Globalstar tracks 1,600 km Yukon sled dog race

Sled dog racing fans can go online to watch mushers progress along their 1,600-kilometre route across the Yukon Quest Trail from Fairbanks, Alaska to Whitehorse, Yukon as part of this year’s Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race.

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The annual race, now in its 27th year, starts on Feb. 6 and typically lasts 10 to 16 days. The mushers, pulled on sleds by a team of eight to 14 dogs, meet 11 checkpoints that cross four mountain ranges.

Mobile satellite voice and data services provider Globalstar Canada Satellite Co. is sponsoring the race this year and supplied its SPOT personal satellite messenger devices to each team.

“It’s a huge advantage for us to be able to share that information with the fans and have them engage with the mushers,” said Wendy Morrison, executive director of Yukon Quest.

All but one musher agreed to carry the device. The families were very supportive of the technology, which tracks the mushers’ routes online, noted Morrison.

“Some of our checkpoints are as much as 200 miles apart and the families wanted to know where they were within this 200 miles of trail … that was a huge bonus and something they were very happy with. In some cases, the families insisted that the mushers take them,” she said.

SPOT is a consumer-oriented satellite product targeting outdoor enthusiasts at roughly $100 for the device (two models are available) and a $100 annual service fee. It does not support calling.

But the device can serve as a cost-effective alternative to mobile satellite phones for enterprises seeking to meet legislative work alone requirements, according to Jim Mandala, general manager of Globalstar Canada. 

In Canada, there has been some pressure on organizations to provide a communications product for workers going out alone to different environments, he said.

“We’ve had great success with SPOT as an option for many of these organizations as a stand-alone work alone device,” he said.

Half a dozen large companies have deployed SPOT to their field staff, he said. The devices has also been deployed to government users such as social workers who travel to remote areas to meet with families, he said.

“It’s really the only device of its kind in the remote workers field that anyone is really using right now outside of cell phones,” he said.

The driving factor is cost, according to Mandala. “The only other option you have is to give everyone a satellite phone and if you have 500 remote workers, it becomes too cost prohibitive,” he said.

Globalstar satellite phones range from $500 to $1000 and monthly plans start at roughly $50.

SPOT differs from satellite-based beacons and GPS mapping devices by allowing users to modify the messages they communicate back to employers and rescue workers, Mandala pointed out.

Devices like SPOT allow people in remote areas to have some type of communication or tracking where there is no other communication available, he said. “It’s a real piece of mind device,” said Mandala.

With SPOT, users can send a 911 alert when they life-saving assistance. Users can also send pre-programmed e-mail and text messaging requesting non-life threatening help or notifying others that everything is okay, he explained.

The customized messages include a Google Maps link to the user’s location.

While SPOT devices can’t make calls, they could serve as a cost-effective devices for lone workers in the field, according to Dominique Bonpe, practice director for telematics and navigation at ABI Research.

“If it is for occasional use, like for lone workers, it could certainly be less expensive than buying an expensive satellite handset and an expensive satellite subscription … from that perspective, it could be a good solution if you don’t need to call and it’s just to send alerts,” said Bonpe.
But enterprises considering these devices should keep in mind that reliability is not 100 per cent, he noted. Users may have to make several attempts at sending a message, there may be a 15-minute delay for messages sent and users  don’t receive a confirmation when a message has been sent, he pointed out.

“But in most cases, it will work and for the segment of outdoor enthusiasts, it is what you basically need, certainly at that price level,” he said.

Personal satellite messengers is still an emerging market, said Bonpe. “I think employers increasingly want to equip their lone workers with these devices because they have a responsibility in terms of safety and security – even a legal responsibility in most countries,” he said.

Devices that provide similar functionality within the wristwatch form factor are also getting a lot of attention, he noted. “It’s important if workers are engaged in very demanding or physical tasks who can’t just carry handsets and use them,” he said.

Working alone legislation in Canada varies by province.

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