When Apple announced at its closely watched product launch event in September that it would soon be rolling out an Emergency SOS feature powered by a network of satellites orbiting the Earth, Brooklyn probably wasn’t the remote place most people thought thought to use it.
But on a rainy afternoon last week, I tried to stay connected to one of Prospect Park’s satellites as part of a demo of the upcoming feature. I stepped out from under a huge oak tree and the rain started to fall harder. I then moved my device slightly to the right and quickly regained signal and resumed messaging with an emergency service.
The rain wasn’t the problem; It was the foliage that restricted my phone view of the sky.
On Tuesday, Apple (AAPL) will roll out and plans to roll out the emergency satellite SOS feature for iPhone 14 owners in the United States and Canada in the UK, France, Germany and Ireland next month. The free feature promises that iPhone users will be able to contact dedicated dispatchers via satellite in emergency situations when cell service is unavailable.
Hikers, rescue workers and intrepid travelers may be well acquainted with the existing world of satellite phones providing voice, SMS and data services anywhere on earth. But existing satellite phones often have large protruding antennas. Apple said it wants to invent technology that allows direct communication with satellites while still having the iPhone form factor.
“It started when we found frequencies that would work on the iPhone that were also available for use on satellites,” Arun Mathias, Apple’s vice president of wireless technologies and ecosystems, told CNN Business. “Then we made the necessary hardware modifications to iPhones, but without bulky antennas.” Apple, he added, first developed new software that allowed the iPhone to communicate with the satellites and then tailored the user experience to accommodate it .
The effort is part of a broader demonstration this year to consumers that the devices will not only help them live better, but also more safely. In doing so, it could make its expensive products seem a little more indispensable in an uncertain economic environment that involves some rethinking costs.
Apple recently invested $450 million in Globalstar, a global satellite service, and other providers to support the development of 24 low-orbit satellites that fly at 16,000 miles per hour, higher than the International Space Station. The investment is part of Apple’s Advanced Manufacturing Fund, which was previously used for glass production using Corning and laser facial recognition technology.
During my test with an Apple-provided iPhone 14, I attempted to call 911 but was automatically redirected via satellite dispatchers to Emergency SOS for the purposes of the demo. If the device failed to connect to cellular service, a small green icon would appear in the lower-right corner of the calling screen to initiate a text call to emergency services.
I was asked to fill out a questionnaire and went through a handful of short multiple choice questions; I realized I was lost but not hurt. Apple said because the user may be in a state of distress, a questionnaire will help collect important information more quickly. (They’re the same questions a 911 dispatcher would ask.)
“When we tested this with on-site dispatchers, they even told us that in some situations, the answers they get from the questionnaire, along with the user’s location, might be enough to actually make a dispatch decision, right on.” Early, and that’s huge in terms of the reduction to get help to get field workers to the user,” said Trey Forgety, Apple’s software engineering manager for emergency systems.
Almost 20 seconds later, I received confirmation that my geolocation coordinates had been sent to a dispatcher along with my medical ID, emergency contact information, and the answers to my questions. I’ve been told to keep answers short, probably to reduce the amount of data needed to transmit to the satellite and back to a dispatcher. I was also asked to identify nearby points of interest and where I entered the park. My entire exchange took about four minutes.
According to Apple, the texts are reduced in size to about a third of their original size by running them through a compression algorithm. This allows the satellite to relay messages more efficiently to ground stations around the world. Once received, SMS are sent to local emergency services or a relay center staffed by Apple-trained emergency specialists who can dispatch assistance.
But even in a city, I lost access to the satellite several times when I didn’t have a clear view of the sky. A gray scale circle with a green signal image was shown when connected, but turned yellow when conditions were poor and red when the connection was lost. I went about 200 feet from my original location to find a satellite. once there, I held the device in my hand, of course; Apple said there’s no need to lift it or swing it around.
“As the satellites move, the phone sometimes has to switch from one satellite to another and there can be short gaps where no satellite is available,” Mathias said. “The phone knows this and will make it very clear to the user that there is such a gap and when the next satellite will be available.”
When it works, the life-saving potential of such a feature is obvious. But there are some caveats. First of all, it’s text only; Users must physically hold the device in their hands to initiate a replacement, which may not always be possible in the case of injuries. However, the tool works with the iPhone 14 and Apple Watch’s crash detection feature, so it could automatically call emergency services or send coordinates to a dispatcher if a user is unconscious or unable to reach their iPhone.
Currently, Emergency SOS via satellite only works in English, Spanish and French, although the dispatchers have professional interpreting services for many other languages. Apple said it also may not work in all areas, such as locations above the 62nd parallel, including northern parts of Canada and Alaska.
For iPhone 14 users who want to see how the tool works and try out the process of finding a satellite, a demo is now available in Settings under Emergency SOS via Satellite. Apple said the feature will be available free of charge for two years and will then reevaluate the offering based on insights into usage over that time.