Friday, November 30, 2012

Irridium Sat Phone on JHR

We post this note here so the crew has a place to check for details that can be easily accessed during the testing and further installations on the boat.  

As of May, 2013, we have redone the main body of this article which can now be found at A few nuts and bolts of sat phone usage.  Please refer to that for the details that were once in part here.

The row boat JRH has several means of high seas communications, one of which is a hand held Iridium 9555 satellite phone (User's Manual is online). This unit can be used for email, downloading weather data, or phone calls, and that is in fact the easiest use of the device.  Turn it on, pull out the antenna, and rotate it so it will be in the vertical position when talking, get a clear view of the sky so you see bars showing (just as with a cell phone) and dial the call: 001 area code number.  001 is for calls from ship to US. Other calls take different prefix.

Once connected the communications are excellent. Better than many cell phones, and almost always better than using the HF radio.

This model 9555 phone the boat has is not the latest model from Iridium, but the one just before latest, which is still popular and is the one often used in rental programs. Sat phones rend for about $200 per month, but we are fortunate to have this rental fee donated to the expedition by our friends at here is Seattle.

Ocens has also donated valuable software including Ocens Mail (for efficient sat phone email and data transfer), WeatherNet (for downloading weather files underway), and Grib Explorer (state of the art GRIB viewer for weather and ocean data). They have provided a valuable contribution to the project and we are grateful for it. I have used these products for many years and can attest to their dependability and great service for navigation and communications underway.

A very nice feature of the Iridium program is the ability to send short (160 characters) messages to the phone at no charge to sender or receiver.  There will be numerous ways for followers and supporters to contact the boat and these will be announced on the OAR Northwest website.

For data connections, the computer is connected to the phone with a mini to normal USB cable. This cable can be up to 10 ft long. The boat has two cables, one 3 ft and and extension of about 6 ft.

Which brings up an important detail of data transfer. When you install the drivers in the PC that link the phone to the PC software, it associates a specific USB plug on the computer with a com port, and that com port is then registered with the software. Thus you must always be sure to plug the phone into the same USB port you used when registering the device. JRH has on board two identical Panasonic Tough Books (thanks to Panasonic for that donation). They are called Thing-1 and Thing-2 (The names might have come about as they are quite imposing devices, that can be dropped 15 feet and still function. You would expect to see them on the fender of a army tank, rather than in a row boat, but we can be certain these are rugged!) Each accessory plug is in a sealed bay.

Thus we  have this reminder:  when using Thing-1 to send sat phone mail or wx data, the phone must plug into the 2nd USB port on the right side. This is the third bay from the back.

If the cable is not plugged into the right port you will get error msg 633 or 634, but it does not say wrong port. You will get the same error msg if you end up with an unconnected plug. It could just say you are not configured properly, or something like that.

Normally we would expect the phone to work inside the cabin and not be influenced by the fiberglass overhead. But with the top of the cabin covered with solar panels, this is not at all clear. They will have to test this once they get the phone on the boat.  And so, too, this brings up more nuts and bolts. If it is raining or rough conditions, one has the challenge of phone use keeping it dry. The phone can be put into a well sealed plastic bag and used outdoors in the rain. I have done this myself numerous times. But for data transfer we need the cable to the PC, and if conditions are rough we also have to have the cabin secured. I am not sure if there is an access port to the cabin that might serve to lead the cable through. 

So it could be there are times the data connections will not be possible due to weather.  If we are lucky, we might find a position inside the cabin that gets good signals. The advantage of being in the middle of the ocean (as opposed to at home with buildings and hills around) is you do have a full horizon to see satellites.

As for transfer efficiency, we have to accept that the transfer rate is not high. Nothing like we are used to on our wifi connections. I will add some more specifics here when i can, but first tests showed that sending one short email took 40 seconds, and a list of 5 very long mails, even to multiple addresses took only 52 sec. Clearly the  best procedure is to use Ocens Mail to store your outgoing mails, then send and collect new with a single log on.

Weather data via WeatherNet download will be mostly in GRIB format, and my rough estimates are 3 days of wind data over a 10º x 10º grid will take up 10 kb. This would be the same for waves or precip or pressure. You can scale that to anticipate the file sizes. But all of the data is stored so you can after downloads look at the data file to see actual file sizes. We will make another note later on about use of downloaded weather and sea state data underway. If all goes as planned there will not be a need for weather downloads, as all this will be provided to the boat daily using state of the art resources from the UW Atmospheric Sciences forecasting team, led by Angie Pendergrass. Nevertheless, it would be good to practice using these powerful resources that will be available underway.

Ocens Mail is the PC interface to the phone. Your actual email writing and reading will be with the program they install called iScribe. A very nice simple email program.  One pitfall is to write an email then send it from iScribe (which just sends it to Ocens Mail) then later decide you want to edit the mail.  If you open it in iScribe and edit and send, it will actually add a second mail to Ocens mail to be sent.  So to be safe, you can inspect your mail list before sending from Ocens Mail menu: Tools/Explore Mail to see what you are about to send.  This is also the best way to go in and change a mail without risking a duplicate.  Sending to multiple recipients does not increase air time.

Note we have numerous ways to track the vessel underway, but if it might ever be useful, you can plug a GPS into the PC and then configure Ocens Mail to send the Lat-Lon with every message. A nice feature of their software.

For our records, I just note that when we first got the phone the total call time was 5:32:44. This will let us check for the total time used to help plan time purchases as needed.

I should add that the Iridium 9555 system is a back up for the boat to its much more powerful Inmarsat Fleet Broadband SatLink system. This will take a note of its own. It can transmit large images and even video, and will serve as the workhorse for daily communications with and from the boat. It too has voice communications, but it it much more involved to turn it on and transmit. Like other high powered systems, you cannot even stand next to the antenna when it is broadcasting.  It is not like a cell phone!

We teach the use of weather data under way in our online course in marine weather, and you are welcome to follow this blog for many practical exercises in wind, waves, and ocean current forecasts.

PS. When the boat capsized the phone was inside the cabin, but not in its protective case, so it was likely destroyed immediately when the cabin filled up with water.  Had it been in its case, they could have called home from the life raft!  We address this point in the new, extended article on sat phones.

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