Tom Tessier can’t get away from his phone.
He backtracks on a scheduled interview because of another call from the Catlin Arctic Survey, a group interested in purchasing some of his new Field Tracker 2000 GPS units.
“The idea is that (the survey) would travel up the North Pole, but on the way they’ll take ice- and snow-thickness measurements,” said Tessier.
“I’ll call you back when I can,” he said.
It’s no wonder Tessier’s busy.
His company, Solara Remote Data Delivery Incorporated, just released the Field Tracker on December 1.
The Field Tracker is a northern wanderer’s dream. It’s the first tracker to use the Iridium satellite system, which covers the Earth pole to pole and Earth’s most remote corners in between. It offers GPS and a text messaging system, which will queue messages if the system is off.
Not that you need to — its battery can last two weeks.
As Tessier puts it, it’s like a global cellphone without the voice.
When Tessier finally calls back from his office in Winnipeg, another call pops up within seconds.
“I’ll tell them to call later, you’re number-one now,” he said.
Coming from him, that’s a compliment. Tessier’s customers include the British Columbia’s Ministry of Forestry and Range, the US Parks Services and outback outfitters from as far as Australia.
“Business is going up there’s no question,” he said.
The Field Tracker is one solution to many of the problems that trouble the northern traveller.
Many GPS systems aren’t durable enough to survive an extended foray in the North, said Tessier.
“(The Field Tracker) has a screen where you can read your text messages. It works right down to minus 40 C,” he said.
“There aren’t many screens that can work in those temperatures.”
But the biggest impediment to building the next generation of trackers is battery life.
Most GPS systems use a lot of power, requiring the user to ration energy.
“The Field Tracker is powered by external lithium batteries and comes with rechargeable batteries.”
The powerful battery system allows the tracker to be left on for a couple of weeks without a hitch, he said.
And if you do run out of power, others options are offered.
“You can run it from your snowmobile (electric) system directly. We also give them a solar panel if you’re really stuck,” he said.
“That’s partly why we’re called Solara.”
The main competitor to edge out is not GPS systems, but satellite phones.
“The thing is that there’s a fallback from SAT phones,” he said. “For people with SAT phones, the batteries don’t last very long. But with this unit, you can signal someone (or text them) and say, ‘call me.’”
And if someone is looking for you, you don’t need to turn your tracker on for them to find you.
“It allows two-way signalling, so it doesn’t have to be turned on to give off a signal,” he said.
There are two crucial components that separate the Field Tracker from the rest — it’s global coverage and it’s two-way service.
These are both due to the Iridium satellite link, which is different than GPS.
“GPS is nothing but a great big clock,” he said.
“It actually measures the time the signal it takes to hit your unit from the satellite. And it also knows the distance, so you triangulate your position (with two satellites.)”
GPS trackers receive one signal from the satellite but don’t emit anything themselves.
“(The Field Tracker) is a two-way system and it’s interactive,” he said.
“The Iridium link is both sending to the satellite and receiving from the satellite, so it’s like your cellphone.”
The Iridium link is the connection between the Field Tracker and the Iridium satellite system, a constellation of 66 satellites which offer service around the world.
The Iridium link was originally intended for global cellphones, but the market is slow to grow because satellite phone calls are notoriously expensive.
In fact, the entire commercial satellite business has been in a bit of a bust since investors poured their money into it in the late 1990s.
It was in the commercial satellite business that Tessier first began his path to building the Field Tracker.
“I use to work for SpacePort Canada,” he said.
That company failed in 1998 as the money flowing into the industry stalled once the demand for infrastructure was satisfied.
“The big, expected backlog in space launch demand dried up,” said Tessier.
“After that I want to work for Bristol Aerospace,” he said.
Bristol was owned by Rolls-Royce at the time, and was based in Winnipeg.
“I worked in the space division,” he said. His job was to design how messages would be exchanged between the Earth’s surface and the rocket.
The company was looking to launch satellites in Churchill.
In Northern Manitoba, he saw the dangers of people travelling alone out in the wilderness.
“While I was there, you see people go out there and get lost, some would die on the land,” said Tessier.
“One of the guys looked at me and says, ‘You’re an engineer, you got come up with something better.’”
Tessier was also involved in the launch of the Scisat-1 satellite out of Poker Flat in Alaska. The Canadian Space Agency-mandated satellite was designed to monitor the upper atmosphere space for measuring the ozone layer and pollutants, said Tessier.
“(Scisat-1) was launched in 2003. I just spoke to (satellite operations) at the (Canadian Space Agency) where they just had a meeting about it and it’s still going strong,” he said.
“The satellite was designed for two years, here it’s going on for five years.”
Tessier’s experience in rocket science primed him to develop a handheld tool that could use a satellite’s services without using too much power and without costing too much money.
“I use my experience in design and implementing ground control stations and building them,” he said.
Tessier tested the quality of two other satellite providers, Globalstar and Orbcomm, before settling on the much more reliable Iridium system.
“Iridium came up with this new short-burst data system,” said Tessier. It was the most reliable and efficient way to send information through space.
“I said ‘This would pass the family test. I would give it to my daughter for Christmas,” he said.
Tessier knew about Iridium from his Churchill days. When he contacted the company, they were surprised.
“They said no one had built anything like this. There were a few black boxes that could transmit positions, but nothing you can carry and take messages on its own,” he said.
Solara is now a tier-one re-seller of Iridium’s services, he said.
The Field Tracker is perfect for hunters, First Nations, Arctic exploration companies and emergency services crews.
“Governments are usually the first people to call about (the Tracker). They have people in forestry, the game branch, the police, and the military also has some units,” he said.
But governments that were interested before recent economic turmoil have now become hesitant, including clients in the Yukon government, he said.
Solara only has six full-time employees and Tessier said he’s sold just over 100. They cost $1129.99, excluding the monthly $29.99 service contract.
“There’s a lot of ones and twos that go out,” he said.
But starting small might not be such a bad thing when the economy is so uncertain.
Especially when your potential market covers the globe.
Contact James Munson at email@example.com.