Cerberus turns your smartphone into an emergency rescue beacon
By C.C. Weiss
July 26, 2012
Cerberus, from BriarTek, is the overarching brand name for an electronic search-and-rescue beacon system built for wilderness and off-the-grid use. The system offers three distinct functions - Cerberlink, CerberTouch and CerberCenter - and uses smartphone and satellite messaging to keep you in touch with the outside world.
Cerberus, a mythological dog that was tasked with preventing souls from escaping Hades, seems to be an odd naming choice for a device designed specifically to keep you in this world. BriarTek chooses it because of the dog's three-headed nature, which represents the three-part composition of the Cerberus system.
The most basic layer of Cerberus is the CerberTouch app. This free app provides cellular-based communications and tracking. With the app, your phone works in conjunction with Google Maps to share your location with contacts via a series of "breadcrumbs" that show the progress of your journey. CerberTouch also allows you to opt in for weather, news and other alerts, so that you stay up to date on information relevant to you.
Of course, if you're really traveling "to hell and back," cell phone coverage will be spotty or non-existent. That's where Cerberlink comes in. It's a satellite device similar to the SPOT Messenger and other satellite rescue beacons. It allows you to send pre-drafted messages to friends, letting them know that you're doing okay, and activate emergency rescue should you get into trouble - all at the push of a button.
The device relies on the Iridium network of low orbiting satellites and provides pole-to-pole coverage around the world, according to the rep we spoke to. The only places you might run into a problem getting coverage are those places with obstructed views of the sky, like tight canyons and dense jungles. Such obstructions will affect any satellite device, though. SPOT still shows a number of dark spots on its coverage map in places like Africa, Asia and Antarctica, so BriarTek's pole-to-pole coverage is attractive.
You can use Cerberlink by itself or in conjunction with a smartphone outfitted with the CerberTouch app. The latter approach gives you rescue beacon 2.0 functions similar to the Delorme inReach and SPOT Connect. When connected to the Cerbertouch app via your smartphone's Bluetooth, Cerberlink gains two-way satellite communication capabilities. You can type text messages on your phone and send them via satellite, and you can also receive text messages back.
When using Cerberlink + Cerbertouch in an emergency situation, you can tap the "Distress" button on your touchscreen to get in contact with a CerberCenter rep, who will serve as your personal survival "concierge," getting you the help you need. During rescue, you can communicate back and forth. If you'd prefer, you can also opt to have your distress signal forwarded directly to local search and rescue or personal emergency contacts.
Let me just say that the two-way nature of the newest rescue beacons is a major improvement over original designs, which only let you send messages out. On a mountain biking trip to the desert a few years ago, I decided to whip out the SPOT Messenger that I had received for testing. It was early evening, right around sunset - the kind of time that you might find yourself lost and in need of help. While I remembered that I had put my own email on the account for testing purposes, I forgot that I'd also put my wife's on (you know, in case I actually needed help).
So I hit the contact button to send myself pre-written messages to see how it worked, completely oblivious to the fact that several seconds later, my wife was reading this exact message: "We have run into some non-emergency trouble and need assistance. Here are our coordinates, please contact help."
Of course, my coordinates were the campsite where I was comfortably enjoying a crackling fire and cold beer, ignorant of the cell phone blowing up in my locked car a few hundred feet away. After a tense period of message-leaving and calling the wives of the buddies I was with ... I was wishing that my SPOT had two-way messaging.
Back to the Cerberus. We've already touched upon the third "head" - CerberCenter. This is the server that essentially coordinates all your communications. You sign up for your account through the server, set up your contacts, choose what types of notifications that you'd like, and then route all your messages through it when you're out in the field.
So now that we've laid out the Cerberus, the logical question for anyone interested in such a device is what's different from the DeLorme and SPOT devices. Without doing a full, in-depth head to head comparison, it's difficult to identify all points, but here are some first impressions.
Rescue: The Cerberus seems more concerned with peer-to-peer communications than actual rescue functions. The website says outright "If you’re in trouble we’ll do everything in our power to help, but, we are not a Rescue Coordination Center (RCC)." The company suggests that you look into third-party rescue agencies prior to your trip, which kind of takes the "rescue" out of rescue beacon.
On the other hand, SPOT routes your SOS to the GEOS International Emergency Response Coordination Center (IERCC), as does Delorme.
Compatibility: On the plus side (for those that still use a Blackberry), Cerberus works with Android, iOS and Blackberry devices. SPOT Connect and Delorme inReach work with Android and iOS.
Price: Cerberus starts at US$499, which is double the hardware price of the inReach ($250) and more than double the SPOT Connect ($170). For that hardware price, you also have to sign up for a year of service at $32.95 per month, which gives you 60 messages per month.
SPOT charges $100 per year for basic service, $50 for 500 type-and-send messages (or $30 for 100 or $0.50 each) and $50 for a year of tracking. Delorme charges $25 per month for a plan with unlimited tracking and 40 text messages.
The Cerberus rep we spoke to told us that he believes the system will pay for itself over the course of a year when compared to the inReach, based on two factors: Cerberus' rechargeable lithium-ion battery versus the disposables of inReach, and more included messages per month. However, even if you use 60 messages every month, you're only paying a few dollars extra per month for inReach (Delorme charges 50 cents for each message over 40), so you'd have to eat through a lot of batteries to make that $250 up. Plus, you're not necessarily using something like a Cerberus all month, every month.
Another thing to note is that both Delorme and SPOT basic annual coverage include unlimited pre-drafted messages, messages that you type at your computer before leaving and can forward to selected contacts from the field. Cerberus counts pre-drafted messages against your monthly total.
After the first year, Cerberus is more flexible, allowing you to pay only for the months you actually want to use it, rather than signing up for a full-year plan. It also offers a rental option, which I don't believe others do. Two- and four-week rental plans are offered, starting at $65. A satellite communications beacon isn't exactly something the average guy needs every day, so a rental system is intriguing. Cerberus told us that it does not offer insurance on the device, so you might be out of luck (and money) if you lose or break it.
Features: All three devices offer tracking, two-way messaging and some type of emergency assistance, though the interfaces are certainly quite different. One feature that sets the Cerberus apart is its notification system, which allows users to get notifications for the area they're in. They can get weather alerts, geo-political news updates and other information important to them. The Cerbertouch app is also free to use, providing a way of sampling the system (albeit without the more useful satellite functionality).
Cerberus is in the process of updating its system. Communications will get smarter, automatically recognizing whether or not you're in cellular coverage so that it can send messages via cellular when you are.