When Apple announced at its closely watched September product launch event that it would soon be introducing an emergency SOS feature powered by a network of satellites orbiting above the Earth, Brooklyn probably wasn’t the secluded spot most had. in mind to use it.
But on a rainy afternoon last week, I found myself trying to stay connected to one of Prospect Park’s satellites as part of a demo for the next movie. I came out from under a giant oak and the rain began to come down harder. So I moved my device slightly to the right and quickly regained access to the signal and continued texting with an emergency switchboard.
Rain wasn’t the problem; it was the foliage that limited that of my phone view of the sky.
On Tuesday, Apple (AAPL) will launch the satellite emergency SOS feature for those with an iPhone 14 in the US and Canada, with plans to launch it. in the UK, France, Germany and Ireland next month. The free feature promises to allow iPhone users to contact dedicated dispatchers in emergency situations via satellites when a cell phone network is unavailable.
Hikers, rescuers and intrepid travelers can be well versed in the existing world of satellite phones, providing voice, SMS and data services anywhere on Earth. But existing satellite phones often have large protruding antennas. Apple has said it wants to invent a technology that allows direct communication with satellites still within the form factor of the iPhone.
“It started with finding frequencies that worked in iPhones and were also available for use on satellites,” Arun Mathias, Apple’s vice president of wireless technologies and ecosystem, told CNN Business. “Then we made the necessary hardware changes to the iPhones, but without the bulky antennas.” Apple, he added, first created new software that allowed the iPhone to communicate with satellites and then designed the user experience around that.
The effort is part of a larger speech this year for consumers that its devices not only help them live better, but also live more safely. In the process, it may make its expensive products seem a little more indispensable in an uncertain business environment that has some afterthought fees.
Apple recently invested $450 million in Globalstar, a global satellite service, and other providers to support the development of 24 low-orbit satellites that fly at 16,000 mph at a higher altitude than the International Space Station. The investment is part of Apple’s Advanced Manufacturing Fund, which was previously used to make glass with Corning and laser facial recognition technology.
During my test with an iPhone 14 provided by Apple, I attempted to call 911 but was automatically redirected to Emergency SOS via satellite dispatchers for demo purposes. When the device was unable to connect to cellular service, a small green icon appeared at the bottom right of the call screen to initiate a text conversation with the emergency services.
I was asked to fill out a questionnaire and selected a handful of short multiple choice questions; I noticed that I was lost but not injured. Apple said that because the user may be in a difficult state, a questionnaire helps gather critical information more quickly. (This is the same set of questions asked by an emergency services officer.)
“When we tested it with forwarders in the field, they even told us that in some situations the answers they get from the questionnaire, along with the user’s location, might be enough to actually make a decision shipment, right at the beginning, and this is huge in terms of the reduction in getting help getting rescuers in the field to the user, ”said Trey Forgety, Apple’s chief of emergency systems software engineering.
Almost 20 seconds later, I received confirmation that my geolocation coordinates had been sent to a forwarder, along with my medical ID, emergency contact information, and answers to my questions. I was told to keep responses short so as to reduce the amount of data needed to transfer to the satellite and return to a dispatcher. I was also asked to identify nearby landmarks and where I entered the park. My total exchange took about four minutes.
Apple said the size of the texts is reduced to about a third of their original size by running a compression algorithm. This allows the satellite to more efficiently route messages to ground stations located around the world. Once received, the SMS is sent to local emergency services or a relay center with Apple-trained emergency specialists who can send help.
But even in a city, I lost access to the satellite several times when I didn’t have a clear view of the sky. A grayscale circle with a green signal image appeared when connected, but turns yellow when conditions were poor and red when connectivity was interrupted. I walked about 200 feet from my original position to find a satellite. Once there, I naturally held the device in my hand; Apple said there is no need to turn up or shake.
“As the satellites are moving, sometimes the phone may have to move from one satellite to another and there may be short gaps where no satellites are available,” said Mathias. “The phone knows this and will make it very clear to the user that there is such a gap and let them know when the next satellite is available.”
When it works, the life-saving potential of such a function is obvious. But there are some caveats. To start, it’s text alone; users will need to physically have the device in their hands to initiate an exchange, which may not always be possible in the event of an injury. The tool, however, works with the iPhone 14 and Apple Watch’s crash detection feature, so it could automatically call 911 or send coordinates to a dispatcher when a user is unconscious or unable to reach the own iPhone.
For now, Emergency SOS via satellite only works in English, Spanish and French, although the shippers have professional interpreting services available for many more languages. Apple said it also may not work in all areas, such as places above 62° latitude, including northern parts of Canada and Alaska.
For iPhone 14 users who would like to see how the tool works and test the process for finding a satellite, a demo is now available in Settings under “Satellite Emergency SOS”. Apple said the feature is available for free for two years and then re-evaluates the offering based on what it learned about usage during that time.