No more lost at sea thanks to satellite tracking

If the Edmund Fitzgerald had been equipped with a little antenna box that fed location information to a satellite, would “the great lake we call Gitche Gumee” have claimed the famous ship and her crew?

GEOSat Solutions Inc. has launched SeaTrac, which is essentially just that type of tracking service. SeaTrac is software that uses a satellite network to keep track of vessels in the water and give them needed information about the weather and the water.

Al Behrendt, president of Dania Beach, Fla.-based GEOSat, said they had originally been using a satellite network that wasn’t quite giving them the service or support they needed. It didn’t take long for them to find Ottawa-based TMI Communications.

“We found that TMI’s service was superior,” Behrendt said. “Their support and their operation centre ensure that someone is there 24 hours a day seven days a week. Their network afforded us good coverage of the areas we needed, which is offshore on the eastern seaboard of the U.S. and Canada right down to South America.”

The TMI network uses packet data, which allows GEOSat to have a constant flow of information between marinas and boats. Phil Clarke, director of business development for TMI, said the packet switch allows users to send bursts of information back and forth over a public switch data network. The data is sent from the boats to TMI’s ground station in Ottawa. TMI then sends that information to their clients’ networks.

“Our data network allows us to link into client applications,” Clarke said.

The boats will be equipped with a PDT-100, designed by Atlanta-based EMS Technologies Inc., that is used to talk with the satellite and interface with the packet data network.

Behrendt said the antenna hardware is about the size of a baseball cap and is powered by AC or 12 volts. It includes a 12-channel GPS (global positioning system).

“We’ve developed a software program for a palm pilot, that allows the boat owner to file a float plan indicating where he’s leaving from, where he’s going, the time he’s leaving, his estimated time of arrival and any places he’ll be stopping. All that information is sent via a SeaTrac terminal through the satellite network to an earth station and from there it goes out to the Internet.

“So if you were taking a Great-Lake cruise, your family could go online and track your progress and know where you are. Every time the unit transmits it sends out longitudinal and latitudinal coordinates and you can click on a chart on the site to see where the boat is,” Behrendt said.

He said they have expanded the system so that boat owners can report problems or weather conditions. Boaters can also receive messages on their Palm at prearranged intervals through the satellite network.

“We have an emergency function where they can send a message, and with SeaTrac any message transmitted gets an acknowledgement that it was received,” he said. “So in an emergency, you’re not out there wondering if the messages you’re sending are getting anywhere.”

The full system went into Behrendt’s boat in June and he said it has been wonderful to still be connected while on the water. Within the next 60 days he expects GEOSat to launch more functions on the system, including bilge-level monitors and battery monitors. “Even if the owner is not on the boat – if it is docked at the marina – you can go on the Internet and see the condition of the boat.”

Behrendt added the system will also have alarms, so if there was something out of the ordinary, an alarm would be transmitted to TMI’s ground station.

David Berndt, director of wireless technologies for the Yankee Group in Boston, said the geo synchronous satellites have always had a market in the tracking and location aspects. He said that essentially these satellites are in a fixed spot over the Earth and stay in that spot. Their lifespan is at least 15 years, so it makes it an affordable system.

He noted that more advanced voice communication would be hard because you would need the satellites closer to the end user, and the closer a satellite gets, the less time it will stay in the air.

Berndt noted the geo-level satellite systems are not really adding any more functions to their networks, and said they don’t really have to.

“Well, the guys doing the tracking and related products are staying the same – they have a market niche. They don’t have to look for ways to get more functionality,” he said.

According to Clarke, TMI – which owns the MSAT-1 network – basically is a network provider and it wholesales the system to solutions providers looking for a geo-level satellite network.

“It’s a matter of finding someone who is creative, who has expertise in an industry, who wants to use a satellite network as a means of information exchange.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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