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BGAN review turns into real-life test

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Lost at Sea, a set on Flickr.

When we took an OCENS BGAN satellite communications kit to a remote beach in Mexico where we planned to celebrate the New Year with friends, we expected to have fun testing it by checking email and news, and maybe making a few phone calls to friends to evaluate the ease of use and reception.

As it turned out, the unit had to prove its value in much more tragic circumstances.

If you’re not yet familiar with the concept, BGAN (Broadband Global Area Network; just say “beegan”) allows both data and telephone communication from virtually anywhere on earth, via a compact portable antenna that links with one of four geosynchronous equatorial-orbit satellites. Roseann and I wanted a system that would allow us to send and receive email, post images and articles on the Web, and make critical telephone calls anywhere we parked the camper. BGAN technology now makes doing so easy and efficient (if not yet exactly cheap) using one’s laptop computer, which communicates with and through the antenna via either a cable or wi-fi connection to access and send data at up to 464 kbps. A separate telephone receiver can be used with the antenna on its own if you don’t need data service (although it will send and receive SMS messages).

We’ve been working with OCENS (“oceans,” for Ocean and Coastal Environmental Sensing) for over a year now—they sponsored the communications area at the 2012 Overland Expo. The company is a comprehensive resource for satellite communication systems, and can equip travelers, explorers, and scientists with BGAN kits, satellite telephones, and other types of equipment and software, either on a purchase or rental basis. Matt at OCENS sent us the latest Hughes 9202 terminal—the smallest Class 2 terminal on the market at barely over eight inches square—along with a Thrane and Thrane Explorer handset. The kit, with a rechargeable lithium-ion battery pack, comes tidily packaged in a Pelican 1450 case. A complete set of instructions for connecting to the Inmarsat satellite system comprises a single laminated card.

Our first morning on the beach in Mexico we made coffee and wandered about catching up with people we hadn’t seen in a long time. There was the usual round of campsite tours as we checked out who’d done what to their Four Wheel Campers or Volkswagen Westfalias or OzTents or FlipPacs. I took some video with the Canon 5D MkII, then moved down to the water’s edge to get some background footage of tidepools and birds. The water was glassy silver; barely a swell tumbled home on the gravel. Brown pelicans skimmed past just millimeters from the surface, defying physics. I heard the sound of an outboard motor, and saw two fishermen heading into the cove, so I set up the camera and got a shot of them traversing the frame. As the camera rolled I looked askance at the boat—a 12-foot, outboard-powered aluminum craft, painted camouflage, that would have been fine on a bass lake but seemed marginal for the Sea of Cortez even in calm weather. The men were obviously weekend sport fishermen; they carried what appeared to be light spinning gear. The two made a few casts in the cove, then motored off to the north.

The afternoon turned windy, as it usually does in winter in the Sea of Cortez, and by dusk a sizable surf was pounding the gravel beach in front of our truck, and whitecaps showed out in the open water. But early the next morning it was calm again when we heard another outboard, and saw three men dressed in foul-weather gear motor up to our beach in a panga—the sturdy and seaworthy fiberglass boat used for decades by Mexican fishermen. Behind the panga they towed a camouflage-painted aluminum boat, which, it developed as we talked with them, they’d found capsized, barely afloat—and empty except for an outboard motor and two fishing rods.

The story continues here: http://www.overlandexpo.com/overland-tech-travel/2013/1/5/bgan-review-turns-into-a-real-life-test.html

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