When I was first approached by Joe Rainczuk of TracMe back in 2005, his concept for an inexpensive homing beacon that would aid Search and Rescue to locate those who were lost or in distress was intriguing. Joe came over from Australia with the engineering half of his team, Tilo Schmidt, in March 2006 and I was given a brief demonstration of the device. I foresaw some issues with the concept, many of which we discussed at the time. TracMe is now forging ahead with their marketing plan, making a big push to sell their device in the U.S., and the question is, have they addressed those issues?
There are two primary questions that need answering. First; does it work, or more precisely, does it perform as represented by the manufacturer and will it meet consumers' expectations? Second; does it have value as a means to save lives?
(Click here to skip all the details and go directly to our Conclusions.)
We'll take a look at what the TracMe device is, how it works, how well it works and the many issues and controversy surrounding it. Speaking of controversy, their calling the device a "Personal Locator Beacon" has created its fair share, which I have covered in an Equipped.org Blog entry, "That's No Personal Locator Beacon!" Concerned about possible confusion on the part of consumers and media, ETS Foundation issued a press release at the Outdoor Retailer trade show in Salt Lake City last month. ETS Foundation also filed complaints with both the FCC and FTC about this issue.
Subsequently, the FCC posted on its site an email that notified TracMe that their FCC approval was under review and that they should change the designation, the details of which are covered in another Blog entry: "TracMe: Curiouser and Curiouser." TracMe has declined to do so and is contesting the FCC position. More information on this can be found in my Equipped.org Blog entry, "TracMe to FCC: You Can't Make Us"
(NOTE: I realize that my vocal opposition to TracMe's use of the term "Personal Locator Beacon" lends itself to accusations of bias in any product review that would follow. I have made every conscious effort to ensure any such bias that might exist has not entered into this evaluation and write-up (as I do for every product review). I believe that this review stands on its own, that the facts speak for themselves, that those involved in the testing itself will support the conclusions and that my credibility after years of doing reviews such as this supports the results presented and the opinions provided.)
TracMe is a compact homing beacon developed and manufactured by TracMe Beacons Pty. Ltd. of Australia. It has an MSRP of $150 and weighs 1.6 ounces. It is small enough to easily fit on a keychain (and not much bigger than a typical car's remote) or it can be hung around your neck on a lanyard/necklace or from a belt or pack. Being small and light has the advantage of it being more likely to be carried and thus available if needed in an emergency.
The TracMe homing beacon operates on FRS (Family Radio Service) Channel 1 (frequency: 462.5625 MHz) and is licensed by the FCC as an FRS radio. Yes, the same FRS as those ubiquitous and generally quite inexpensive "walkie-talkies" you see at Wal-Mart, Cabela's and elsewhere.
A key limitation that is essential that potential purchasers understand is that the TracMe is NOT a distress beacon, it is strictly a low powered homing beacon. Its analog transmission does not serve as a distress alert, a notification to authorities that help is needed. The only possible exception would be happenchance that someone quite close by just happens to be monitoring or talking on FRS Channel 1; unlikely in most cases, but it could happen.
Barring that and unless someone notifies authorities, for example that you are overdue returning home, nobody knows you need help. Break a leg the first day of a 5-day backpacking or hunting trip and you'll be waiting a long time for anyone to come looking. Get your arm trapped under a boulder without anyone knowing you're overdue and you'll still have to cut off your arm to escape and save yourself. They also have to know to notify SAR that you are equipped with the TracMe device for it to be at all useful.
TracMe does emphasize this in their instruction manual and on a small hidden tag attached to the lanyard. It is also included in the fine print on the back of the packaging, but otherwise this critical requirement is not clearly brought to the attention of the prospective purchaser.
As an aside, we are not convinced that what the TracMe homing beacon transmits, "Help...Emergency," is the best choice to motivate someone who just happens to hear it on Channel 1 to do something about it. Human nature being what it is, perhaps something more assertive and providing more direction might be more effective.
Once someone comes looking for you, the idea is that the TracMe homing beacon will allow SAR to locate you by homing on the transmission. Since virtually no one in the country is currently equipped to do so, and it requires a significant expenditure to buy the specialized homing gear, what is technically know as Direction Finding (DF) equipment, as well as time and effort to train how to use it, you certainly can't count on this capability anytime real soon. So, even with TracMe offering a DF demonstration/training kit (image right) on loan for training, that's at best only a start and it's a very big country out there. It's a classic chicken or egg situation.
It's also worth noting that not all SAR organizations are trained in DF techniques, so it will be a greater leap for them. Still, many HAM radio operators, who are quite often active in SAR organizations, participate in so-called bunny or fox hunts that provides them DF experience, but equipment will still need to be modified or purchased to DF on the TracMe homing beacon.
Alternatively, SAR or even your friends can use a basic FRS radio, or multiple radios, to box the transmission location and narrow the search down to a small area. You accomplish this as illustrated in TracMe's SAR directions, by first getting a signal from the TracMe homing beacon and then finding the transmission limits in two or more different directions. Somewhere in the middle you'll find the transmitter and the person who's attached to it.
It's not an elegant solution and can be quite time-consuming, but it can work. And, as TracMe notes, there are millions of FRS or GMRS (which also include FRS Channel 1) radios out there (of course many are sitting in drawer bottoms or with dead batteries, or...). It works best when there is a relatively small search area to begin with, otherwise it can be much more difficult, if not impossible, to find that initial TracMe homing beacon transmission. So, from a practical perspective, it really, really helps is you have a pretty good idea where to look. At least in the near term, this is likely the only way to take advantage of the TracMe homing beacon's capabilities.
TracMe provides a "dash card" intended to be placed on the dash of your vehicle or hung from the rearview mirror at a trailhead. It is intended to advise SAR that you are equipped with a TracMe homing beacon. That's a good start. Unfortunately, it doesn't really say that or explain anything at all, so SAR will have to make that leap with little assistance. Luckily, I expect most SAR team members are smarter than the average bear and will figure out that it is intended that they call the toll-free number or go onto the web site to find out more. Of course, if this product is successful, over time SAR will become familiar with it, but that is going to take a while. Mind you, sometimes trailheads are not located within cell coverage, so a complicated chain of communication, with attendant likelihood of miscommunication, may ensue to figure out what's going on and how to take advantage of this newfangled device.
And, of course, that only works in some scenarios. Not everyone who might carry a TracMe homing beacon leaves a vehicle at a trailhead. A separate "hiking plan" or "trip plan" with details of your route, itinerary and such is always a good idea and a critical and essential adjunct to the TracMe homing beacon, as they stress in their literature and mention in the fine print on the packaging. Without one, and given the limited range of the TracMe homing beacon, it could be a lot more difficult, if not impossible, to home on the beacon without mounting an airborne search, not always readily available.
After confirming that the TracMe was, indeed, for sale and available in the U.S. ("TracMe is available as of today and we are directing customers to our website to the “BUY NOW” area.") we thought it would be interesting to see how their "Search and Rescue Team Information Line" worked. We called on a Sunday evening (9:12 PM PDT), a pretty typical time for SAR to be out starting a search for someone who didn't show back home at the end of the weekend as planned. The toll-free number was not connected to any emergency call center or something like that, it went to voice mail for the North American General Manager and we were asked to leave a message or page him (listen to the phone call). Not exactly the sort of response I'd care to hear if I was out at a search scene trying to figure out how to find someone. However, we left a page. We hadn't received a call back by 24 hors later the next day. Glad it wasn't us relying on the TracMe beacon to be found.
It seems to me that it would make a good deal more sense to provide the basics for at least the boxing-the-beacon method of search right on the card. A lot more important than all the space wasted on the TracMe logo, plus there's the entire back side available which is empty. Once again, marketing trumps functionality and good sense. What's important is getting folks found, not the name of the company or product. If successful, then the company will get plenty of publicity.
A "leave behind card" is included to be left at home for referral to when you don't show up on time. Finally, there's a quick reference card to carry to remind you what to do. Some of it is good advice, some of it would be a little late to provide in the field once you need to activate the homing beacon. These are all printed on a plastic material and appear reasonably durable.
The TracMe homing beacon is a single-time use device. It is not designed to be serviced. Once activated, it cannot be turned off. You can cut off the actual transmission (instructions on the beacon, visible once deployed), but the device continues to run until the battery is dead. This ensures that the device always has fully charged batteries for an emergency.
A lithium battery with a 10 year replacement interval is used. There is a security (witness) seal on the back and the replacement date is affixed on a sticker. Instructions are to, "Replace unit if seal is broken." A broken seal could mean the unit had been deployed and had a dead battery. In 1 of our 4 deployments, the security seal did not tear, it simply came along with the top piece. That doesn't really provide reliable security at all and something that appears to need some attention.
Ten years is the commonly accepted shelf life for lithium AA batteries, but typically with lifesaving gear, manufacturers use a conservative half life for a replacement interval. In this case, where the battery cannot be replaced, rather the entire device is discarded, that presents a marketing problem for a manufacturer. While somewhat troubling, in the grand scheme of things it's probably not a big problem. As long as it self-tests okay, even if the battery loses some of its charge, it is designed to run for seven days normally so there's likely reasonable margin in most instances.
While it has a rated life of 10 years, it comes with only a 12 month warranty. TracMe emphasizes "free replacement with your rescue story" on the the packaging. That's pretty much SOP for manufacturers of lifesaving gear.
When activated by pulling on the exposed yellow portion of the case, the TracMe homing beacon transmits that recorded message, "Help...Emergency," every 15 seconds. The TracMe homing beacon transmits at "less than 10 mW" (compared to 500 mW for an FRS radio), so range is very limited. TracMe claim, "approximately 1000 yads (0.56 mile, 1km) range on the ground in light forest, and around 4-8 miles (6-12km) from the air. Using a high gain directional antenna, as is used with direction finding equipment the range is generally extended by a factor of 2 or 3."
TracMe emphasizes that the device can be used with "more than 100 million trail radios around the world." Because we are of the opinion that a simple boxing procedure using basic FRS capable radios is the most likely to be used in the short term or for a group's self-rescue efforts, as opposed to using DF gear, we feel that how well it works with these is a critical issue. In our testing with the demonstration/training kit provided by TracMe, over level ground with the device on the ground and nothing at all between the receiver and the device we got a range of 0.3 to 0.4 miles using their provided GMRS radio and 0.4 to 0.6 miles using their Direction Finding (DF) antenna hooked up to their provided GMRS radio (GMRS also includes FRS channel 1 and can be equipped with a removable antenna to allow hook up of the DF antenna, unlike FRS which requires a permanently installed antenna). We tried some very basic FRS radios, such as an ICOM IC-4008A, and range was considerably less in most cases and never exceeded that of the provided GMRS radio. So, what radio is used is also a critical component in how effective the TracMe homing beacon might be in a real emergency.
We set the test transmitter on top of a 32-inch tall cardboard box to simulate it being hung from a bush or tree branch and it added 0.1 - 0.2 miles of range. In no instances did we see a doubling or tripling of range using the directional antenna. We got another 20% to 50% added distance. Just to be sure there were no issues with power supply and since we didn't know the history of the test kit we received, we replaced the 3.6v Lithium AA-cell in the test transmitter with a fresh battery.
If the TracMe homing beacon is laid on the ground, there is definitely a difference in range and the transmission becomes quite directional. Range is significantly reduced from the direction the antenna is pointing, as you would expect from a monopole (whip) antenna with a "cone-of-silence" extending out from the antenna tip. We are of the opinion that absent instructions on the device, it's as likely someone will set the case down flat as opposed to on its side with the antenna vertical. Our unscientific testing with naive subjects confirmed this.
If you are going to buy a TracMe homing beacon and ever have to use it, try to hang it from the highest point possible. This also serves to put the antenna as close to vertical as possible. The combination is the optimum deployment. Make sure anyone you give it to understands this.
A little elevation makes a big difference, relatively speaking. We saw almost a mile (0.9) when we testing across some open desert (and over a few homes) with us about 100 ft higher than the device which itself was elevated above surrounding terrain on a small hill. Simply stepping on top of a 3-ft mound would add a bar to the five-bar signal strength meter in our open field testing. In many search circumstances, if SAR understand this, they could use it to their advantage by starting from a higher elevation when possible. In essence, this is what happens when you move to an aerial search.
We tested it using an aircraft flying at their recommended 1500 ft. AGL (above ground level); two aircraft actually, both a high wing (Cessna 182) and low wing (Piper 6XT). While a bit easier with a high wing, it worked okay with a low wing. While TracMe claims a 4-8 mile range and up to 20 miles with sophisticated DF gear, the best we saw was about 5 miles with ideal terrain, no vegetation issues and using that provided GMRS radio and its normal antenna. With our ICOM, we barely got a couple miles at best.
The likelihood that SAR will have airborne DF gear that works on FRS Channel 1 anytime in the near future is extremely remote. So, using a FRS/GMRS radio to box the location is the most likely means that might be deployed in the air.
If the TracMe homing beacon is laid on the ground, we saw a range of only about 2 miles from the air on the side the antenna is pointing towards, another clear display of the directional issues with laying it down rather standing it on it's side or hanging it so the antenna is more vertical.
We experimented with various locations in the aircraft and established that the best location was next to a side window as opposed to on the glare shield. An external antenna might be far less expensive than installing DF gear in an aircraft, so that might be a reasonable compromise that might extend the detection range if these homing beacons do become more commonplace (a standard aviation VHF antenna would not work, it would have to be tuned for the FRS frequency range). Based on our experience, SAR users would do well to hook up the radio to a headset input or slip an earpiece under the headset ear cup so it's easier to hear and use over longer periods.
FRS is line of sight, so in even moderately difficult terrain, it is relatively easily blocked at ground level. If you've ever used FRS radios, even with their 50 times more powerful transmitter, you understand the limitations. Having said that, we were pleasantly surprised that it would often work even when not directly line of sight, as long as the interfering terrain was not substantial. In other words, a small hill or even a rock outcropping might cut down on the range, but didn't necessarily block the signal entirely. Large hills and such did. We didn't have any heavily forested areas to test in, but based on experience with FRS radios in such situations, we'd expect range to be degraded.
Beyond that, we discovered that reception of the device was also somewhat variable even depending upon the type of ground it was sitting on, rock versus dry sandy soil. We suspect this has to do with the effectiveness of the ground plane the different materials provide. This is typical for a monopole antenna without a defined ground plane.
Did I mention that it's important to understand that the search team requires a pretty good idea where to come looking for you in the first place, or they don't stand a chance, and neither will you?
By using an aircraft, when available, SAR could narrow the search down to a manageable area, a few square miles, perhaps even a mile, relatively quickly, meaning hours instead of days. However, they will still need to know the general area to search. Aerial search using the GMRS radio does not provide the range that aerial searchers are used to with traditional 121.5 MHz homing, and of course, without DF gear they can't precisely locate the source. It's not the same thing.
Everyone who tried homing or boxing on the TracMe homing beacon quickly became frustrated by the lack of a continuous signal. You have no idea how long 15 seconds is until you have to wait between transmissions to DF. It doesn't make it unusable; it's just an annoyance that must be worked around. It's much easier to work with a continuous transmission.
In our opinion and experience, few SAR organizations are going to spend the $750 for the TracMe Field Kit. As a demo kit, it's fine to pass around to try to introduce SAR organizations on the concept, but to purchase? That's not realistic and suggests a misunderstanding of how SAR works in the U.S. The vast majority of SAR organizations are volunteer organizations with limited resources and that money would buy a lot of gear more urgently needed and more likely to be used, at least in the short term.
The good news is that since they likely already have access to a scanner that works on this frequency, for a hundred bucks or so they can cobble together a DF antenna and signal strength meter and be in business. They could even cobble together a test beacon pretty easily, or adapt an FRS/GMRS radio. TracMe would do better to give away the training beacon, or sell it at a steep discount, or provide plans to build one out of an FRS radio and provide a list of easily sourced components and plans for building the DF gear.
Interference from others talking on FRS Channel 1 can be a problem. We discovered this during our tests. A normal FRS or GMRS radio will easily override the weaker TracMe homing beacon signal. If you have talkative users on the channel, it can be much more difficult to locate the homing beacon. FCC regulation 95.193(d) requires "You must, at all times and on all channels, give priority to emergency communication messages concerning the immediate safety of life or the immediate protection of property." This would certainly allow for anyone conducting a TracMe search to ask or demand that other Cannel 1 users get off the frequency. Whether they will, or if they will even understand the request, is another matter.
I have seen a number of online comments that claim that the TracMe homing beacon violates FCC regulations because it only broadcasts a recorded message and is not a transceiver (2-way radio). In fact, 95.193(a) allows for this, "You may use the FRS unit to transmit one-way communications only to...send an emergency message" among other authorized one-way transmissions.
Click here for FCC Part 95 regulations covering Personal Radio Services
There are no instructions on how to deploy the device on the TracMe homing beacon case. All it says on it is, "Read full instructions before use." Not a lot of help if the person who knows how is unconscious or otherwise unable to assist. How likely is that? Stuff happens and that's why we carry devices such as this.
To test how easy or difficult deployment might be, we tested four TracMe homing beacons. TracMe advises that the pull force required is on "the order of 6 to 8lbs which would normally not be considered to be excessive for single handed operation. We may work on fine tuning this over the near future."
Since it seems that children would be a target demographic to use this device, that parents might purchase the TracMe homing beacon for their safety and security, one test subject was a 7-year-old female (48 lbs and 48 inches). I instructed Alexandra on how to deploy the device, as a parent might do. I showed her the illustrations and instructions in the manual. Without some sort of dummy training device, there is a limit to what you can do with instruction. A very brief and simple video demonstration of a deployment by a child and adult would be a very useful inclusion.
TracMe make a point of the device being one-hand deployable. That is a feature we find very desirable in emergency gear. They emphasize this and illustrate it in the manual. My instructions to Alexandra were to attempt to deploy it with one hand, to see if this was practical. I asked her to first try with her off hand (she is right-handed) and if that didn't work to use her right hand and if that didn't work to use both hands. While she did use her left hand for deployment, I failed to emphasize that she shouldn't grab the case with her other hand, which she did. TracMe warns against grabbing the top and explained to us that this will make it much more difficult to deploy, however she had no difficulty pulling the beacon loose, as shown on the video of Alexandra deploying the TracMe. the security ribbon tore off where it is attached to the upper part at the point where you would purposely separate it if you chose to do so. This may have been in part because she had to pull harder, but we had another similar failure as well.
It seems that it is a natural reaction to grab the top of the assembly in order to pull the bottom out. We saw that in a number of occasions, even when we cautioned against it. We stuck the beacon back into the top and had a number of kids and adults try to comply with the instructions and half of them instinctively grabbed the top. This is a perfect example of poor human factors engineering. Either the design should be altered to accommodate this natural reaction, the best choice, or clear instructions should be put on it to not grab the top piece.
When I first placed the TracMe homing beacon over Alexandra's it hung down between her legs. The supplied lanyard is definitely not the appropriate length for young children. It is probably a bit long even for smaller adults. For our test purposes, we tied a knot in the lanyard to move it Alexandra's chest level, as it might be expected to be carried.
We also test deployed two other TracMe beacons using adults, including me (we also retained a undeployed sample in case questions arise).
We ran into a few issues. As can be seen in the video, Sue had difficulty grasping the TracMe. She commented that it was "slippery" in her grasp. Once she got a good grip, it deployed satisfactorily, but the security seal didn't tear. On my first attempt to deploy the TracMe, the safety catch on the lanyard came undone before the beacon deployed (click to see video). I snapped it back together and tried again, with identical results. I then unsnapped the lanyard from the TracMe that Sue deployed and replaced the lanyard that kept failing. The Tracme then deployed fairly easily, but the security ribbon tore off at the beacon attach point (we also saw this occur with a pre-production beacon we tested earlier). It seems clear that if the TracMe is deployed with moderate force, not at all unlikley, there is a good chance the security ribbon will fail.
I asked our testers not to say anything while we recorded the video so you could hear the actual transmission from the TracMe on the GMRS radio. After ensuring we had the transmission recorded, we deactivated the device in accordance with the instructions.
All the TracMe Deployment Test Videos (.wmv format):
These can also be viewed at lower quality on YouTube:
The TracMe comes with a neck safety lanyard, a bit over 3/4 inch wide. It's rather bulky and thick. Obviously, the safety clip connection is a potential problem if it won't stay attached when trying to deploy the TracMe. The lanyard is not particularly comfortable against bare skin. I suspect many would rather a simple cord style safety lanyard, even better without the TracMe logo. The TracMe lanyard would not be our first choice. We tried a standard EK safety lanyard (one of our favorites) and it seemed to be quite adequate with lots of margin. Obviously, there are other possible places to which you might secure the TracMe homing beacon, you don't have to use a lanyard.
As noted, it also isn't the right length for children or shorter adults and there's no adjustment. The lanyard also has no cinch mechanism, so it isn't as secure as it should be if you're going to suspend your lifesaving device on it. Lanyards that cannot be cinched up will slip off if you bend over too far. In some circumstances, that could lead to loss of your beacon. All in all, not very satisfactory.
There is a dearth of instructions on the TracMe homing beacon. As noted, there are no function instructions on the device itself in its holder. The only instructions on the device are found after deployment and deal with deactivating the device. It is obvious from our testing that for best performance the antenna should be as vertical as possible. The manual makes a point of this as well. However, nothing on the TracMe directs the user to place the antenna in a vertical position. As also noted, in tests with naive volunteers, most set the deployed TracMe down flat rather than standing it on its side with the antenna vertical. That simply isn't self-evident to most people, especially with the "side" required to accomplish that being rounded.
It's not like there's no room on the device or the holder for some simple instructions, it's just that the TracMe logo might have to be smaller. TracMe isn't unique in this, we've often criticized manufacturers over this "marketing over practicality" issue.
It would appear that TracMe make an assumption that anyone who uses the device will have both read the manual and remember under stress the proper way to deploy it. Or, perhaps they assume that everyone is simply knows enough to ensure the antenna is vertical. Experience suggests neither is guaranteed. This is especially the case considering that adults may give these to young children and the inherent difficulties that entails in ensuring all instructions are passed on and remembered.
So, considering the lack of range, no distress alerting and considerably higher cost, what advantages does a TracMe offer over just carrying an inexpensive FRS radio. The primary advantages are its small size, one-time-use design and unattended operation for homing purposes. The TracMe can be so easily carried that it is more likely to be with you if you need it. You could also attach it to you fanny pack and forget about it for a decade. Once activated, it needs no further attention, just deploy and you're done. In some circumstances, that would be a great benefit.
A typical inexpensive FRS radio does nothing to help locate a person if they cannot communicate where they are at, either via some locating means, such as having a GPS receiver or using landmarks (there are integrated FRS radio and GPS receivers, the Garmin Rino series, that start at about $150 each). Homing on an FRS radio might be possible, just as with a TracMe homing beacon, but only if there was already communication and the parties both knew what they were doing, and assuming the batteries lasted. That's doesn't seem very practical (and we didn't test an FRS radio in this manner).
Not that some manufacturer couldn't add homing capability like TracMe's to a standard FRS radio. The technology isn't an issue. Whether that would raise issues with TracMe's patent, we don't know. But, if the concept is worthwile it sure seems like it would be a nice option given how many folks already use them and the higher powered FRS radios might have the range to make a difference in the utility of the whole concept.
The TracMe homing beacon comes with the lanyard, an 20 page instruction manual with middling quality black an white photos, the three instruction cards in a single perforated piece of plastic sheet and a two-pocket pouch with neoprene foam on the front and nylon back and divider. A center Velcro closure secures the front pocket. There was no mention of what this pouch was for, so we asked TracMe. They told us it's for storage when not being used, the beacon in the front pocket and the instruction manual in the rear.
TracMe has been very defensive about their use of the term "Personal Locator Beacon" and claim that they adequately disclose that it is not a satellite based device, like a real 406 MHz PLB. They assert that a consumer would not be confused or mistaken in this regard In response to these claims, we checked to see how well and how clearly this fact was disclosed to the consumer before purchase.
As can be seen from the 6-view images of the packaging, any such disclosure is not very evident.
You will note that half of the back of the TracMe packaging is filled with fine print. Click here and PRINT THE DOCUMENT to view it at actual size Viewing on a computer screen will NOT show it actual size or clarity. (Download Adobe Reader if necessary).
This is the only place on the packaging where there is any mention that TracMe "does not communicate via satellite." While it mentions that "TracMe is not an EPIRB unit," it doesn't mention Personal Locator Beacons or PLBs at all in this respect. TracMe is much more likely to be confused with a real PLB than an EPIRB, which is a much larger marine vessel distress signaling device. In any case, if they are going to continue to refer to TracMe as a Personal Locator Beacon, as warning to consumers this fine print, non-explicit warning is inadequate in my opinion.
It's also the only place where it is mentioned that leaving word regarding your plans is a good idea, but it doesn't state just how critical this is. No place does it emphasize that the TracMe won't do you much good otherwise.
Much of the "Do" and "Don't" advice provided in the fine print is reasonable and appropriate, though I'd be surprised if very many folks actually read it all before purchase and expect that even fewer would understand it all, or the ramifications of some. One item especially might cause one to raise an eyebrow or two.
Item 6 on the "Do" list includes, "We recommend carrying a spare TracMe." So, if I understand this correctly, instead of a $150 investment, they recommend you make a $300 investment. Now, mind you, I prefer and often suggest having back-up for critical electronic devices. As an example, you might have an instance where a boat is equipped with an EPIRB, or a plane with an ELT, and an individual carries a PLB or there's a second EPIRB or PLB in a ditch kit, which provides both back-up and personal coverage. Suggesting carriage of two PLBs on your person, however, would be over the top, even for me. So, asking someone to invest in two TracMe homing beacons to carry seems also a bit extreme, and doubles the actual cost. I doubt anyone would actually do that. In my opinion, such a statement is provided only as CYA in case a unit fails with tragic consequences, "we told you to carry a second TracMe."
We take exception to TracMe's claim that TracMe is "for all your outdoor activities." Without distress alerting, it simply isn't appropriate in our opinion for many activities that TracMe suggest as a use, so that certainly doesn't translate to "all."
TracMe also say on the front of the package that "TracMe will assist Search and Rescue teams to find you as soon as possible." I'm not so sure that's an entirely accurate statement. It might be the case, but it also might take longer compared to some simpler, and less expensive, means.
Feeding unrealistic expectations may help sell the product, but in a lifesaving product it can have serious adverse consequences.
Many of the SAR people I have spoken to are highly skeptical of the TracMe homing beacon, many were outright angry and fearful. That's to be expected of any new technology and many of the complaints I've heard are the result of ignorance of how it works and its actual capabilities (which hopefully to an extent this article addresses). We saw this same reaction when 406 MHz PLBs were first introduced, though the PLB's capabilities and promises were not quite so overhyped and they delivered on that promise. However, it doesn't help that TracMe has alienated a large portion of the SAR community with the misappropriation of the Personal Locator Beacon terminology. Not the best way to influence the folks you would want on your side.
More than one SAR person expressed concern that folks might buy a TracMe homing device expecting more than it can possibly deliver, based on the TracMe marketing (not considering all the fine print) and we're not even considering the issue with calling it a PLB that could result in unfullfillable expectations. Moreover, they fear this is being foisted on the public without adequate coordination and training of SAR beforehand, that a TracMe homing beacon owner assumes that SAR is ready to adequately respond when they are not. The end result they fear is that they anticipate being blamed for an inadequate response when they feel it would be at least partially if not completely TracMe's fault. Again, you have that classic chicken or egg situation.
There is also concern is that if the ignorant feel unreasonably confident of being rescued, if they don't understand the limitations, that they may be more likely to put themselves in harm's way, or put another way, are more likely to act stupid. That's always struck me as a somewhat specious argument when it comes to real lifesaving technology such as real distress signaling devices like PLBs, because in the end the lives saved by the added capability exceed the downside of those who push the envelope or are less careful. But, if the device is not so likely to provide the benefits expected, that argument holds a lot more water. Moreover, in today's world many seem to have a belief that technology can solve all the problems and if they approach the TracMe with that attitude and don't adequately prepare and don't understand the limitations they may well be setting themselves up for failure. Will some of those buying the TracMe homing beacon succumb to these mentalities? I don't know, but it wouldn't surprise me that it did occur in some cases. Human nature works like that.
Others are concerned with false alerts, especially if children are given these devices, as it is expected that they will. I think that is tempered by two things. One, these are not inexpensive and parents are likely to ride herd on their responsible use pretty closely. Two, it is NOT a distress beacon and as such is less likely to cause a false alert even if set off. Not that it won't happen; it's inevitable that it will, as it does with all survival signaling devices including signal mirrors and cell phones, but I don't anticipate it being a major headache.
We attempted to get NASAR (National Association of Search and Rescue) to provide their input. We were both interested in their reaction to the device being called a Personal Locator Beacon and whether, considering the controversy regarding this issue, if they had any issues with TracMe using their logo on their homepage, which some people feel implies some sort of endorsement by NASAR. Numerous SAR people and NASAR members have raised this issue, some expressing grave concerns.
We emailed the Board of Directors, the President and the Executive Director with our questions. We received a couple private off-the-record responses from some board members, but the only official response we got from NASAR was from the Executive Director that they had "requested assistance from the NASAR Legal Advisor in regards to your questions...Once we have finished our discussions, either Kathy (President) or I will respond to you." That was 5 weeks ago and despite both emails and phone messages left, NASAR has declined to respond or even reply to my emails or calls.
When all is said and done, the TracMe homing beacon leaves us somewhat underwhelmed. On the one hand, it more or less works. The advertised range on the ground is achievable in the right circumstances, even better than claimed at times under perfect circumstances, but it can easily be much less. We certainly didn't see the range gain claimed for using the DF antenna. In the real world, especially in difficult terrain or circumstances, range on the ground is simply not reliably very good. With a homing device such as this, range is a critical element in the equation. The terrain and vegetation/forest density where you'll be relying upon it have a tremendous effect on the range and, thus, its value.
Using an aerial search to narrow down a large search area can be accomplished fairly quickly using the simple handheld radio, box-the-signal method. But, you still need a fairly good idea where to be searching. That can still leave a significant area, a mile or so in diameter, to search, however compared to searching for the proverbial needle in the hay stack, so to speak, it would be a clear advantage. This is potentially the best advantage the TracMe homing beacon offers. However, airborne search cannot be taken for granted. Many a search incident commander has been frustrated by the unavailablity of air assets when needed. Then, getting airborne search to use this new homing concept, using an FRS/GMRS radio to box the beacon is another issue entirely.
It is worth noting that for less than a tenth of the cost you can outfit yourself or your child with a high quality whistle (and spend a few minutes teaching the child to Hug-A-Tree). On a simple hike where someone get's themselves off the trail and separated from the group, that probably would result in a rescue as quickly or likely more quickly than using the TracMe homing beacon (and even if you decide to carry a TracMe homing beacon, you should still carry a whistle). The experienced SAR personnel I discussed this with were nearly unanimous in this regard. Plus, for an inexperienced person to go traipsing through the woods trying to box the signal using an FRS radio, the group self-help method, there's also a very good chance they will create another victim for SAR to have to find.
For as little as $20 you can buy a pair of inexpensive FRS/GMRS radios with much greater range and they are usable for normal communications as well, albeit they are larger and don't provide the same sort of stick-it-away-and-forget-about-it type of security. But, the major drawback to a standard FRS radio is that you have to know where you are or be able to describe it clearly enough to be located, often not the case if someone is lost. Since FRS radios aren't designed as a homing beacon, using them to locate someone in that manner would be difficult. Mind you, they could be so equipped, though whether that might run afoul of the TracMe patents and pending patents, is a question I don't have an answer to.
For someone going solo and not going deep into the wilds the TracMe homing beacon might offer some advantage, especially if bushwhacking instead of staying on a trail. But, that also assumes they you will be missed and someone will have at least some idea where you were going. I cannot overemphasize that you must arrange for someone to miss you for the TracMe homing beacon to be of any use whatsoever. No notification of that you are missing equals no search. It is NOT a distress beacon.
Locating the beacon on the ground without DF gear is an exercise in frustration. Doable, certainly, but in most cases, a canine search and/or simple whistle would probably work quicker in most cases, in my opinion. If DF gear is available, the TracMe concept works better, but again, with the limited range, the actual value is questionable. In many instances as we tested the TracMe homing beacon by moving the beacon and keeping the radio stationary (we also tested by keeping the beacon stationary and moving ourselves), we were able to hear the transmission on the radio from the limit of the range, so a whistle certainly would have sufficed.
For anyone going deep into the outback or wilderness or who might unexpectedly be dumped there, such as being in a plane crash, the TracMe homing beacon simply lacks the critical basic effectiveness required since it doesn't have any alert capability and has such minimal range. In my opinion, the TracMe homing beacon is not appropriate at all for some activities for which they they promote it, such as flying, whitewater kayaking or boating on open water. These endeavors and others require a real distress beacon like a PLB or EPIRB, in my opinion.
In some respects, the price is an issue. For $150, it's a relatively lot of money for very limited capability. At $25 or $30, or even $50, that might be easier to swallow, you could afford to outfit a family or scout troop and if it helped, great, but at least you aren't out a bunch of bucks for such limited capability. For $150 you have options. For their recommended double carriage of $300, you have lots of options. For example, you can get a whole lot more capability and real distress alerting, albeit with an annual fee ($99), using the new SPOT device that is coming to market in a couple months. And, SPOT is only the first of a new generation of such devices we can expect to see over the next few years. Not that SPOT doesn't have some other potential drawbacks as well, it's much bigger and heavier just to start, but with all these devices it is a matter of tradeoffs.
Once you are above a c-note, price sensitivity changes and the actual capability to make a difference becomes more important. If TracMe moved production from Australia to Asia and lowered the price by two-thirds or more, this would be a more enticing product. It wouldn't work any better, but it would be easier to rationalize its moderate potential lifesaving value as compared to something inexpensive like a whistle.
As we have noted in the past, with regards to lifesaving electronic signaling devices we believe the warranty should cover the device through a reasonable expected length of use. If the manufacturer doesn't have confidence that the device will last as long as they promote it being good for, why should you trust your life to that device. In the case of PLBs, the warranty typically covers the usual 5 to 6-year battery replacement interval. As such, we find it highly questionable that TracMe promote their homing beacon as having a 10-year useful life, but provide only a 12-month warranty.
Deployment of the TracMe homing beacon is straightforward, and as shown, easy enough for even children to accomplish. That's good. The retention/security ribbon is inadequate for the job. In two out of three tests it was pulled loose, defeating its purpose of providing security so the beacon would not be lost where that is a real danger. It's too easy to pull loose. This needs to be fixed.
Needless to say, they need to make sure their Search and Rescue Team Line is manned 24 hours a day, at a minimum. Whatever their intention, if they are selling the beacons, they need to be prepared today, not tomorrow. Improving that dash card, so SAR isn't entirely dependent upon calling for information, would also be a big help.
Bottom line, I cannot recommend the TracMe homing beacon as a smart investment, the performance/price value ratio just doesn't compute in my opinion. Moreover, there seems to be a fair share of issues to be addressed before it is really ready for prime time. Plus, despite the ready availability of FRS/GMRS radios, SAR just isn't ready to take advantage of it in any compelling manner and they don't yet appear ready to help out SAR either in an effective manner should someone use one of these tomorrow. Having said all that, if they fix the most significant issues, such as the security ribbon, security seal, lack of instructions on the beacon and their SAR assistance for a start, it might be worth considering, IF the money isn't that important and a real distress beacon, such as a PLB or SPOT, is out of the question for whatever reason (size, weight, cost).
The TracMe homing beacon certainly is unlikely to do harm so long as you have reasonable expectations, a key requirement in my mind, and not necessarily one that TracMe provides to the consumer prior to purchase, in my opinion. A TracMe homing beacon might well make a difference in some circumstances. However, it isn't a panacea, it isn't "the answer" by any stretch, and it may not deliver on the somewhat overblown TracMe promises, either implied or direct. I would not bet my life or the lives of those I care about to the TracMe at this stage of its development. I cannot overemphasize that you shouldn't leave that whistle and signal mirror at home just because you take along a TracMe homing beacon; in many situations they will be more effective. And, again, and I may have mentioned this once or twice, don't expect it to substitute for a real PLB in any way, shape, or form. Finally, if you decide to go with a TracMe as a option in your survival toolbag, remember, with TracMe someone has to miss you for them to come looking. It is useless otherwise.
Special thanks to the Civil Air Patrol (CAP) members who assisted with my testing: Lt. Dallas Lane, Major Mike Hoza and Capt. Rob Pickard, as well as Steve White, Sue Ritter, Alan Romania, Beth White, Dave Pulver, Bill Festa, Rick Johnson and Max Shure.
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Publisher and Editor: Doug Ritter
Email: Doug Ritter
First Published: September 9, 2007