Why don’t smartphones have PLB capability?

A friend was recently involved in a helicopter rescue effort described in “‘Not knowing is so hard.’ Hiker rescued after 5 days without food in California forest”:

A hiker was rescued from a canyon in a California forest after going missing for five days without food and little water, officials said.

George “Dave” Null, 58, went missing in the Angeles National Forest May 15, according to a news release from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. It took a massive search effort, involving at least five agencies, to find him, the sheriff’s department said.

Null was spotted at creek base Wednesday evening while a helicopter crew searched Bear Creek in the canyon east of Triple Rock, according to the Montrose Search and Rescue Team.

This made me wonder why smartphones don’t have a personal locator beacon capability. Coronapanic has proven that there is no limit to our risk-aversion. Why wouldn’t we engineer slightly thicker phones with a fold-out antenna and a guaranteed dedicated power reserve that can be used as a PLB when we’ve gotten lost, e.g., on the way to or from the vaccine booster clinic or the P100 mask store?

The obvious disadvantage of this approach is that the phone becomes slightly bulkier and heavier. But if we’re willing to wear masks all the time and take non-FDA-approved vaccines why aren’t we willing to carry a slightly heavier phone if it could save just one life?


9 thoughts on “Why don’t smartphones have PLB capability?

  1. It would probably make cellphones too expensive and heavy and the feature would rarely be used correctly! I can see a lot of false alarms happening.

  2. Having heard search and rescue people refer to personal locator beacons as “yuppie 911” before, I bet the answer is at least 50% that governments agencies don’t actually want everyone with a smartphone having the ability to call for a rescue when they sprain their ankle half a mile from the trailhead.

    • Paul: I love your thinking. Any system can be improved by adding Elon Musk! However, I can’t find a situation in which a handheld device can communicate with the Starlink satellites via a small antenna. Every article talks about a phase-array “dish” nearly two feet across. I guess for folks who are willing to double- and triple-mask after vaccination carrying around a two-foot dish in hopes of achieving greater safety isn’t a big impediment, but the PLBs work with much smaller and lighter antennas.

  3. Phones all transmit beacons when they don’t have service. Enabling a wifi hotspot might also buy locateability, but anything longer range than a few hundred ft kills their batteries within hours.

    Null is an unfortunate name for someone hiking in a remote forest. Surprising despite his survival skills, he still managed to get lost.

  4. Finding him in a database would be harder than finding him in the woods. “SELECT * FROM PEOPLE WHERE LAST_NAME = NULL” … 0 records returned?

  5. There is no need for a smartphone to have such a device built-in when the use of it is not that in use. Just like pilots have a check-list and safety-tools that they take with them on their private plan, hikers need to do the same. Slip into their hiking bag that extra 2lb or so device — whatever it is — and use it in emergency when needed.

    • More like 5.3 oz for a $400 PLB which unlike a cell phone transmits for 30 hrs including 121.5 and 406 MHZ and has visible and IR strobes for SAR to actually see you.

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