Technology can help the corporate executive protection team to improve the quality and speed of its communication as well as its responsiveness, resourcefulness and coverage. This blog takes a look at the most commonly used tools of our trade.
Smart phones are the go-to tool for most executive protection communication and a lot of navigation.
These days, practically everyone is carrying an iPhone, Android or Windows smart phone. Executive protection teams are no different. As ubiquitous as they are convenient and cheap to use, smart phones come with plenty of useful apps – including our very own ADVANCE productivity app and ODIN geolocation app developed especially for executive protection use.
Practically all smart phones are also equipped with GPS, so they can be used for navigation as well as location tracking.
When tracking, phone batteries drain more quickly than dedicated GPS trackers. However, they have the advantage of convenience: most folks already have a phone that they need to remember bring along and charge, so they won’t have to do the same with an additional GPS tracking device.
The downsides of cell phones are predictable and manageable in most situations:
- Batteries run out (make sure you have extra chargers and battery packs)
- They can break down (bring a spare or buy a burner)
- Coverage can be unreliable in many locations (boosters are available, but there has to be some signal to boost)
- They can be hacked
Important note: In natural disasters such as hurricanes, cell phones can easily be put out of commission due to power outages, flooding or heavy winds. And as many of us have experienced in other situations in which cell phone use suddenly spikes – this can be anything from New Year’s Eve to a football game – they can be unreliable when you need them most because so many others are using the grid at the same time.
Radios are a great way for executive protection teams to conduct local communication, and have a number of advantages compared to phones:
- They’re rugged and made to take a beating.
- They’re relatively inexpensive.
- They use “one-to-many” comms, so everyone on the team can get the same message at the same time.
- They don’t depend on the phone network, so they can be more reliable than cell phones in times of crisis (but they do rely on radio frequencies that can also go down in catastrophic situations).
- They’re simple to set up and use.
But radios also have their limitations:
- They work for voice only, and can’t be used for text messages, emails or data transmission.
- They only work locally and not across great distances. Depending on the system you use, this can be anywhere between 1-5 miles, or more if you add infrastructure such as repeaters, antennae and power stations. This can still be plenty of coverage for use on corporate campuses, between cars driving together, at events, etc.
- You don’t need to be a skilled hacker to listen in: anyone with a radio scanner can hear what’s going on.
Satellite phones and modems
Satellite phones and modems are great for emergency situations and for communication when you’re off the beaten track. If you’ve got your own electrical supply (battery, solar, generator, etc.), they’ll work right through power grid outages. And some providers can deliver a coverage footprint that will keep you connected anywhere on the planet as long as you are outside and not in the middle of a dense rainforest. We like Iridium’s low Earth orbit system, which provides coverage every place we’ve been – so far!
Satmodems have all the advantages of sat phones – and connect you to the internet for data and VoIP. Expect a little latency compared to good terrestrial connections, but the lag is worth it. Plans provide Internet connections in addition to voice communication.
Encryption is standard, although anything can be hacked.
When first introduced, sat coms were eye-poppingly expensive to buy and use. Prices have since dropped considerably.
Satellite phones and modems should be part of almost any contingency plan. They can be lifesavers, and most executive protection details will want to bring them along if only as a means of backup communication.
Executive protection teams that are traveling light will want to check out the Iridium Go!, a compact satellite device that connects wirelessly to your Apple or Android device. Iridium’s apps let you use your phone or tablet to do voice calls, send texts or Twitter posts, browse the web, keep up with your emails, check the weather and even compress and send photos. (See https://www.iridium.com/products/details/iridiumgo)
Wireless, network-free smartphone add-ons
A new, hybrid device type is hitting the market, and we’re thrilled. Like the Iridium Go!, these devices work with and through your smartphone – which you no doubt always have in your pocket anyway.
But these new devices allow you to communicate completely off the grid – and without satellites – with team members who are similarly equipped. Let’s take a closer look at two of them that we find particularly interesting.
goTenna is the first entrant in this new category. For us, it was love at first text.
What it is:
goTenna is a clever little device that lets you use your smartphone to send and receive text messages even if you’ve got zero phone or wireless coverage. It also allows you to share locations on offline maps. You can send to a designated user or group of users, or shout out your text to any other goTenna user in range.
Why you need it:
Sure, it’s text only and no voice or data. And yes, the range is limited (we’d love to see it get Mesh capability to extend this).
But if you’re off the grid and really need to communicate with a team member or any other buddy, goTenna can be a lifesaver.
Why we like it:
- Simplicity: We tested goTenna in Davos this winter, and it truly is a breeze to set up and use. Just download the app to your Apple or Android phone, link a goTenna to your phone via Bluetooth, write and send your message on your phone – and it’s on its way to a similarly equipped phone within range. It’ll work up to four miles (6.4 km) in most outdoor terrains, far less in urban settings.
- Light/compact: With a form factor of just 5.8 x 1 x 0.5 inches (147 x 25 x 13 mm) and 1.8 oz. (52 g), there’s really no reason NOT to have one of these in your kit bag. Just in case.
- Price: At $199 for a pair of these (and yes, you need at least a pair – one goTenna will work only with another goTenna), this is the cheaper of the two new devices in this category.
They’re not in production yet, so we haven’t tested them and can’t vouch for performance. But as much as we love our goTennas, we really can’t wait to get our hands on a couple of Beartooths. Or is that Bearteethe?
You can order now, but delivery won’t be until December 2016. Early pricing is $149 for a pair; will rise to $399 after that.
What it is:
Beartooth does everything goTenna does and more: it’s got voice (push-to-talk), and it will charge your phone if needed (it holds enough juice to charge an iPhone 6s 1.75 times). And yes, it’s also got topographic maps that work offline, but only for the US and Canada.
Why you need it:
Beartooth lets you set up your own voice, text and navigation network without any cellular, wi-fi or satellite coverage.
Why we like it:
- MacGyver appeal: Pimp your cell phone with off-grid voice, text and maps and a charger – all in a package the size of a deck of cards? What’s NOT to like?
- Range: According to their website, Beartooth’s got better range than goTenna: text and location up to 10 miles (16 km) with clear line-of-site, and voice up to 5 miles (7.2 km)
- Mesh networking: Mesh technology extends your off-grid network with every Beartooth node you add.
GPS tracking devices
Dedicated GPS tracking devices can be an excellent way to determine a person’s or asset’s location. They’re small, light and have better battery life than smart phones.
Like a lot of other tech, GPS trackers have only gotten better and cheaper in recent years. The competition is fierce, and there are plenty of options to choose from.
Here are some things to consider before opting for a tracker for corporate EP use:
- Battery life: This is the single most important criteria, and devices vary considerably. All decent trackers will last for at least 24 hours under normal use; a few will take you past 150 hours. Of course, the size of the device affects battery life since bigger batteries last longer. So does location update frequency. Motion activation boosts battery life dramatically, since as long as the tracker isn’t going anywhere it doesn’t need to update.
- App and interface quality: All trackers come with dedicated apps that let you follow tracker location on your smart phone, tablet or computer. You’ll want to be able to set predefined zones, then send a notice if the tracker leaves the zone’s boundaries (geofencing); you’ll want clear movement history; you’ll want simple activation. In short, you’ll want good user interface design.
- Hardware quality: Materials and build matter when trackers are on the road, so you’ll want to opt for the best quality you can. Compare ports, buttons and charging cradles.
- Panic buttons: When the tracker is used for keeping an eye on people, panic buttons are a must.
- Operator coverage: A lot of people still have the mistaken idea that a GPS tracker is just a smaller version of the navigation device they have in their car – and are surprised to learn that they need GSM coverage, a SIM card and operator plan to transmit location data. And hey, that’s the whole idea! So be sure you go with an operator plan that gives you good coverage where you will be tracking. Coverage varies widely between carriers and between cities and rural areas. Satellite phone tracking is also available – at considerably different cost levels than GSM.
- Voice-to-voice calling: This is a great back up feature in case the tracked person’s telephone dies.
- International use: Not all trackers will work outside of their home country. If your tracking is international, make sure you are covered either with multiple trackers and plans, or one that works anywhere.
- Total costs of operation: Remember to consider both purchase price and monthly rates for GSM and/or satellite phone plans.
Computers and tablets
We won’t go into much detail here, because we’re sure you know all you need to know about these tools.
Suffice it to say that our go-to computer is the Microsoft Surface Pro 4. It’s powerful, light, versatile and runs everything we need.