YB3i tracker/messenger, a highly evolved system

... written for Panbo by Ben Ellison and posted on Jul 10, 2015

YB3i_on_Gizmo_rail_collage_cPanbo.jpg

The hardware portion of the YB3i tracker/messenger couldn't be much simpler or tougher. It's just a little bigger than the GPS mushrooms also installed on Gizmo's flybridge and it feels solid, while the ScanStrut Rokk rail mount that it fits is truly rock-like. The black cable only leads to a power source (9-30v DC) and the YB3i can get along without that for quite a while, thanks to an internal backup battery. And finally, the single LED "interface" is really only needed for extreme trouble shooting. But such hardware simplicity is only possible because of the impressive array of satellite services, cloud server wizardry, and mobile apps that comprise the rest of the ecosystem...

YB_tracking_system_diagram_aPanbo.jpgEven this YB system diagram doesn't tell the whole story. Sure, the YB3i has a GPS receiver to determine position, SOG, COG, etc. and an Iridium 9602 SBD (Short Burst Data) modem to push the tracking data up to the Internet, but it can also do two-way messaging and has a Bluetooth LE transceiver to communicate with Android and iOS mobile apps.

YB_Connect_iPad_screens_cPanbo.jpgHere's what the YB Connect app looks like on an iPad mini. The Bluetooth connection was easy to make and remains reliable, with no separate pairing hassle required (as I've usually found with the newish BLE/Smart protocol devices). The app lets a user send/read/manage messages or deeply configure the YB3i, but at first I mostly used it to try different tracking intervals since YB charges by the track point. In fact, there's no contract involved with the YB service, just a line fee of £8.00 per month -- about $12.40 at current exchange rates -- and prepaid credits that cost less the more you buy and that never expire. While the DeLorme inReach (which I've been long testing and loving) has a similar system architecture and capabilities -- though in handheld form more like the YB3 -- most of its 12 month or monthly Freedom plans include unlimited 10 minute tracking. (Globalstar's Spot Messenger handhelds also offer unlimited 10-minute tracking, though their satellite coverage and messenging capability are quite different.)

YB3i_track_testing_as_Gizmo_goes_north_cPanbo.jpgAt any rate, here's what my YB3i track interval testing looked like on the YBlog site that's included in the service. It was readily apparent that the tracker never missed a GPS fix or an Iridium transmission regardless of intervals ranging from 12 hours to 30 seconds ("continuous" in YB terms). But once you drill into the details you'll see that I changed intervals in a rather random fashion, instead of capturing more frequent points in complex areas like the New Jersey ICW, or much fewer when anchored, and that I generally demonstrated how NOT to manage my data credits!

YBlog_testing_as_Gizmo_goes_north_cPanbo.jpgIf you check out my YB/PanboTest site, though, you'll see that I've now learned how to enable the blogging section, which I used to annotate the interval testing plus a few cruising stops after I got home. This is a great feature, I think. During the trip I could have posted short text entries using the YB Connect satellite connection, sort of like creating a mapshare message on my inReach MapShare site (though easier to see). But with the YBlog Web platform I can also create freeform entries any time I'm online and logged into the site, simply by clicking on a track point. These entries can include photos, which also go into a gallery, as well as linked videos, and can support reader comments (if permitted). In other words, a YBlog can be a live tracking site with short entries while you're underway anywhere, and then become a full fledged cruising blog when and if you get the chance. Nice!

YB_core_race_tracker_cPanbo.jpgIt's not surprising that YB is good at the Web presentation of boat tracking data. This British company, which used to be called YellowBrick, has a long history of tracker-equipping and covering long distance sailboat races, and they're still very much in the business. For instance, I'm avidly following the Transatlantic 2015 race these days and its official YB tracking site really helps. I can check out the racing by favorites or classes, view leaderboards by "recent" or "from start" VMG, overlay wind conditions, and replay the action. Moreover, YB has coordinated the 30-minute trackpoints so they all hit the same hour or half hour, and I've yet to notice any glitches, though many of the boats have been through the wringer.

YB_Races_app_cPanbo.jpgI'm also enjoying the free YB Races app on my iPad and on my Android phone. The individual race administrators can choose whether to charge for their data, and the apps (and web tracking) work pretty well even for odder events like Robert Suhay's successful attempt to sail a Laser named Insomnia nonstop from Beaufort NC to Annapolis, still watchable here. The race administrators have access to YB's Core platform and can include useful overlays like the rhumb line and ice exclusion zone for TR 2015, but I like the idea that YBlog is an offshoot of such a demanding task. Also, when considering the reliability of the YB3i system and its fairly stiff $779 retail hardware cost, it may be relevant to know that it's the choice of many uncompromising race organizers like the TR 2015s.

YB_tracking_messaging_security_levels_cPanbo.jpg
I also detected YB's race fleet heritage in niceties like the multiple security layers seen above via Android YB Connect app screens. The first two illustrate how someone on a boat with a YB3i can create their own messaging account and log in (it was easy to do and you get 5 credits free to give it a try). The third screen shows how even a messaging-enabled prime user needs a separate PIN number to access the app's extensive configuration controls, some of which can be set via YBlog administration (while a Core administrator has all sorts of geofence and similar tools available).

YBlog_admin_screens_cPanbo.jpgThe screenshots above show some of what I can do with my test YBlog administrative section. I particularly like the Track Options, which lets me set any date range of track points as a map page a viewer can choose. I can also name them appropriately, as in the recent "Finally read the manual!!!" I have been kicking myself because I wasted a lot of the generous credit bundle YB gave me for testing...

YBlog_admin_screens2_cPanbo.jpg...as in 2,594 credits drained away in June mainly because I was incredibly sloppy about track point intervals and didn't quite realize that the YB3i would keep on working even when I turned the power off, just like it's designed to. Sometimes I serve best as a bad example others can learn from! Now I understand that there are many ways to use the credits more efficiently, like a Burst mode that can transmit three position fixes at once for a single credit -- my YBlog won't update quite as quickly but won't cost a credit per track point either -- and Activity settings that can greatly accelerate the track interval when the boat gets moving or external power is applied. I'm still tweaking those settings (and will note that the inReach automatically and reliably goes from 10 minute to 4 hour tracking when stopped), but results should show up soon on the latest PanboTest YBlog map, which can also be inserted live into a Web site:


I've also learned that YB is very clear about the credit costs of messaging and tracking. Your current balance is easily seen in the apps and past use detailed in your YBlog admin section. It's also easy and fast to buy more credits with a credit card. Note, too, that there's a YB3i Pro model with NMEA 0183 data input, though I'm not clear yet where that data goes once it reaches the Internet. So I may be adding more YB detail in the comments below while I also extend the YBlog testing. But if you're bored of watching Gizmo chug around, you might check out Sara Outen's pedal and row circumnavigation, which also demonstrates YB's willingness to share data with other tracking sites. What I'm wondering is if she looked up from her oars recently to see a wild green trimaran go by at 30 knots?

YB tracking Sarah Outen row bike cirmcumnav cPanbo.jpg

Comments

Interesting. I have found that smartphone based solutions, such as iRegatta are unreliable even when in range of the verizon towers and your not able to post pictures with it.

Are these available to rent, in a way that you can maintain the boat blog over time (years), but rent the hardware only a couple of weeks a year?

Posted by: Dan Corcoran (b393capt) at July 12, 2015 11:15 AM | Reply

Hi Dan,

YB says yes, "Blog sites remain live indefinitely, even if the customer isn't paying line rental over the winter etc.."

Rental info is at YB's site but may only be event oriented:

http://ybtracking.com/event-rental-yachting

Note that you can not post photos using the YB3i, just text messages. What you can do at any time is to is add entries, photos, etc. to YBlog tracks via a Web browser when you're online.

If you look at my latest cruising on http://my.yb.tl/PanboTest you'll see that some entries came via YB Connect -- which means in near real time via YB3i Iridium satellite connection -- and some did not.

Posted by: Ben in reply to Dan Corcoran (b393capt) at July 13, 2015 11:10 AM | Reply

Burst mode triggered by GPS (>4 knots) is working well for me now, sending three 10 minute track points every half hour for one credit (about 15 cents when you only buy 200). Check out my track to Castine and back on Tuesday, the Bastille Day that won't be forgotten for a long time around here.

http://my.yb.tl/PanboTest

Posted by: Ben at July 16, 2015 5:01 PM | Reply

What are the limits on messaging (I.e. Message size, etc.) could you use this with sailmail to receive weather or gribs? Interesting product and great company backing it.

Posted by: Rob at September 1, 2015 2:55 PM | Reply

Rob, the Iridium 9602 SBD modem (link above) used in the YB3i and similar products like the DeLorme inReach can only handle very short messages. OCENS does offer a compatible weather service but GRIB files would have to be pieced together from multiple messages and I don't know of anyone doing it. For offshore GRIBS you need to step up at least to the satellite modems found in products like Iridium GO and Globalstar Sat-Fi.

Posted by: Ben at September 3, 2015 10:40 AM | Reply

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