In Overmatched, we take a close look at the science and technology at the heart of the defense industry—the world of soldiers and spies.
YOU’RE STANDING at the top of a mountain, elated to have reached the summit. But when you reach into your pack for some water, your foot gets wedged between two rocks, and you fall and crack your ankle. While you’re not dead, you definitely can’t hike down. You need help. Luckily, you have an SOS device: a little piece of technology that can communicate with satellites to send a cry for help, along with your location and maybe a text or two, to authorities. Teams mobilize to come get you.
In this hypothetical scenario, you were in the backcountry for recreation—to have fun. But satellite communication and tracking aren’t useful just for hikers, hunters, and mountaineers who have no cell signal. It’s also important for those doing their jobs in the kinds of wild, harsh environments that could otherwise leave them incommunicado: people like those on search-and-rescue teams who would help an injured hiker, as well as miners, forestry technicians, wildland firefighters, and soldiers.
To make communication easier for all those folks, a company called Everywhere Communications has brought together services from two powerhouses of the industry—Iridium, maker of satellites, and Garmin, maker of GPS devices—to create a secure system that organizations can use to track and communicate with extremely remote employees and assets. If you did, in fact, crack your ankle on a peak, the search-and-rescue team that would mobilize might use Everywhere to help themselves help you. Today, the company has 300 customers, including the US government and the US national parks.
Patrick Shay, who founded Everywhere Communications in 2016 along with a core team, has a long history in the finding-things and communications spaces. Earlier in his career, while working at Motorola and Sirius, Shay was instrumental in putting SOS buttons in cars, the first being a fancy one: a $100,000 S-Class Mercedes. After that, he joined Iridium. Iridium, initially funded by Motorola, created and launched a constellation of communications satellites and the bulky satellite phones you may have seen in ’90s movies.
Finally, Shay joined a company called DeLorme, which created inReach, an SOS device that allows its users to track themselves, call for help, and send messages to civilization. In 2016, Garmin bought DeLorme and thus acquired inReach. But the device, and most commercial satellite communications tech today, tends to end up in the hands of outdoorsy recreators rather than people with dirty and dangerous jobs such as those in defense. Shay wanted to reach out to that latter segment. “At Everywhere, we focus on exclusively government and business,” he says. That includes the business of search and rescue.
But he didn’t want to start from scratch. Why reinvent the wheel when it’s already rolling around? So Everywhere formed a partnership with Garmin, which by then owned the inReach technology whose development Shay had been a part of. The inReach device looks like a diminutive walkie-talkie, and in its smallest form, the burnt-orange-and-black device weighs just 3.5 ounces and measures 4 inches tall by 2 inches wide.
“We were incredibly fortunate because we do business with our old friends,” says Shay of his colleagues from DeLorme. Those friends allowed Everywhere to take off-the-shelf versions of inReach and add firmware that makes it secure and encrypted enough for professional and government use and also lets operators erase all the data remotely if a device gets lost. “The reason that happened,” says Shay, of the partnership and device modifications, “was because of personal relationships and history.”
Those security features were necessary if Everywhere was to appeal to the feds, because traditional satellite communications—including those of the Iridium constellation, on which Everywhere relies—have historically been simple to hack, allowing clever eavesdroppers to intercept communications.
The software, too, needed amping up to appeal to this new crowd, so Everywhere has created code that operates differently from what you’d interact with as a civilian carrying a device like a Garmin inReach on a peak-bagging quest. Most important is the Everywhere Hub, a web-based portal that functions like an incident command center or a security operations center—the place with all the information that directs the people in the field. “That’s that room with all the TVs on the wall,” says Shay. “And one of those TVs is a picture of the world with a bunch of blinking dots and lights.” Those little lights are the team members. “If somebody in Yemen pushes an SOS button, it’s going to light up on that screen,” Shay continues.
These aren’t totally new capabilities, but Everywhere combined them into one package rather than requiring a hodgepodge of services and gadgets. The company’s innovation is taking existing hardware, modifying it for security, and linking it with Everywhere’s own professional software backbone.
The software also has capabilities your average casual elk hunter wouldn’t need. For instance, a person using the Everywhere Hub can create a “geofence,” essentially a boundary in space and time. When, say, a soldier or miner enters or leaves that specific area during that specific time, the command center gets an alert. Those soldiers and miners could also send large amounts of information back to base, or to each other, like data regarding which streets are flooded or where a sensitive material like uranium is. And anyone driving a secured vehicle—be that a car full of cash or the lead vehicle in a security convoy—could be tracked along their route. Home base can also schedule check-ins for workers—meaning they don’t have to be tracked all the time.
A satellite constellation
All that connection is possible because of the Iridium satellite constellation—66 spacecraft in orbit—and cellular network. Together, they provide coverage for the whole planet, all the time, so no matter where you are, you can communicate if you have a device like the inReach. Iridium also allows a device to transmit information about its location—information the device gathers from GPS satellites. The GPS satellites do the pinpointing, but communications satellites relay those pinpoints. Like SpaceX’s Starlink internet satellites, the Iridium spacecraft live in low Earth orbit, around 500 miles from Earth, so signals like those to and from an inReach can whiz back and forth quickly, without the lag time caused by more distant orbits.
While Iridium does make its own communications and tracking devices, it also sells chips and antennas to other outfits, like Garmin, so they can implant those in their devices, or stick them to their assets, allowing their own technology to enable a connection from the satellites.
“Other networks were going after who can provide the fastest internet pipe to your home or remote cabin,” says Matt Desch, Iridium’s CEO. “We weren’t going after that. That’s not what we do.”
Instead, Iridium aims to provide extremely mobile connections, like those that firefighters, miners, soldiers, and searchers would need as they roam in the field and use Everywhere’s services. More than 60,000 aircraft—including medevac helicopters whose position and ability to communicate are lifesaving, not just vacation-enabling—also have Iridium chips inside. Iridium’s network also guides autonomous vehicles on land, by sea, or in the air. For example, Swoop Aero’s drones use it above the ground, and SailDrone’s uncrewed boats use it on the surface of the ocean.
Military or aid organizations can also stick sensors on, say, pallets of food and water to make sure they get delivered to their intended destination, or use the antennas to send, for example, weather and seismic information from ground sensors to an intelligence outfit halfway across the world. The ability to do such data transfer is especially important, militarily, in the Arctic: Near the top of the Earth—where missile warning and air surveillance are prime activities—satellite comms are really the only option. And when teams are completing missions, or helping deliver aid, an organization can use a software-hardware combo system like Everywhere to watch the boots on the ground from the comfort of the incident command room and to send a text if, say, someone looks stuck.
People have typically gone to areas like distant summits to be a little alone, to disappear for a while, to feel self-sufficient, and, maybe, to not be tracked. But when people need rescuing, the ability to call for help and say where to send it can trump that desire for solitude. And when you’re out there—or in a combat zone without cell service, or on a cross-conflict trek with no infrastructure, or deep in a mine or forest—for work, a bit of job security, in the more literal sense of the word, can be lifesaving.
Read more PopSci+ stories.