Saturday, January 17, 2015

Sharing your current location on the Web and Social Media

While part of the attractiveness of cruising is to “get a away from it all”, we all feel the need (if not the responsibility) of keeping others regularly updated on our whereabouts and our progress. Whether we just want to reassure friends and family that all is well, communicate our current position to the race committee or fellow regatta members, or keep our charter agency informed on our itinerary, there are no excuses today for not keeping others “in the loop”, thanks to a combination of GPS, satellite systems, the Web and social media. The options are may, and in most cases are within reach of the average cruiser's budget.

Since the choice of the optimal method can be a bit daunting, we will examine a couple of the methods we have experimented with in the recent past. Each one has it's benefits an limitations, which we will try to highlight in the summary table at the end.

Navigation software

The rapidly increasing availability of relatively inexpensive mobile Internet access at sea is making this option more and more popular. Simply put, your navigation software most likely already knows where you are, your current heading etc. thanks to integration with the on board GPS, and very likely has access to the Internet, whether through a smartphone (while within cellular coverage), or a satellite-based system (when away from land). Why not have your navigation app take care of sending regular log updates automatically?

Granted, everything is fine as long as you have good, inexpensive Internet access, whether through WiFi at a marina or your cellular phone. Things are a bit different when you are away from land and are relying on satellite communications. Here, costs greatly depend on the system you have, but can quickly become prohibitive. The amount of data required for the typical log update is fairly small (20-50KBytes), but at the 2.4kbps data rate of many low-end satellite phones, where you are paying data minutes are in the $1 range, even a single daily update can become way too pricey.

Different story if you have already absorbed the investment in a high-end (100-300kbps) satellite station (such as the Iridium Pilot or Inmarsat Fleet One). In this case your average per-Megabyte cost, which can be as low as $1 or less, can make sending several updates a day quite affordable. Bottom line, navigation software-originated updates can be a viable solution depending on your Internet setup, and how much time you spend within reach of cellular networks.

Satellite Tracking Devices

The ever more popular Spot Tracker is a favorite among hikers, skiers, cruisers and other outdoors sports enthusiasts. At an affordable $99 for the device itself, plus $20 a month (including $5 for the Basic Tracking service, which you are going to need. A one year contract is required). It incorporates a GPS chip, which sends your position every 10 minutes to a network of commercial satellites, covering most of the navigable globe.

AIS

The Automatic Identification System (AIS) is an automatic tracking system used on ships and by vessel traffic services for identifying and locating vessels, by electronically exchanging data with other nearby ships and AIS Base stations. While originally intended for large cargo and passenger ships, low-cost AIS transponders are becoming more affordable and are increasingly popular among pleasure boaters.

Problem is, AIS was designed essentially for ship-to-ship communication, so how can it help you send your log updates to the Internet and the rest of the world? This service is provided by a network of land-based stations that has sprung up in the last decade that detects AIS broadcasts within a few tens of miles of the major coastal urban areas around the world, In addition, an expanding network of low orbiting satellites also picks up signals from remote locations and feeds it to the Internet

Manual updates

Last but not least, you can always send your current position manually as a GeoSMS, which is a fancy word for a plain old text message containing your latitude and longitude embedded in a special format within the message. You can do this either through your cellular or satellite phone.

Making your updates available to the world

OK, so you have chosen your ideal delivery method, or combination thereof. But how do your log updates end up on the web or Facebook?

That's where services like sQuidd.io come handy. Sign up for a free account and provide your unique AIS identifier (something called MMSI), or your Spot Tracker ID and your AIS or Spot log updates will appear in your profile page to anyone on your follow list.

If you have chosen to use the OpenCPN sQuidd.io plugin, simply enter your sQuidd.io user ID and a special API Key in your plugin settings and there you have it, your plugin log updates are now available on the sQuidd.io page. Optionally, you can have these updates posted to your Faacebook account.

Speaking of OpenCPN, anyone on your 'follow list' who uses the sQuidd.io plugin will also be able to track your position directly on their OpenCPN chart, a nice handy feature that spares your from having to constantly switch between your navigation software and your web browser.

So, to wrap it up, hare's a table that summarizes pros and cons of each solution.


Pros Cons Typical costs
Navigation Software (OpenCPN with sQuidd.io plugin) User-defined update frequency

Wide range of navigational information can be shared

Plugin allows display of friends' position on chart
Computer must be on and application needs to be running in order for updates to be sent Purchase: Free (both OpenCPN and sQuiddio plugin are open source)

Monthly service costs:

Cellular data: no incremental costs if your data plan is unlimited

Satellite data: highly variable (from a few pennies to $1 per update depending on the satellite system you use)
Satellite Tracker (e.g Spot Tracker) Ease of setup/use

Best when frequent updates are required (e.g. every 10 mins)
Minimum monthly cost cannot be adapted to usage needs

Information shared is limited to lat/lon coordinates
Equipment purchase: $99

Monthly Service Costs: $20, minimum one-year contract
AIS No recurring monthly or usage costs.

Equipment already a standard feature on many new boats, required by law in some countries
Coverage is limited to some coastal areas Equipment Purchase: $700 to $1200 for a class-B AIS transponder

Monthly service costs: free
Manual updates (GeoSMS) No equipment or software required (other than your cellphone or sat phone) Can be cumbersome/tedious to operate.

Unreliable as dependent on human manual operation
Each SMS is typically priced as one minute of voice time


In summary, the choice of the optimal 'log sharing' solution depends on how much time away from land you plan on spending, what equipment you already own (AIS Transponder, Satellite Internet station etc.) and how often you want to send log updates to the rest of the world. If you are starting from scratch, don't own and AIS transponder or fancy satellite station, Spot Tracker is by far your best bet. If you already have an AIS transponder, and spend most of your time sailing within VHF reach of land, AIS is entirely free. For those who plan on doing a lot blue-water sailing and can afford the cost of a high-speed, always on satellite Internet system, OpenCPN with the sQuidd.io plugin offer by far the most flexibility.

Have you successfully adopted any other method for sharing your logs? Do you have any comments and feedback to the solutions we discuss in this post? Please let us know by posting a comment


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