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December 2010 Issue

Product Review: Spidertracks S3 Aviator

The Kiwi satellite tracker gets better with the second generation.

Spidertracks has improved its satellite-based safety-and-tracking system with the latest iteration, the S3 Aviator. The core mechanics are the same, using an internal, highly sensitive GPS receiver for position information and an Iridium GPS transceiver for data link. But the S3 is repackaged into a small wedge-like module that’s intended to sit on the glareshield. Before, the main unit was designed to be mounted anywhere it had a good view of the sky, with an optional keypad placed into the pilot’s line of vision; the new S3 combines those modules.

As with the previous Spidertracks model, there are two essential modes, passive tracking and “Spiderwatch.”

In the latter, when invoked through the setup process on the Spidertracks web site, the S3 will hop into Spiderwatch mode when the system determines the airplane has taken off. At that point, the system continues watching the flight. Should the S3 stop transmitting—either after a crash or by removal of power—the Spiderwatch network will begin sending alerts as determined on the setup page of the web site. These alerts are sent as either text messages (SMS) or email. The idea is that your friends and family might know where you are, and can help determine if the alert is legitimate or a false alarm. In addition, the system produces an email and/or text to the owner each time Spiderwatch is activated and deactivated. After landing, you must press and briefly hold the Watch button and wait for the blue LED to stop blinking—this is the sign that the S3 is communicating with the network and confirming a safe end of the flight. When the light’s out, you can power down the S3.

The blue light above the Watch button indicates the S3 is in Spiderwatch mode. The green LED to the far right tells you that it has good GPS lock.

Pushing the SOS button while in flight immediately sends a message back to the web site to summon help. As it does when it loses a Spiderwatch signal, the system informs your so-called Tier 1 responders, who you define, and if they don’t respond within 15 minutes, the system automatically begins to ping your Tier 2 contacts, which can include emergency services.

In our testing, the S3 proved as robust as the previous-generation box. We could reliably obtain position tracking points even with the unit well away from the preferred position on the glareshield; it locked on and established communication with both the navigational GPS and the Iridium system quickly.

Spidertracks has included a few new features with the launch of the S3, including a new interactive web site that provides a Facebook-like social network where pilots can share details of trips and destinations along with their flight tracks. And, as before, it’s possible to share the tracking page for your S3 so that friends and family can see where you are.

But perhaps the biggest news for the S3’s arrival is a new pricing structure. The S3 itself is $995, $800 less than the previous Spidertracks offering. The connection costs are also reduced, and are now offered in several tiers designed to be cost-effective for different usage rates. The least expensive is designed for pilots who fly less than 5 hours a month—for $120 per year prepaid ($10/month), you get up to 4 hours of coverage with the updates from the S3 to the web site every 2 minutes. Plus 20 cents per text transmission. There are six plans in total, the details of which are on the Spidertracks web site—but it’s clear the company is trying to get costs down so the average pilot can afford the service.

With the S3, Spidertracks has improved an already good product, and brought it to market for less. We like that.

For more information, visit

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