YARMOUTH, Maine — When Chip Noble goes deer hunting in the Weld area of western Maine, the high mountains and deep bowls normally preclude any of the cellphone communications most of us take for granted as ubiquitous.
This year, though, his mother was able to text message Noble, his brother-in-law and his stepfather when breakfast was ready. Noble could reply that they were on their way, and his mom watched their progress on a laptop as they headed back to camp.
Noble, a product and design manager at DeLorme in Yarmouth, was testing the company’s latest device — the inReach, which went on the market this week.
The inReach is essentially a bridge between either a DeLorme PN-60w GPS device or an Android phone and the Iridium satellite network. Using the inReach to connect to Iridium, users can send text messages of up to 160 characters. But the real advancement is that they also can receive messages of up to 160 characters — two-way communication.
This is the first time such capability has been offered at the consumer level, said Charlie Conley, marketing manager at DeLorme. Last year, DeLorme’s PN-60w GPS unit allowed one-way messaging — the user could send out a message but couldn’t receive anything back.
Iridium’s satellite network is extensive, said Conley, providing coverage “all the way around the globe, and pole-to-pole.” And because the inReach is only sending out a short burst of data, the device only has to “see” a satellite for seconds.
Noble has used the inReach in the thick Maine woods, on hikes in deep canyons and on mountaineering expeditions in the Grand Tetons. Hundreds of the devices have been tested around the world in a variety of environs, including deep, thick jungles, said Noble, and they’ve worked consistently. They have a battery life of 63 hours and send a GPS tracking signal every 10 minutes.
Through the device, DeLorme seeks to tap into the growing social media trend, with people communicating constantly on Facebook, Twitter, through emails and other means. The inReach sends messages to cellphones or to Twitter, Facebook, an email address or to a tracking Web page.
“People want to have their adventure, and share it with loved ones,” said Noble.
The two-way communication is key for emergency situations, too, said Conley. For example, a hunter out in the field for a week during deer season would normally be disconnected from communications, and he or she wouldn’t know about an emergency at home until the week was over. Now, an alert could be sent, and acknowledged.
Likewise, if a back-country hiker is hurt or lost, he or she not only can send an S.O.S. but provide specific information about the emergency, and also get acknowledgement from a rescue crew, and the communication can continue, said Noble.
That’s one of the reasons the inReach was given a “Best of What’s New” award by Popular Science in the recreation category. Each year, the magazine lists 100 such devices.
When the Popular Science editors saw DeLorme’s initial foray into text-messaging with a GPS device last year, they were hoping two-way burst communications would be in the next iteration, said Corrine Iozzio, senior associate editor.
The inReach, she said, is what they were expecting.
“Basically, it turns any Android phone into a worldwide communicator — and that’s super-important, especially for serious adventurous outdoors people,” said Iozzio.
Iozzio noted that only about 10 percent of the globe has cell coverage.
“If you’re an outdoor adventurer going into the mountains or to the poles, there’s a very solid chance that if something happens, you’re not going to be able to reach help,” she told the Bangor Daily News. “This is an unbelievably clutch device for people who find themselves in dangerous situations.”
The next logical progression, said Iozzio, would be a device that can send short-burst, 30-second voice messages, in case a person wasn’t able to type.
For the over 30-year-old DeLorme, the inReach represents the continuing evolution of leveraging extensive mapping technology in new markets. The company started in 1976 with topographic map books, evolved into computerized maps, GPS systems and, most recently, the combination of maps, GPS and messaging. Today, the company employs about 120 people.
The inReach also marks the company’s first real foray into a recurring monthly revenue model where it’s selling a product that also generates user fees each month. The inReach costs $249.95. But there is a monthly fee to have the capability to connect to the satellite. The basic “safety” level is $10 a month and allows for 10 messages a month. The “recreation” plan is $25 a month and allows for 40 messages and unlimited tracking of a user on a website. The “expedition” level is $50 a month allows for 125 messages a month and tracking.