We have been reviewing and testing the Yellowbrick 3 Tracking system on the Southern Patagonian Icecap recently. This is a remote and wild place and a good place to put the Yellowbrick and it’s satellite network through it’s paces. Here are our findings and observations.
Our Particular Requirements
Our previous experience on the Icecap in 2010 had been marked by high winds and bad weather. We got caught out and had a rough time getting off the glaciers. This year we wanted to try out one of the new 2 way messaging and tracking systems appearing on the market to aid communications and especially weather forecasting. Our requirements were:
(1) To obtain daily weather forecasts for the Icecap sent from our base in Spain
(2) To report our position to our website at least twice daily
(3) To be able to send emergency messages in case of problems or in rescue or evacuation situations
If the above were possible then we wouldn’t have any need for a dedicated satellite phone.
Quite simply, they were the first to offer us a tracker in time for our Patagonian Expedition starting on 19th November 2011. The Delorme InReach wasn’t available (after months of delay!), the Spot Connect/Messengers aren’t 2 way text messaging systems (they also use the Globalstar network, ineffective in Patagonia), and we needed something quick.
We found the staff at Yellowbrick most helpful, honest and accommodating. The Yellowbrick was still in development, but they said it would fulfill our requirements (see above). The tracker promptly arrived in Spain and we quickly managed to activate the unit, a simple process.
The Yellowbrick 3
What struck me about the Yellowbrick 3 was it’s rugged solidity. It seems bombproof, useful in an expedition or mountaineering environment. It is enclosed in a tough weatherproof exterior casing and feels heavier than it’s mere 305 gram weight suggests. It came with a soft pouch to protect the Yellowbrick 3, with velcro straps and restraining bungee cord. This attaches to almost anything you wish. In Patagonia we had it attached to a frontal rucksack strap, within easy reach.
The Yellowbrick can survive underwater for 30 mins in 1m of water and has been tested in yacht races throughout the globe, so it’s use in a snow/mountain environment should be assured.
It has 4 basic buttons (Up, Down, Left, Right) and an “Alert” button suitable hidden and protected. Unlike the earlier Spot Messengers one can’t accidentally send an alert signal. There is a USB socket at the back for recharging that is also protected from weather and damage. All in all what I do like about the unit is it’s simplicity. What I don’t want to be doing in a blizzard is fiddling around with small knobs, buttons and Querty keyboards etc!
Our fellow guide, Jane Fields based in Spain, acted on our behalf of our Alerts and Message handling. She became our base communications person. She would receive the Alert or Emergency messages should we be unfortunate enough to need assistance. She had the Telephone numbers of the rescue services in El Chalten, Argentina. She would also provide the team with twice daily weather forecasts via the Yellowbrick.
You can send messages to the Yellowbrick via the dedicated website host or via an email address. Any message sent from the Yellowbrick can be automatically forwarded to whatever email you wish.
When we arrived in El Chalten, Argentina, we tested the tracker to see if it could locate us. This is an easy operation performed by pressing the “up” button for 7 seconds. A green light on the front of the unit tells you that the unit is acquiring satellites and sending a position fix. It took a couple of minutes for the green light to stop flashing. This means that the signal has been sent. We checked over our hotel’s WiFi and lo and behold we appeared on our Expedition Webpage in El Chalten. Amazing stuff. We were ready to go!
It’s use on the Expedition
When we arrived at our first nights stop at the Refugio at Piedra del Fraile I sent a manual position fix. I had to move away from the tree covered ground and into an open space to do this. When you send a manual position the tracker will automatically bring in any text messages into your inbox. It was a great relief to receive an updated weather report from our base.
Wherever we camped we always managed to get 2 daily weather reports from our Spanish base. We developed a short code system (see examples below) as there is a maximum of 240 characters to a text message.
1840 Tues Update- WED-RAIN7,WIND55. THURS-RAIN34,WIND63.FRI-R17,WIND73. SAT-RAIN8,WIND60. SUN-RAIN5,WIND48. The weather system is moving through quicker than expected leaving you a break between systems at the weekend. Fingers crossed eh?!
Update 1830 – FRI-0900:R0,W7 THEN 1200: R,0,W13 THEN 1500: R0.2,W11. SAT-0900:R0.3,W6 THEN 1200:R1,W8 THEN 1500: R0.1,W11. Got you at Circo de los Altares plus hits down the icecap. Weather OK for next two days…slight risk of rain. Low wind.
What was important to us was precipitation (R) and wind speed (W). The precise nature of the messaging allowed us to take full advantage of a forthcoming break in the weather. We got into position and when the weather window arrived we took full advantage. Thus we had low winds and beautiful blue skies on our trip down the icecap.
Occasionally our base would ask for a confirmation of something. This we did using the preset messages included in the tracker. Very basic 1 or 2 word messages but they achieved their purpose (ie Yes, All fine, Every working ok?, No problem).
On poor days I even managed to send a signal by sticking the antenna of the tracker out of the hole in the tent roof, thus saving me getting a soaking!
We sent 19 messages from the tracker and received 56 during our expedition over a total of 10 days. We manually reported our position approx 3 times daily until we left the Paso Marconi on day 5. From then on we set the tracker to automatically report position every hour we were moving. In all cases we had no problems sending or receiving. Average waiting time for a message to be sent or received was under 2 minutes.
From subsequent examination of the tracking on the expedition map the tracker is very accurate and at most only 10m out.
Before we set off for our 10 day expedition in the wilds of the Southern Patagonian Icecap I made sure that the battery recharge level was topped up. I was a bit worried about this as I had decided, due to weight restrictions, not to take my Power Monkey recharger. For the first 5 days of the trip I operated the unit only 3 or 4 times a day, collecting messages and sending position reports.
But, I needn’t have been worried at all. After the first 5 days the battery level stood at 94%. It was then that I felt confident enough to send hourly signals as we travelled the remaining 4 days down the Icecap and back to civilisation. When we arrived back in El Chalten the battery life showed 84%.
These are excellent figures/results and very much against the grain of most modern technological gadgetry which seem to consume battery life rapidly!
(1) The message screen – a character is missing from the right hand side of each line on the message screen. This did not inhibit interpretation of the message but was more of an inconvenience. A right hand margin needs to be set.
The Yellowbrick did all that we asked of it to fulfill our expedition support functions. Now we come to our “it would be really nice if it…….” requests. Most of these I believe are very close to being released.
(1) Creation of our own text messages to send. This is the most important development in my opinion. We managed ok with the standard built-in text messages, but this would be a welcome addition.
(2) Pairing to a Bluetooth device and Android or iPhone App. Nice, but hardly essential. In a blizzard I’m not going to be thinking of taking my gloves off and connecting to my HTC smartphone.
(3) Update Social Networks – Ok, I know. It’s not that important, but would be a nice touch to add to your website/social sites.
Purchasing the unit – You will find a current list of prices on the Yellowbrick website. Currently the basic model is 399GBP for Tracking, Basic Messaging and Basic Alerts (50GBP more for Advanced Messaging and Bluetooth).
Monthly ongoing cost – I like the new simpler way of monthly pricing. It is 8GBP for Basic and Standard models. In addition you pay 6GBP for a bundle of “50 credits”. To send a position report costs you 1 credit (ie 0.12p). Every 50 characters of message to or from the Yellowbrick costs you 1 credit too (ie 0.12p).
This compares very well when you look at alternative forms of Satellite Messaging. Sat phones are phenomenally expensive to use. The Delorme InReach is much more expensive too, with penalties should you change down contract plans. What I like about the Yellowbrick pricing structure is that you know what everything is going to cost. Then it’s up to you?
We love it! A great addition to our mountaineering team. We made the correct decisions based on the information we received from the unit. Solid build, tough, functional and the Iridium satellite network ensures global coverage. Great battery life, affordable pricing and easy operation. In the tough environment of the mountains we can’t really ask for too much more, can we?
Yellowbrick 3 data sheet (pdf)
Our Expedition Webpage
A short (1 min) video showing the unit in use on the Icecap.