Gear Review: ACR Aqualink 406 MHz GPS Personal Locator Beacon

UPDATE: As of June, 2021 the MSRP of this valuable device has increased by about $40 since we wrote this review in 2016.

Also, I have had a chance to paddle with this device several times, including multiple downwind runs on Maui and in the Columbia River Gorge. I’ve also carried it on several expedition kayak paddles and backcountry hikes. I have never had to deploy it but I do find it to be cumbersome to carry in my pfd.  ACR is now making a smaller model that can be clipped to a pfd strap and we will soon post a review of that device.

This is kind of a odd “review.”  I can’t really test the ACR Aqualink Personal Locator Beacon to its full capacity and nor would I really want to.  I hope never to have to use this device.  But, ever since reading about some near-misses on the Maliko Run and seeing too many recent reports of missing paddlers, I more than willingly plunked down the $260 or so clams to have this device in my pack from now on. Even though I don’t paddle Maliko on a daily basis (one can hope!) and mostly paddle inland lakes.

What is it?

The ACR Aqualink Personal Locator Beacon is a small device – about the size of a hand held GPS device or a cell phone from the mid-1990s at 2.3 x 5.8 x 1.45  inches.

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It has a flexible antenna that wraps around the unit, tucked away until you need to deploy it. It is convenient enough to put in the pocket of a hydration pack, or can even be securely clipped to a PDF  or PFD waist belt.  It can be carried and used off the water, too. Making the outlay of over $200 more than useful if you hike, backpack, or do any kind of activity in the backcountry. Or, of course, paddle or boat on inland lakes.

This unit differs from an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) device in that it smaller and is designed for use in both marine and land-based activities.  An EPRIB is usually registered to a vessel, not an individual person. The PLB usually has less battery life – approximately 48 hours.  Read more about the differences here.

What will it do?

The ACR Aqualink, and similar devices, MUST BE REGISTERED with NOAA in order or it to work.  That process is quick and easy, and FREE, as I will explain in a moment.  Once the device is registered, upon activation, the PLB will relay your position via its GPS capabilities to  a worldwide network of Search and Rescue satellites known as the Cospas-Sarsat  system.  NOAA explains how it works:

When an emergency beacon is activated, the signal is received by a satellite and relayed to the nearest available ground station. The ground station, called a Local User Terminal, processes the signal and calculates the position from which it originated. This position is transmitted to a mission control center where it is joined with identification data and other information on that beacon. The mission control center then transmits an alert message to the appropriate rescue coordination center based on the geographic location of the beacon. If the location of the beacon is in another country’s area of responsibility, then the alert is transmitted to that country’s mission control center.

The Cospas-Sarsat system provides a tremendous resource for protecting the lives of aviators and mariners that was unthinkable prior to the Space-Age. With a 406 MHz beacon, a distress message can be sent to the appropriate authorities from anywhere on Earth 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. 

 

sarsat-diagram

Why do you want it?

This type of technology in one form or another has reportedly saved more than 28,000 lives since 1982.  After a rigorous testing period in Alaska to make sure the Sarsat system would be able to handle widespread use, PLBs were permitted to be used by individuals in 2003.

This unit will broadcast a unique registered distress signal that not only tells rescuers where you are, but who you are. The onboard GPS can fix your position to within 100 meters and then utilizes a powerful 406 MHz signal to relay your distress call to orbiting satellites. As local Search and Rescue is deployed, a separate homing signal and integrated LED strobe light guide rescuers to your  location.  The advantages to this are huge. What if your cell phone is flooded or is out of power? What if you drop your cell phone and it sinks? What if you cannot tell rescuers where you are?  Yes, there are ways to locate the cell phone via its GPS but that takes additional time.

The Aqualink floats and all you have to do to alert rescuers to your position is turn it on.

Some other good points to know:

  • No Subscription Fees – unlike SPOT or the DeLorme devices
  • Super Bright LED Strobe
  • Onboard 66-Channel GPS
  • Self-Test and GPS Test Features
  • Non-Hazmat Battery
  • If you use it…ACR replace it, Free of Charge.

One really nice feature of this device is that you can test its GPS functionality up to 12 times over the life of the battery. ACR also has a subscription app and plan that builds on this and will send out notices to designated in case of emergency contacts, as well as provide other functionality – it is pricey, but it is totally NOT required to get the most out of this unit. Nor is it required to do the job you want it to – broadcast your location to rescue officials when you need it most.

Register it!

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The box and the unit itself come with all kinds of reminder stickers and literature to make sure you take this step.  If you don’t, the device won’t really help you.

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It comes with a mail in form, but really, the quickest thing to do is go on line and submit the info that way.  Finding the unit’s unique identifying number is easy and as is the process itself.  I think it might have taken all of five minutes.  You fill in pertinent info about yourself and your paddling, your main emergency contacts, and that’s pretty much it.

At this point, the onus is on the user to make sure the batteries are fresh and ready to go, and to make sure it’s in good working order, just like you would your PFD, your leash, the rest of your gear.

From now on, whenever I paddle, whether I am alone or with  group, this thing is going with me. It takes up minimal space in my hydration pack and I can mount it to the shoulder straps so it is right where I need it.  When I am in the ocean, it will be accompanied by a marine band radio, which is my failsafe for two-way communication when I am in coastal environs. That was a tip I picked up this summer before the Olukai race from both Jeremy Riggs and Suzie Cooney.

I’d rather carry both these device and not ever need them, than to be without when I really do.

 

 

 

Lisa
Lisa is managing editor of PaddleMonster.com and is an avid paddler of all the things - including sup, SurfSki, outrigger canoe and prone, though she especially enjoys paddle surfing and downwinding. She is a former journalist with more than 30 years experience in print and broadcast journalism and in government communications. She is a six-time Chattajack finisher, racing both sup and OC2. When not paddling, she is an outdoor instructor.

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