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Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Garmin FDR (Fun Data Recorder)

This is something I think Garmin should start selling. Yet another new product idea from someone with no ability to make it real.

I teach a lot of people how to use GPS, and a fair percentage of people expect two things from a GPS device that they don't do, or don't do well. The first, people expect them to be accurate to within a couple of feet. They just don't work that way. The best accuracy I have ever seen from a handheld GPS unit is about 9 feet (keeping in mind that is a circle with a radius of 9 feet, so a diameter of 18 feet! An 18 foot wide circle!) The device I saw do 9 feet was using the US GPS satellites and the Russian GLONASS satellites. GPS's that can't use both generally have an accuracy of around 30 feet, and for most people that is enough. In GPS class I am find of saying "if you can't find your car from 30 feet away, you have bigger issues." The second is, they are dismayed to find out that if they turn off the GPS it doesn't continue to track where they are. People regularly state that they want to use a GPS 'To track my position" so after a day on the trail, or the bike, or the boat, they can see where they were. There are several apps that do this, but then you have to bring a relatively bulky and relatively fragile phone into the outdoors.

Most GPS devices will do this, but there is a problem. Most GPS units use a flat patch antenna, located at the top of the unit above the screen. This needs to be facing up so it can 'see' the satellites. Leaving it on all day long will also use a lot of batteries, as battery life is around 20 to 30 hours depending on device.

While my imaginary Garmin device the 'Fun Data Recorder' (or should it be flight data recorder?) can't fix the first problem, it can fix the second problem. Here is what it should do.

It should be small. Around 2 inches square, black plastic with no screen. The top of it will house a small GPS receiver, it will also have two small LED's and two buttons. The bottom has a water proof seal to at least IPX7, inside that seal is two AAA batteries, and a mini USB port. The bottom will also accommodate different mounting options. For instance, you should be able to mount it to the top of a pack, or a bike helmet, or the deck of a kayak, or maybe around your cats collar!

You depress the power button to turn it on. the led Flashes yellow until it receives enough satellite signals to get a location. When it has location information, the led turns green for one minute and then turns off. You press the second button when you want it to start operating. When it is operating, it flashes green for one minute and then turns off.

Here is what it does. It uses a high sensitivity GPS receiver and a pressure based altimeter to track your speed, location, and altitude. While you are moving it generates a track of your speed and movement in three dimensions - well four, with the fourth being time. With no screen, I would like to think that two AAA batteries could keep it running for a couple of hundred hours.

At the end of what ever activity you have chosen (or your cat has come home) you open up the bottom compartment and connect it to a computer via USB. you can download a GPX file with all your trip information, and use it either in Garmins Connect website to see where you went. Or you can upload the data to Google earth, or Strava, or whatever other app or software you are using.

It is only used to track, not for navigation, so it isn't eating into their core market. You can't access any of the information without a computer, but it should have a large memory so you could use it to track multiday trips. It is small and light weight, once it is attached and running you forget about it. But it gives people the ability to track their own movements and share the data with the world.

Garmin, if you could get to work on this I would appreciate it. Next summer I have a big trip planned.

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