Nobody wants to be in a situation where the only remaining option is to call for rescue. For those of us who take emergency preparedness seriously, it's easy to assume our skills and gear will enable us to self-rescue. Unfortunately, there's always a chance Murphy's Law will kick in and all your best-laid plans will fail spectacularly. In those rare situations, it's highly advisable to have at least one way to signal for help — this might be a handheld radio, an emergency strobe, flares, a whistle, a high-vis signal panel, or a GPS beacon such as the Garmin InReach. This week, Apple announced some new capabilities that enable the iPhone 14 to serve as a distress beacon, even when there isn't cell signal or WiFi. These include automatic car crash detection and satellite SOS.
Much like OnStar and other onboard units in vehicles, Apple's new crash detection system is designed to detect a collision and place a call to 9-1-1 or emergency services unless the user cancels the call. This is intended to help those who might be unconscious or unable to reach a phone.
So, how does it work? Apple says the system relies on “a new dual-core accelerometer capable of detecting G-force measurements of up to 256Gs and a new high dynamic range gyroscope.” It also factors in the barometer for cabin pressure changes, GPS for sudden speed changes, and microphone to identify loud noises associated with crashes. Apple claims the system has been fine-tuned through over a million hours of real-world driving and real crash record data. The system is also capable of integrating with the Apple Watch to display the emergency notice.
Although the crash detection feature sounds helpful, we're much more interested in the iPhone 14's satellite SOS capability, since it has the potential to replace or augment traditional GPS rescue beacons for those of us who venture off the grid regularly.
The Emergency SOS via satellite uses new hardware and software components to “allow antennas to connect directly to a satellite, enabling messaging with emergency services when outside of cellular or Wi-Fi coverage.” Before attempting to connect to a satellite, the SOS feature begins by asking a few critical questions, such as the type of emergency, geographic obstacles, number of people involved, and information about injuries. The user is then prompted to point the phone at a passing satellite using a simple, compass-style gauge on the screen.
With a clear view of the sky, SOS messages can be sent in as little as 15 seconds. In areas where emergency services can receive text messages, the SOS is bounced from the satellite through to the local dispatcher; otherwise, it goes to “centers staffed by Apple‑trained specialists who can call for help on the user’s behalf.” First responders can reply via satellite text message to inform the user that they're on the way, or to ask additional questions.
MacRumors reported on a recent SEC filing that indicates Apple is working with satellite operator Globalstar, who will “provide and maintain all resources, including personnel, software, satellite systems, and more, and maintain minimum quality and coverage standards” under Apple's direction.
For less dire situations, iPhone 14 users can share their location via satellite using the Find My Phone functionality. This can keep approved family and friends informed about the user's location, even when they're in remote areas with no cellular signal. Apple says this will provide “a sense of security when hiking or camping off the grid.”
Emergency SOS via satellite starts in the US and Canada in November 2022, and will be free for the first two years. After that, fees will apply to continue using the satellite SOS function. For more details, check this article on the Apple Newsroom.