look for the last ping to narrow down the search.  Apparently, there’s a new high-end subscription plan (the “Extreme Plan” for $125/month) that sends tracking pings every 2 minutes, although most organizations/individuals would be fine with the “Expedition” plan.

One potential drawback (for some people) is that the InReach apparently won't accept a text unless it is from a number with which it has already started a conversation.  I presume that this is to eliminate spam texts.  This might be a problem for some people though.  For example, when working with no cell service near Alexis Creek, I told everyone in my camp to give my InReach number to their parents/friends in case there was ever a serious emergency and someone needed to get in touch with them quickly.  However, since I had never texted any of those people with my InReach first, if anyone had tried to send a message, I wouldn't have reached it.  This issue can be circumvented by testing your messaging capabilities in advance, with key people that you might want to receive a text from.

All in all, an InReach seems to be an expensive device for a company (around five hundred dollars per device, plus about three hundred dollars for the Expedition subscription for four months), but this cost is very much worth it for tree planting companies working in remote locations where there’s no cell coverage.

After all, you can’t put a price on safety.

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