Answering the Call: How Apple Started Working with Satellite to Save Lives
After winning 2022 Satellite Technology of the Year award, Michael Trela spoke with Via Satellite about creating Apple's emergency messaging via satellite service that is already saving lives and bringing peace of mind to iPhone users across the world.
April 24, 2023
A lot can happen in a few months. It wasn’t that long ago that Apple was not part of the satellite ecosystem. It is one of the most revered companies in the world, and while a lot of the industry uses Apple products in their daily life, connecting Apple and the satellite industry had never been done before. But that all changed late last year, when Apple inked a deal with Globalstar to bring its Emergency SOS via satellite to iPhone 14 users, providing access to emergency services to people that are off the grid and away from a terrestrial and wireless connection. It has created a huge buzz in the industry, as one of the world’s largest companies is now working with the satellite sector.
Michael Trela, senior director of the Satellite Connectivity Group within Apple, along with a cross-functional team, developed the Emergency SOS via satellite feature. Trela has an interesting background, having worked with the hugely successful Skybox Imaging, which was one of the pioneers in the New Space era. So much so that its CEO Dan Berkenstock was Satellite Executive of the Year back in 2014. After winning 2022 Satellite Technology of the Year, Trela spoke with Via Satellite about creating a service that is already saving lives and bringing peace of mind to iPhone users across the world. Trela talked about the service, winning the award, and the possibilities for further collaboration with the satellite sector.
Trela said Apple was honored to win this award, and that Apple saw satellite connectivity as an important way to extend its existing set of safety features. It was thanks to the collaboration of many teams across Apple that this capability is now in the hands of millions of customers.
“Emergency SOS via satellite really provides the most critical use case,” Trela says. “It is the ability to have two-way messaging with emergency services, when you need help but you have no cellular or Wi-Fi coverage. Since launching in the U.S. and Canada in November last year, we expanded into France, Germany, Ireland, and the U.K. in December. At the end of March, we expanded into Austria, Belgium, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands and Portugal. It is already contributing to saving lives, and we are really excited to roll out this service,” he said.
Sometimes when we talk about satellite-enabled technology, we often focus on the technology itself, rather than the impact of the technology. The beauty of Apple’s Emergency SOS via satellite is that it is already saving a lot of lives around the world. Trela spoke of one example in Key West, Florida, where a fishing boat capsized, which resulted in five people being in the water. One of those five people used Emergency SOS via satellite to contact local emergency services, and then the local U.S. Coast Guard was dispatched and all the people were rescued.
Another interesting example took place in Alaska, where Alaska state troopers got an alert regarding a snowmobile rider in an area with no cellular or Wi-Fi coverage who got into difficulties. The rider activated Emergency SOS via satellite and their GPS coordinates were relayed to the local authorities. The search and rescue teams were deployed and the user was found without incident. Trela says that the Alaska state troopers that worked on this said they were thoroughly impressed with the accuracy and completeness of the information included in the initial alert, and it inspired at least one of them to upgrade to an iPhone 14.
Another example took place in California, and has been extensively covered in the U.S. press. Cloe Fields, a scheduling coordinator at Loyola Marymount University and her boyfriend, Christian Zelada, a sales consultant, were driving on a two-lane highway at the edge of a steep canyon in Southern California in their Hyundai Elantra when their car lost control, spun 180 degrees and tumbled over the edge of the highway, plunging over 300 feet. Fields’ iPhone detected a vehicular crash, and sent a message with Emergency SOS via satellite to emergency call centers. The emergency responders found the couple and they managed to survive without any major injuries.
What is interesting about this story is that Fields was not even aware of this safety feature, yet ultimately it made a massive impact. She spoke to Via Satellite about what happened, saying she is amazed at the technology. Both her and Zelada were Apple product lovers but didn’t know about the feature at all. Looking back on it, Fields jokingly said that her addiction to her phone “saved us.”
If the accident had happened a month prior, they would not have had access to this feature. Fields had only just switched to the iPhone 14 from the iPhone 13. “The new update was released three weeks prior, I believe. Seeing the feature on my cracked phone after finding it was definitely a mind-blowing situation,” she says.
“If we didn’t have this, I truly wouldn’t know what we would have to do,” she recounts. “Luckily Christian was very calm, the first thought for him was to start looking for a trail or head down the stream since we noticed there was some foot traffic on the ground. Thankfully we were not injured, but I do wear glasses and those were lost in the crash so it would have been difficult for us. We were rescued within 30 to 40 minutes. Without the phone, we probably would have been down there for hours until we could have gotten any help.”
As will be the case with most consumers, Fields had no idea the role that satellites have in such applications. She says, “My only knowledge was surface level of satellites helping with tracking or communications, but I never thought I would see the day where satelllites would help us.”
It is clear this application is already saving lives and having an impact. Looking back, Fields says her number one learning is “to value the life we have because you never know what could happen.”
Apple’s Partnership With Globalstar
Finding a satellite partner to work with was crucial for Apple to enable this service. Globalstar would be the one that Apple would ultimately decide to work with, choosing to work with an already operational satellite constellation. Globalstar has been providing satellite communication services for decades, and because its satellites use frequencies that have established regulatory approval for use between satellite and mobile devices, such as the iPhone, it made a natural partner for Apple.
“Using these Globalstar satellites wasn’t as simple as connecting to pre-existing cell towers in space. It did require us to develop some custom technologies and optimize the phone and the satellites to ensure we have reliable two-way communications,” Trela says. “The Globalstar satellites were only designed to talk to dedicated satellite communications devices, which feature larger, more purpose-built antennas. We started to maximize the iPhone’s capabilities by adding components to intelligently utilize multiple antennas to maximize the signal strength toward the satellite.”
Trela says Apple worked with Globalstar to change how their satellites operate, to add a new special load that maximizes the transmission power to the ground within regulatory requirements. “We developed a customized radio protocol from the ground up and optimized the link between the iPhone and satellite. This unique radio protocol is enabled by software on the iPhone, and an Apple proprietary radio system that is deployed in Globalstar ground stations. So, we are incredibly proud of the work we have done together to bring this capability to millions of iPhone users around the world,” he adds.
Has there been a cultural change in how Apple sees satellite technology? Trela says Apple has always been pushing the limits in terms of what its devices can do, but the company saw satellite connectivity as a way to bridge the gap when consumers find themselves without cellular/Wi-Fi coverage, and extend those safety net features to this critical use case.
“It was a great opportunity to push what Apple could do with this device using satellite technology. This is the first time that anyone has launched or integrated a two-way satellite technology in a mainstream way. This is a big step for the industry. We are excited to bring it to even more people around the world, as we look to expand service coverage,” he says.
Apple takes pride in providing peace of mind to millions of customers around the world. “It really provides that peace of mind if you are off grid. We are looking forward to seeing what the future developments are in this area, and this evolving landscape,” Trela says.
While Trela would not give too much away on Apple’s future plans regarding satellite, he admitted that he sees satellite as an “exciting and evolving landscape.”
Interestingly, he uses the word mainstream, which is always an interesting word when used in context with the satellite industry. “I think with Emergency SOS via satellite, we have really integrated this two-way service to a satellite technology in a mainstream way. This is a big step for the industry. We are really excited to bring it to more iPhone users around the world as we expand the service.”
There is also a demo mode to try it out before an emergency. Trela adds, “With one of the features of the iPhone 14, we have a demo mode so that when users are on cellular or Wi-Fi (not out of coverage), they can go into the demo and try out the technology to get used to it and experience how you would interact with the system. We are getting a lot of positive feedback on that.”
While it is exciting to think about where Apple will go next with this technology, it is a technology/application we will be hearing more and more about in coming months. “It is saving lives — it is the most exciting thing in the industry right now for someone like myself,” Trela says. “The big learning really was the collaboration it took between many different groups within Apple, and with our partners, and really take this technology and put it out in a way that enables two-way communications with the emergency services and first responder community. It really takes a lot of collaboration and deep integration to make it happen.” VS