ACR Electronics | MicroFix 2898 | Rescue Me: Accusat Is Our Top PLB

Rescue Me: Accusat Is Our Top PLB
a i r c r a f t s a f e t y
Rescue Me:
Accusat Is Our Top PLB
It’s small, light, strobe equipped and the price is right.
With 121.5 Mhz ELTs on the way out, any one of these
gadgets can substitute for a 406 ELT—to a degree.
by Joseph E. (Jeb) Burnside
MICRO PLB GX
12
2.1 IN
2.2 IN
ACR MICROFIX
1 2 • The Aviation Consumer
• The Aviation Consumer
Overview
Current-generation PLBs are basically a portable 406 ELT without
the crash-impact activation feature.
You have to switch it on manually,
something which involves extending an antenna and pressing a
button. PLB designs are of two basic
types: With or without a built-in
2.8 IN
5.3 IN
5.8 IN
5.8 IN
5.9 IN
2.4 IN
carrying one of the new 406 MHz,
GPS-enhanced portable locator
beacons or PLBs. They’re relatively
inexpensive, have a good record thus
far and can do double duty as an
ELT and a rescue-me beacon for the
car, the boat or outdoor activities of
all kinds. While this makes sense,
there are some limitations. Read on.
On February 1, 2009, COSPASSARSAT, the international organization formed to oversee the ELT satellite-monitoring network, will stop
MCMURDO FAST FIND
3.4 IN
5.1 IN
E
mergency locator transmitters
(ELTs) are one piece of equipment airplane owners love to
hate. They don’t work very well and
they always seem to need replacement
batteries. Beginning next year, the government will cease satellite monitoring of 121.5 MHz ELTs, making what
didn’t work that well to begin with
instantly all but useless.
Rather than invest as much as
$4000 in a new 406 MHz ELT, one
option owners have asked us about is
listening for the 121.5
and 243.0 MHz signals
from traditional ELTs. A new
ELT standard (TSO C126) using
digital technology and 406.025
MHz is a huge step forward, but
these aren’t required equipment.
Yet. The FAA so far has refused to
expand the ELT requirement to
embrace 406 ELTs and until prices
for these come down from the
flight levels, PLBs remain
an attractive alternative.
We looked at five current-generation models from five different
manufacturers.
While they
all perform the
same basic task—broadcasting your
location with a GPS fix encoded—
there are differences between them.
Worth noting here is that the
oversight agencies take a dim view
of setting these things off willy-nilly
to see if they work, thus we were
unable to test them in the heat of
battle. For that reason, our evaluations are based on examination of
the units and their specifications
and interviews with the manufacturers. For a detailed live test of
PLBs, we recommend reading a report on the trials conducted by the
Equipped to Survive Foundation at
www.equipped.org. New models,
including some covered here, have
been introduced since that test was
conducted.
GME ACCUSAT
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KANNAD XS-3
June 2008
June 2008
SIZE
WEIGHT
INCHES/MM
OUNCES/
H x W x D)
GRAMS
5.8 x 2.2x 1.4
149 x 56 x 36
GME
KANNAD
BATTERY
MINIMUM
WATERPROOF
USER
REPLACEABLE?
SHELF LIFE
LIFESPAN
DEPTH/METERS
10/
283
NO
5 YEARS
24 HOURS
ACCUSAT
5.3x2.8x1.5
POCKET PRO
135 x 71 x 38
MT410G
8.8/
250
NO
7 YEARS
406 XS-3 GPS
5.1x3.4x1.8
132 x 88 x 45
10.4
295
NO
McMURDO
FASTFIND
MAX-G
5.8x3x2.1
146 x 78 x 54
10.5
300
MICROWAVE
MONOLITHICS
MICROPLB
GX
5.9x2.4x.98
150 x 61 x 28
10/
285
MODEL
MANUFACTURER
ACR
MICROFIX
GPS receiver. Sending the GPS coordinates to the satellite can narrow down
the effective search area from within
a 5 kilometer radius when using 406
MHz Doppler shift techniques to 100
meters, which also eliminates the
multiple-pass delay. That alone makes
a PLB with built-in GPS the way to go,
in our view.
All of these PLBs comply with
international standards and, by
regulation, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has adopted
those standards as its own. A PLB
must be FCC-approved before it can
be registered in the U.S. And the free
registration is necessary if owners
expect to get the full benefit of a PLB,
since each one carries a discrete digital
signature that’s part of its transmitted
signal. All of the units we examined
have some means to test and verify
their operation, but without radiating
signals. Also, just because two PLBs
meet required specs, doesn’t necessarily mean they perform equally under
all conditions.
ACR MicroFix
ACR Electronics MicroFix PLB is
about the same size and weight as
a cellphone circa 1998, but without
the day-glow green plastic shell. Also
missing is a telephone keypad; there
are only two buttons on the MicroFix,
one to activate its self-test function
and the other to get rescued. The “getrescued” button is hidden under a tab
attached to the antenna’s base and
can’t be pressed without first extending the antenna.
The antenna itself is a black-coated,
flat, spring-steel affair—think metal
tape measure—wrapped around the
unit when in storage. The antenna’s
tip, molded from the same day-glow
June 2008
RETAIL
BUO YANT?
WARRANTY
5M
NO
5 YEARS
$699
24 HOURS
1M
YES
7 YEARS
$659
6 YEARS
24 HOURS
1M
YES
5 YEARS
$590
YES
5 YEARS
48 HOURS
5M
YES
2 YEARS
$650
NO
5 YEARS
48 HOURS
1M
NO
4 YEARS
$898
green plastic, fits into a locking slot
opposite the antenna’s pivot point. A
lanyard and a black plastic snap-on
belt carrier round out the package.
Activation is simple: Swing up the
antenna, removing the tip from its
recess, then press and hold the on/off
button for one second. A pictogram
on the front depicts extending the
antenna and pressing the activation
button, but it doesn’t suggest holding
the button.
GME Accusat MT410G
GME’s Accusat MT410G, manufactured in Australia, is vaguely rectangular in shape and encased in international-yellow plastic. Atop the unit
is a built-in strobe light; more about
that later. The unit has no LEDs, no
push buttons and no cute styling. It
comes with a black soft protective
case, which includes a belt loop and a
hook-and-loop closure.
On its back side is the antenna:
Push to release a spring-loaded plastic
latch and pull up and away from the
unit to break a security seal, extending the stainless-steel cable antenna.
That’s it—the unit is activated and
is zapping its message to the nearest
satellite. This is the only PLB of which
we’re aware that’s equipped with a
built-in strobe light. It’s not nearly as
bright as an aircraft strobe, but it does
work and is a feature present in none
of the other units we considered. It
would easily be visible to searchers
using night vision gear.
PRICE
company’s third-generation PLB and
comes with a six-year battery, exceeded only by the GME Accusat MT410G.
Its oval shape distinguishes it from the
rest of the PLBs we examined.
The Kannad uses the same tapemeasure-style antenna as the other
units and this fits into a channel of
soft black plastic wrapped around
the PLB’s circumference. Once
unwrapped, its base pivots and the
antenna points straight up. Clear
plastic shields cover the unit’s buttons:
Lift one shield to uncover the test button. To activate the PLB, break a small
piece of red security tape, pop off the
other shield and press the “ON” but-
All of the PLBs require antenna
extension at activation.
Kannad 406 XS-3 GPS
Kannad is a subsidiary of the Francebased Martec Group known in the
U.S. for a line of ELTs variously marketed under both company names.
The 406 XS-3 GPS model is the
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The Aviation Consumer
•
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Electronic Breadcrumbs
Another option to PLBs and 406 ELTs is SPOT, billed as “the world’s first satellite
messenger.” Basically, SPOT (www.findmespot.com, 866-651-7768) is a transmitter capable of finding its lat-long via on-board GPS. When a user wants, it triggers
canned e-mail messages with that lat-long to anyone you pre-select. It also has
a 911 mode, which notifies local authorities you need immediate assistance. It’s
offered by commercial satellite network Globalstar and—except
for determining position with GPS—depends on the company’s
network for communication. The devices retails for $169.99; you’ll
also need an annual service contract at $99.99, or $149.98, with
the live tracking option, which sends position every 10 minutes.
We took one aloft, placing it on the glareshield under ½-inchthick Plexiglas. It managed to find itself and communicate with
its satellites just fine. We didn’t
notice any interference with the
magnetic compass, a Garmin
396 or installed avionics. When
we got back on the ground and checked e-mail,
we had messages plotting various locations
along our route.
Unlike a PLB, SPOT’s coverage area isn’t worldwide. Most of North America—except Alaska,
notably—can expect 99-percent or better probability of successfully sending a message within
20 minutes of activation. There is no coverage for
Hawaii or the central Pacific, for the North and
South Poles, in Africa or in central Asia.
If you mainly stay in the CONUS, get outdoors
a lot and want others to track your whereabouts
with the possibility of emergency notification,
SPOT might be just the ticket. But PLBs offer a better chance for quick rescue, especially if you’re outside the lower 48 or visiting other areas of the world.
ton. A pictogram explains it all.
The 406 XS-3 GPS is the least-expensive of the units we tried, but is
among the heaviest. The unit’s heft,
ContactS
ACR Electronics
www.acrelectronics.com
800-432-0227
GME
www.gme.net.au
207-647-3300
Kannad
www.kannad.com
+33 (2) 97 02 49 49
McMurdo
www.mcmurdo.co.uk
+44 (0)23 9262 3900
Microwave Monolithics
www.micro-mono.com
805-584-6642
14
•
The Aviation Consumer
however, inspires confidence even
if we’re unconvinced that the plastic
shields covering the buttons will survive long in a flight bag. They seemed
fragile to us. The plastic wrapped
around its circumference to store the
antenna is easy to grip, even when
wet. A good feature.
McMurdo Fastfind MAX-G
McMurdo, based in the U.K., was one
of the first companies to enter the PLB
market. At our deadline, its new-generation Fastfind MAX-G hadn’t been
approved for U.S. sale by the FCC,
but approval was expected in May.
The Fastfind MAX-G is packaged in a
curvy yellow-plastic case. Included is
a coiled lanyard, stretching up to two
feet, with a heavy-duty plastic clip on
the end for attaching to a belt loop,
life raft or personal flotation device.
Its front is a flip-up door used to
expose its control panel. The door’s
underside features two pictograms exw w w.av i at i o n co n s u m e r. co m
plaining activation. That involves first
pulling off a red plastic cover, releasing the antenna and powering up the
unit. The PLB’s antenna is narrower
spring-steel than others and is coiled
up beneath the red cover. Once the
red cover is removed, the antenna is
free to extend and could
smack someone who’s
holding it too close.
Some care is necessary
when deploying it. The
Fastfind MAX-G is the
only PLB with a userreplaceable battery, but
it also has the shortest
factory warranty. At 300
grams, it’s the heaviest in
our roundup, but it does
float. It comes with a yellow fabric
case that includes a belt loop and a
flap with hook-and-loop closure.
MicroPLB GX
Microwave Monolithics’ MicroPLB is
the smallest PLB we looked at, with a
form factor roughly the size of a pack
of cigarettes, but taller. It’s packaged in
international-yellow plastic with black
text describing the two-step process of
activating it: Remove the small cap at
the top, then withdraw an inch-long
plastic activator pin on a short lanyard. Be careful, though, since pulling
off the cap releases another springsteel antenna that whips out like a
jack-in-the-box, startling the unwary.
The unit’s cap remains nearby once it’s
removed, thanks to a lanyard adapted
from a shoelace and looped through
molded lugs.
While it’s not the lightest, it is the
smallest unit in our roundup and it
would fit easily into a shirt pocket.
There’s no belt loop or carrying case,
but it really doesn’t need one and it
will hide just about anywhere in the
cockpit or cabin until it’s called upon.
The only mark against the MicroPLB is
price: At $898, it’s the most expensive
product in this group. And for that
kind of money, we deserve better than
a shoelace for a lanyard, in our view.
Conclusion
So, come next year, you’re facing a
dilemma. Legacy 121.5 ELTs will no
longer be satellite monitored so the
obvious question is why worry about
it? Just buy one of these PLBs and be
done with it. Is that a realistic way to
approach this? We think it is. But it’s
not without tradeoffs. A 406 ELT with
June 2008
GPS is designed to survive a crash and
broadcast take-it-to-the-bank position
data to get you found. Our view is
that 406 ELTs are an order of magnitude better than 121.5 ELTs, although
long-term reliability is still an unknown. They also cost between $2000
and $5000 installed. And although
the NTSB has recommended that the
FAA require owners to have them, the
FAA has so far declined.
For a fraction of this cost, a PLB will
get you found...if it and you survive
the crash and the gadget can be manually activated. So the cost/value relates
to how much you’re willing to spend
for an in-airplane beacon that will
watch your back automatically versus
one that requires manual operation.
We think the PLB is a reasonable
second choice—but it won’t provide
the same level of worst-case protection that a 406 ELT will. If budget isn’t
a factor, buy both and know you’ve
done all you can on the SAR front.
In our view, the GME Accusat
MT401G is the best choice. Its price
is competitive, it’s the lightest of the
bunch, is roughly the same size as
other PLBs and it floats. It’s also the
only PLB we looked at with a builtin strobe. The MT410G also has the
longest shelf life and warranty—seven
years for both—of any PLB we examined, although we might service
it more frequently than that. Other
choices, in order, are the Kannad, ACR
and McMurdo. All have basically the
same features, are easy to activate and
are priced within $109 of each other.
Meanwhile, at almost $900, the
only thing the MicroPLB has going for
it that we can see is its small size. If
you wanted a PLB to do double-duty
for hiking or mountain biking, size
and weight would be important. In
that case, the MicroPLB might deserve
another look.
Until someone markets an inexpensive GPS-equipped 406 ELT, a
PLB with GPS may be best way to be
found quickly after a remote crash.
After January of next year—especially if you fly off the beaten path
where there may not be any airliners
overhead listening to 121.5—one of
these PLBs may be the only way to get
rescued at all.
c o c kp i t a c c e s s o r i e s
Datalink Weather:
WSI Beats XM By a Hair
Both vendors provide the critical stuff well and
reliably, but WSI leads on lightning, storm
identification and icing products.
by Scott C. Dennstaedt
D
atalink weather from WSI
(Weather Services International) or through XM-based
WxWorx, are far more alike than different. Even the pricing is identical
for the basic and second-tier service, at $29.99 and $49.99 a month
respectively. But close examination
reveals a few key differences.
Remember that vendors, such as
Avidyne or NavAero, decide how to
display the data from either service
in any manner they choose, and
even what data to display. WSI (WSI
InFlight) and WxWorx (WxWorx on
Wings) both provide their own software that displays all of their broadcast products, so that’s what we’ll use
for our head-to-head comparison.
c h e c kl i s t
You can’t go wrong
adding any datalink
weather to the cockpit.
Even after ADS-B, private
vendors will likely supply
value-added products.
Choice of vendor is often
determined by hardware.
No Winner on NEXRAD
Ground-based radar is the cash cow
of both services. Its high glancevalue is the reason why pilots
Even if your equipment can only display XM or WSI, it’s still good to
know the differences. WxWorx (below left) only shows ground-strike
lightning and only on a 4-km grid. WSI
(below right) shows additional cloud-tocloud strikes and at a finer resolution.
This is true no matter which system you
use to view
the data.
Jeb Burnside is Aviation Consumer’s
associate editor and editor of Aviation
Safety magazine.
June 2008
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The Aviation Consumer
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