There’s a new option to reach emergency services and loved ones if you’re out of wi-fi and cellular coverage - and one that’s already proved its chops overseas in several real-life dramas.
Apple has expanded its Emergency SOS via Satellite service to cover New Zealand and Australia - the latest extension of a service that first launched in November for North America and is now in 14 countries.
It works for all four models of the iPhone 14 - stock standard, with no special accessory required. Older models don’t have the required satellite smarts built in. Apple says it’s managed to compress emergency text messages to a third of the usual size to accommodate limited satellite bandwidth, and developed components that mean an iPhone 14 can tap into satellite frequencies without the need for a bulky aerial. You also need version 16.1 or later of iOS, the free upgrade to the software that runs an iPhone (it’s been out a while, so your phone has likely already updated; you can check via Settings > General > Software Update. If you are up to date, you’ll see a “Get Help During an Emergency” explainer has appeared under Settings this morning).
SOS via Satellite can also be used as a pre-emptive safety tool. If you’re, say, walking the Milford Track (much of which lacks regular mobile coverage), you can use it to send your location every 15 minutes. Contacts you’ve chosen to share your location with can then see where you are using the Find My Phone app.
It’s also easy to see the new feature being a lifesaver in natural disaster situations like Cyclone Gabrielle, which saw mobile network and land coverage lost for days in parts of Northland, Hawke’s Bay and the East Coast.
Satellite phones or messaging devices, or simple GPS locator beacons, are old hat. But Apple’s solution requires no special hardware beyond a stock-standard iPhone 14, lets you answer a simple Q&A about your situation by tapping multi-choice options on your touch screen, sends your medical ID to emergency services, and has no monthly subscription fees (at least, for the first two years from today for current owners of the handset, or two years from the point of buying an iPhone 14 - from $1599 - for others).
You set up your optional medical ID yourself on your iPhone. It includes basic stats such as your age, weight, blood type and any allergies or medical conditions, plus a photo (see instructions here)
With SOS via Satellite, your location is also shared with up to 10 emergency contacts you’ve selected (see instructions at the foot of the article). If they’re also on Apple, your emergency contacts can also see a live copy of your text exchange (if they’re on Android or another platform, they’ll still get your location and initial emergency message).
Giving it a go
I tried the new feature in Malabar Headland National Park in Sydney last week. The area actually enjoys cellular coverage, but I tried it with mobile data switched off to simulate a blackout - see the video below (which is all in real-time).
SOS via Satellite kicks in if you dial 111 and your phone can’t find mobile coverage. An onscreen graphic appears, showing you where to point your phone to gain satellite reception.
(Tip: if you’re travelling and don’t know the emergency number for the country you’re in, dial 112 - the international emergency number that works in most locations.)
It took around 30 seconds to make text contact with the satellite, which connected me to an actual emergency calling relay centre (which was expecting my just-a-drill text) for a two-way text conversation after a quick onscreen Q&A.
Around the two-minute mark - when things were actually pretty much wrapped up - the satellite my iPhone had connected to disappeared over the horizon. There was about a 10-second wait before it connected to another satellite that came into range. As with any satellite link, a line-of-sight connection is required.
Behind the-the-scenes, your handset sends your location and your medical ID (if you’ve loaded it; see instructions at the foot of the story). This automated process also happens if your iPhone 14 has detected a fall and you’re non-responsive.
There have already been a number of examples of the technology working in real life.
At 1.55pm on December 13, Cloe Fields and her boyfriend Christian Zelada lost traction in gravel on a two-lane highway at the edge of a steep canyon in Southern California. Their car plunged through trees to the bottom, landing on its roof. Although they suffered only cuts, bruises and mild concussion - regarded as a miracle by authorities - the pair were stuck. The canyon walls were unclimbable. The temperature, already near-freezing, was set to fall below zero by nightfall. There was no cellphone reception.
Fields was able to unbuckle her seatbelt and crawl out of the car to her iPhone, which had landed about 10 metres away. Its screen was smashed, but she was still able to use it to place an Emergency SOS via Satellite.
Her message was received by an Apple relay centre, which contacted emergency services. The couple were hoisted out of the canyon by helicopter within 30 minutes, and taken to hospital.
Fields told The New York Times that although she is a “very techie kind of a person”, she had not known about her iPhone’s satellite feature. She just followed the prompts.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department told the LA Times that no one had reported the crash. Without the iPhone 14′s crash detection and SOS via satellite features, the couple would have faced hyperthermia in an area infamous for fatalities.
On December 1, at 2am, a man travelling by snowmachine between two towns in northwest Alaska was able to use SOS via Satellite to contact an Apple Emergency Response Centre - which in turn gave his GPS co-ordinates to local authorities, who dispatched four volunteers to save him from a stranding.
And last month there was a case in Utah where three students got stuck in chest-deep water while canyoning in an area with no cell coverage. One had an iPhone 14 and was able to use SOS via Satellite - which worked successfully even though the extreme angle they were on, with only a glimpse of the sky, meant a satellite only came into range about once every 20 minutes.
The Rocket Lab connection
Apple says it invested US$450m ($727m) from its Advanced Manufacturing Fund toward infrastructure to support Emergency SOS via Satellite, with most of the funds going to US-based global communications satellite network provider Globalstar.
Globalstar, which has been operating for more than two decades, has 48 satellites in low-Earth orbit today. That’s enough for nigh-on 100 per cent coverage of New Zealand and our coastal waters. Today, there’s some wait time (albeit often in the order of seconds) for a satellite to come within iPhone range, or to latch on to a new bird after one disappears over the horizon.
But, in part thanks to Apple’s investment, Globalstar has a new-generation satellites in the works. Kiwi company Rocket Lab won the contract to design and manufacture key systems for the new satellites, which will launch in 2025. Peter Beck’s firm said in a market filing last year that the Globalstar deal was its largest single order to date, with an “initial value” of US$143m ($231m), which could grow if the new fleet of satellites is expanded.
Apple has briefed emergency services in New Zealand and other countries that can work with texts and will have relay centres that cover those that don’t.
In New Zealand, Fire and Emergency New Zealand (Fenz) and the police already have experience with the iPhone 14′s other major safety feature - sensors that automatically send a text to emergency services, plus your location, if your handset detects you’ve been in a crash.
While there have been a number of false alarms (the 111 text is sent unless you hit cancel within 20 seconds), Fenz says it also helped save lives last month after a tractor collided with a ute on a rural stretch of road near Rangiora.
The new Emergency SOS satellite feature will also kick in if it senses a crash and you’re unresponsive - and out of cellular network range.
Like a regular 111 call or next, it will first try the mobile network you belong to, then other carriers with coverage in the area. If there’s no cellular coverage, then Apple’s SOS via Satellite works directly with Globalstar’s network; it’s immaterial whether you’re with Spark, One, or 2degrees.
More satellite action on the way
Last month, as it rebranded from Vodafone NZ, One revealed a partnership with Elon Musk’s Starlink that will give the Kiwi carrier 100 per cent text coverage from “late 2024″ with voice and data to follow (the new service is dependent on Starlink getting its next-generation satellites into orbit, which are designed to launch on its new Starship rocket - that one that went bang on its first test launch).
And putative Starlink rival Lynk is also creating a low-Earth orbit network for satellite-to-mobile service. The US firm has commissioned Kiwi-Dutch company Dawn Aerospace - which has its assembly plant and test facilities in Christchurch - to design and build propulsion systems for its new satellites.
2degrees is trialling Lynk’s service, with an eye to a full partnership down the track (Lynk only has a couple of satellites in orbit today, but is gunning for 5000 within five years.)
One says its satellite-to-mobile services will be useable by most modern handsets, but won’t provide details on specific makes and models until closer to launch. Lynk says, “All of the world’s existing 7 billion mobile handsets can access the Lynk network.”
Both One and 2degrees have also become resellers for the business version of Starlink’s existing, dish-based satellite broadband service.
How to set up emergency contacts on an iPhone
1. Open the Health app and tap the Summary tab.
2. Tap your profile picture in the upper-right corner.
3. Under your profile picture, Tap Medical ID.
4. Tap Edit, then scroll to Emergency Contacts.
5. Tap the Plus button next to “add emergency contact”. Tap a contact, then add their relationship.
6. To remove an emergency contact, tap the Delete button next to the contact, then tap Delete.
7. Tap Done.