He was at the “leading edge” of adventure in his day and was the first person to use communications (“Marconi radio wireless”) on a crossing of the Sahara desert. The supporting radio batteries alone made up a complete camel load, and now and again if they bounced around on the camel’s back and the acid leaked onto its skin, it would gallop off in any direction taking days to find, and creating (even for the 1920’s) an unimagined impact on regular communication schedules.

Today you could make a similar journey with a sat phone in your top pocket. And speak, send text, or still or video images ~ quite clearly, to who ever you wanted to anywhere in the world in seconds.

Rendell’s radio kit weighed several hundred pounds; yours would weigh a few ounces, and in the next few years it would weigh nothing at all being an integrated part of your environmentally protective clothing as part of your personal “wearable communications” package.

Keeping in Touch ~Why?

Why do we automatically have a need for access to any kind of communications on our adventures? The main reason is that communication in all its forms is so much a part of our daily lives. In any case on adventures they allow us on a regular basis to tell people we are safe, and that has to be common sense.

Nevertheless there are still those who wish to recreate, or to experience “a true sense ” of travel and these adventurers create scenarios or “limitations” that cut them off from any external contact. It does mean they have taken complete control over their adventure and their lives, being completely self reliant and supporting, cutting out any form of contact, and making the adventure one of complete commitment from start to finish.

Adventure of this kind is increasing difficult to manufacture, as many far flung communities have radio links to the outside world, even if it is just to call a doctor ~ and no aircraft, or sea going vessel is allowed by international law to be devoid of such equipment. Not using them would in any case trigger a completely unnecessary search and rescue, which might take up valuable resources needed for a genuine “call out”.

When planning do make a conscious decision about communications, and make sure that friends and family know what it is, establish a routine to be in touch with them and stick to it as much as possible.

First Check

Check out the communications available in the countries you are visiting. Check out how reliable the national telephone system is, does it only have a reliable infra structure in the main conurbations, commercial and industrial areas only? What are the costs of using it, does it shut down in remote areas at particular hours? Will time difference effect when you call home?

Some parts of the world have metered telephone booths, where you can drop in, a member of staff will dial your number for you, and charge you a dollar rate for the connection and duration for the call. These booth/business are usually well advertised, (they have ISDN and STD call centre somewhere on their window) and the service is honest, it usually is  working(!), and not expensive by western standards.

Phone Cards

One alternative is to take a pre paid “phone home card” similar to the ones used by most western military personnel, who are issued with 20 minutes of free “call time” each month.

They have the option or the facility to top up the time on their call card from their own credit cards, so extending their very cheap call time. This is now available to all of us who travel and it works by taking the cheapest possible routing for calls. The specialist operating companies like Telco and eKit card, have negotiated “off peak routing times” with various national telephone companies actress the world; so that when that part of the world is (say) asleep, the call are routed through their system at a very low price because they are all asleep!

Quality is seldom affected; the old days of “squelchy squishy” noises in the background have long gone. You operate the system by using a call back number and pin that links you into the system and then dial number you want. A recent advantage is the voice mail facility. Where you can have messages left for you to collect when you dial in your PIN (personal Identity number). Cost effective, less to carry, secure and reliable.

Mobile Phones

Why not take your mobile phone? Your network provider will have a partner network in most industrialised countries (check that coverage does not suffer from the same problem as landline coverage might, being intermittent, or only in densely populated areas.) and you will be able to connect just by switching on your phone as normal. If you do not have a roaming facility, ask your network provider to facilitate one before you leave on your trip, but do check the tariff. I failed to do so with my vodaphone in Sri Lanka and was paying £2.80 for incoming call a minute and £3.40 for all outgoing calls before any tax!

The lesson was learnt about changing the SIM card to a local pay as you go card and topping up as necessary, and emailing the new local Sri Lankan number to friends and family. Do you need to take a mobile? It’s just another possession to be responsible for and something else to loose, if a phone card will do, or the local system is good enough.

SAT Phones

When telecommunications for an adventure or expedition is a priority and reliability 100% essential from where ever you are in the world Satellite phones are your only real option. There are two favoured systems for the adventurer, Iridium and Thuraya.

Iridium provides a complete global coverage including the oceans, mountainous areas, airways and Polar Regions of the world. This is managed by a constellation of 66 low-earth orbiting (LEO) satellites operated by Boeing Industries that are capable of covering remote areas where terrestrial communications are not available. LEO satellites were preferred in setting this system up, because the configuration offers a number of benefits. Unlike geosynchronous satellites, which hover about the equator at an altitude of 35,900 kilometres (22,300 miles), the Iridium constellation of 66 satellites are in polar orbits at an altitude of only 780 kilometres (485 miles). This orbital configuration provides no significant transmission delays, and lower transmitting power resulting in longer battery life, a vital aspect for any one in a remote and difficult location.

Iridium has a track record of connecting people anywhere and vehicles just about everywhere, regardless of their location. You can send and receive voice, data and messaging at anytime with the system and it has been used at both North and South Poles with outstanding clarity of reception and clear transmission, as well as in the Himalaya and other normally difficult terrain. It has other uses too… In April 2003 the Iridium system was a key component in location and successful rescue of Dr. Ronald Shemenski from the South Pole.

Thuraya has an equally good reputation with those who have used their system. However, it must be said Thuraya are not so focused on communications in difficult terrain; that still suits the Iridium system best. They have a very wide coverage, with footprint encompassing Europe, North and Central Africa, the Middle East, the CIS Countries and South Asia~ more than enough for most adventures where the terrain is wild but not extreme. Certainly a contender for these areas, especially as users can benefit from continuous border-to-border coverage beyond boundaries of terrestrial systems and cellular networks. Another key benefit of this system is its dual service enabling the user to use the GSM service any time in local networks, yet being able to automatically switch on to satellite mode whenever out of local terrestrial reach.
Thuraya handsets integrate satellite, GSM and location determination via  (GPS) Global Positioning System, and each handset offers, voice, data, facsimile, and messaging.

Global Positioning System (GPS)

GPS communicate with satellite-based navigation systems that are made up of a network of 24 satellites placed into orbit by the U.S. Department of Defence. GPS works in any weather conditions, anywhere in the world, 24 hours a day, and they can fix your location, help you plan routes and journeys anywhere in the world and be accurate to a matter of metres. To use a GPS involves no subscription fees or set up charges.

The GPS satellites circle the earth twice a day in a very precise orbit and transmit a particular information signal. GPS receivers take this information and use triangulation to calculate the user’s exact location. Essentially, the GPS receiver compares the time a signal was transmitted by a satellite with the time it was received. The time difference tells the GPS receiver how far away the satellite is. With these distance measurements from a few more satellites, the receiver can determine the user’s position and display it on the unit’s electronic map. A GPS receiver must be locked on to the signal of at least three satellites to calculate a 2D position (latitude and longitude) and track movement. With four satellites in view, the receiver can determine the user’s 3D position (latitude, longitude and altitude). Once the user’s position has been determined, the GPS unit can calculate other information, such as speed, bearing, track, trip distance, distance to destination, sunrise and sunset time and more.

Today’s GPS receivers are extremely accurate, thanks to their parallel multi-channel design. In the same way as a SAT phone can have a secondary function as a GPS, some GPS have a phone capability and much more. For example the Garmin rino 120 has a radio capability and enough memory to download detailed mapping, it can also coordinate and fix three other users locations and update them all as they move.

Most of the modern GPS can “beam” your exact location to another user within a two-mile range using position reporting, an invaluable function in poor weather conditions. GPS today are tough, robust instruments and all the top brands make a variety of waterproof options.

While it is still advisable to take “map and compass” on any adventure as a back up for any contingency the GPS has become the preferred method of reading one’s way across the most hostile of terrain. Check the classified ads and similar site on the internet for good second hand GPS.

 Sending ” Snail” Mail

See if you can get some information on the postal system before you set off. You will inevitably have a use for it, if only to send home cards. You might want to send home clothing and equipment you no longer require at the end of your trip…? Perhaps you have purchased something that is too heavy to carry? You may have been collating material (books, magazines, paper documents) to research back home for a project or postgraduate work.

You need to know how the system works, (will the stamps be steamed off for resale as soon as I am out of here?).

Sending mail back home to your supporters, sponsors and newspapers?  Would fax be more reliable, quicker, and more cost effective? If so, the phone booths already mentioned will be able to help.

Internet Access

As “sail gave way to steam”, so have the more traditional methods of communicating given way to the Internet, but do bear in mind that as fast and effective as the internet is, there is no real substitute for the pleasure a hand written letter can give the recipient from time to time, and a happy and enthusiastic sounding voice at the other end of the telephone can do the same. Remember that this can of be made very cost effective over the net with compatible audio/voice systems should you be able to use them.

By far the most practical way to use the Internet is to set up a free service 

E-mail account. Do this before you go, and get conversant with it’s potential, if you have the time.

The advantage is that you can access your mail from just about anywhere. Using cyber cafes or some of the “phone home” booths is usually very inexpensive, and a great advantage to the free service route is that you do not need to take a lap top or note book computer ~ it is also something less to loose, have stolen, or have hassle with “dutiable or restricted items” at customs or border crossings. If equipment and services of any kind are there “in country”, and reasonably reliable it makes sense to use them giving yourself greater flexibility.

You might even warn friends and family of your departure plans by using the free service email before you go. This ensures that they have a “log” of your plan, timings and intentions and they will also automatically have your free server email address, to click on to immediately in their inbox.

There are plenty of free services for you to choose from. Using well known services like Hot Mail, Lycos, or Yahoo is most common. They seldom have technical problems, and are fast to access. Do remember that the speed of access might vary with the sophistication (or lack of it) with the national phone system, and the rate of the modem the computer is using.

You may want to send images and text back home for publication. Do bare in mind that nearly all art rooms and graphic designers and those with like or allied skills, use Apple Mac, and some times there is translation differences between “Macs” and the various generations of Microsoft software. You will need to check out any foibles before you travel. As far as can be estimated Microsoft has over 80% of usage worldwide, so do make sure you are conversant with using it.

Using various Internet directories of cyber cafes, you can look up the various places that Internet access will be available to you. You could pre-plan times of the week to “hit” these locations to pick up and send your email. These days there are cyber cafes in the most unlikely places. You can now email from a café in a tent at Everest base Camp at 18,300ft, for example.

Do remember not to become a dormant user, if using a free serve account. All of the free servers have a regular “clear out” of addresses that are not getting used. The usual time for making your email dormant is about 90 days, so for most people away from the road-head even, this should not happen.

Check out bulletin boards, news groups and discussion forums that are pertinent to your pre-departure plans and regularly while you are away. There is nothing like learning from some one else’s recent and up to date experience… and it doesn’t mean that this will always be negative, there will be some good recommendations and reviews of places that you will never have heard of, and they could make your adventure just that little bit more special by being ahead of the crowd.

PALM or WAP?

For those of you who do wish to keep Internet communications “closer to the chest” the new generation of palm tops are likely to be the answer. They will seamlessly integrate with Microsoft, Lotus and Corel desktop applications. Most have a flexible database for personal records, a jotter including an embedded sketching facility; a voice memo recorder, alarm clock and they will send and receive email messages using your normal Internet service provider (ISP). You can have an optional infrared Travel Modem with some of them and they are capable of connecting to a GSM digital phone to collect your email too.

 A WAP phone which will connect to the low level orbital satellite system might also be the answer for some of your destinations, but you must prioritise the use you will have. Is it voice communication you require most, with an occasional but slowish connection to the Internet from time to time? If this were not the case a palm or small notebook would probably suit you best and the “ether time” will likely be more cost effective.

Communicating Images.

Digital cameras are now serious rivals to more normal analog (film loaded) cameras and they have several advantages besides the fact that prices have dramatically fallen and the adventure traveller can buy a very handy camera for well under £40.00.

 Analog cameras use a light sensitive film for focusing and capturing images. This film contains fine grains of a light sensitive compound, and this reacts to light.  All such film which comes in 12, 24 or 36 exposure, is housed in a bulky cassette, can be effected by extremes of temperature, (the feed lip can snap in intense cold) can be fiddly to load in awkward circumstances with wet, numb or sweaty hands, or in a canoe, up a cliff, in a moving vehicle and the film can be scratched or damaged with dust or grit if the environment is not ideal

The film is then developed. If you wanted to “wire” an image from the film, you would need to process it, scan it into a computer and then send it in a suitable format as an attached file by email. This could also be expensive depending on the size of the file and speed of the modem.

The good news with a digital camera is that it has no film but light sensitive cells, which are often made from crystalline silicon.

When light is focused onto these cells, a photoelectric effect occurs and a charge is generated and stored in each cell, with the magnitude of each charge dependent on the intensity, colour of the incident light.

The digital camera will either have a small amount of built in computer like memory for storing the images, or will utilise removable memory cards. What is important to bear in mind, is the greater the pixel resolution, i.e. the number of light sensitive cells, the better the picture quality.

Also digital cameras generally have to use longer exposure times, or larger aperture sizes. For the adventurous traveller the advantages are obvious, as picture can be viewed immediately, unwanted compositions disguarded, the memory cards can be removed and downloaded onto a computer to be stored, edited, printed etc. and the images can then be deleted from the camera or memory card, freeing up storage space.

 A photo software package can be used on the computer to enhance the images if need be. But the very good news is that you can send these kind of images with far less fuss. Some cameras will simply let you plug them into a computer and you can send the images immediately.

For the weight conscious adventurer, the SIPIX Blink Digital Camera is a must to consider. It stores 100 640×480 (0.3 mega pixel images) or 400 320×240 images, uses a single AAA battery but the images will be lost if the battery is removed before they have been “saved”. The SIPIX can store short motion clips as well and it is only the size of a matchbox.

Digital video is based on the same principles and many cameras today are capable of still of video imaging.

Compatibility and Field Support 

It would be impossible to look at, and discuss the compatibility of the differing software systems for all the “variables” that you might wish to achieve on your adventure.

 Here you need the help of a “bluetooth” specialist who understands the ways that wireless connection link phones, computers, headsets and other devices, Your local computer store should be able to help you before you depart, and they should then be on “stand by” through email and phone to help cure faults and problems through out the adventure, without having to leave their usual place of work.

However, you must make sure that the physical environment is not too harsh, and if this looks to be a problem, devise a means with cling film or anti static wrapping to negate this or use protective environmental housings.

High Frequency Transceivers

There will be occasions that radio will still be the most appropriate from of communicating especially on scientific expeditions that are field bound for long periods of time. Governmental regulations might insist upon it and not allow any other form of communicating, there may be a need to have a “no cost” form other than an operating licence.

HF has a distinct advantage here as every other type of communication mentioned so far has a cost implication every time it is used HF suits a multi station tasking requirement for expeditions where possibly weight or load carrying may not be so crucial.

The Australians (used to covering vast distance by radio have a radio set called the HF-90 and it is one of the most versatile HF transceivers available anywhere suited to civilian applications. It has reliable communications up to distances of 3,000km and is currently in use in over 75 countries world wide, which means that spares are in good supply. This rugged all-purpose HF SSB transceiver is designed for backpack use, vehicles and for fixed base station applications. 

When on the move it is an extremely compact and lightweight unit, and has only essential controls to ensure ease of operation. It has a capacity for up to 255 programmed channels.  It can operate at a selected power level of up to 50 Watts, and has very low battery consumption. The reception is excellent even in the most crowded radio environments. Remember that you will need to use a set form of radio etiquette, and to designate “station codes and identifications, if you have radio.

Surplus?

It always makes sense to check out your government surplus store to see if there is any form or second hand type of equipment that will meet your communicating needs at a fraction of the cost of buying new equipment

Power Sources

Remember too that your communications will only be viable with a regular source of power. How will you achieve this?

Mobile Power

Mobile phones have been limited in there use even in short term adventures where a plug in source of power was not available, like a cigarette lighter sockets in vehicles, but recently a small “snap in” hand cranking generator has been designed that takes about 3 minutes to fully charge a standard size mobile phone battery and it weighs next to nothing.

Solar Power

Portable solar panel technology is very advanced today, lightweight and despite common belief works on cloudy days too. Here is the answer for notebook and lap top computers when away from all other sources

Generators

If you must, petrol or diesel generators (depending on the altitude) are reliable, heavy as is the fuel to run them as well as being smelly and polluting, fast, noisy and efficient. Some vehicle will have generating capabilities so check this with the supplier or manufacturer.

Always consider your need to communicate and the various levels that are necessary. Look closely at the” needs” rather than the “wants” Look at the availability of producing power to sustain your communications, while you (hopefully) show concern for the environment impact and any noise pollution you will create in remote locations and fragile environments

Whatever form of communication you use, remember it uses. Power and generating the power can have an enormous impact on the environment and the people around you. Be responsible. Use sustainable energy sources or think twice about whether your use of electronic devices is a necessity in the circumstances.

Wearable computers and communications

Looking ahead, this will be a computer that is always with you, it will be comfortable and easy to keep and use, and will be as unobtrusive as clothing you wear. You will be able to buy clothes that let you pick up your email or make a phone call from your collar or sleeve. There will be no noticeable increase in the weight of the clothing and you will just move a software card from jacket to jacket, shirt to shirt. Some people feel that a wearable computer is no different from a very small palm-top.This is not the case and they will certainly have some of the following characteristics: they will be used constantly on the move in any terrain or urban area, and this certainly distinguishes “wearables” from both desktop and laptop computers. They will emphasize the hands-free aspect, and concentrate on speech input and heads-up display or voice output.They could incorporate special voice activated keyboards, dials, and even joysticks to minimize the tying up of a user’s hands. An “adventure” wearable would have sensors governing the users physical environment and location, as well as wireless communications, navigable GPS, differing cameras, and microphones beside the usual functions of phone, email, text and on board computer games.

They will also be able to convey information to the user even when not actively being used. For example, if your “wearable” wanted to let you know you have new email and who it was from, it would be able to communicate this information to you immediately.

Wearables will be always on, working, sensing, and acting as opposed to the normal use of pen-based PDAs, which normally sit in one’s pocket and are only woken up when a task needs to be done. Think how versatile this will make communicating in the outdoors ~ but when these systems come, remember to stay in charge of them, not let the technology run you just” because it is there”.

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