Apple’s iPhone 14 series came with a cool safety update or two. One of them, Emergency SOS via satellite, has recently gone live in the States and today, from 10AM GMT, 9AM CET, starts working in the United Kingdom, Ireland, France and Germany.
It means that if you’re outdoors, in an area with no cellular coverage, and you get into difficulties, you can send a message to emergency services. You do this by pointing the iPhone at a passing satellite. And, since those satellites are not visible to the naked eye, Apple has built-in software that knows exactly where the satellites are and can show you where you need to be pointing onscreen. This, on its own, is a remarkable achievement and, as you might expect from Apple, makes everything smooth and intuitive.
It’s a slick, highly effective system that may have already saved a life.
The bandwidth on satellites means there is no capacity to send long messages, but Apple has a solution for that. If a user calls emergency services in an area with no coverage, from outdoors, a special interface appears to allow the satellite connection. A short questionnaire gets you to answer a series of vital questions and your location and situation are transmitted to relay centers where Apple-trained specialists are ready to call for help on the user’s behalf.
The most remarkable thing about the whole process is that Apple has made these transmissions possible without a large antenna on the iPhone. And, since satellites move fast and have low bandwidth, designing the software to ensure you’re pointing the iPhone in just the right place, it seems all the more impressive.
It’s the latest part of a significant slew of safety features on the iPhone. Not only can you swipe the screen to call emergency services, you can also press the power button five times quickly. Which is when, if there’s no wifi or cellular coverage, Emergency SOS via satellite kicks in.
“Being able to use a satellite connection to contact 999 or 112 if there is no cellular or Wi-Fi coverage is a breakthrough that Apple has brought to the general public with iPhone 14,” John Anthony, the British Association of Public Safety Communications Officials President has said. “The feature will mean that emergency services can be alerted when it was not previously possible and are then able to do their jobs to better effect, in part because of the initial information that can be shared with dispatchers, such as location and essential details about the emergency. Ultimately, this will help save lives.”
There is another aspect to this new feature which is that the Find My app can also be used so people can share their location via satellite, which is a big plus if someone needs to reassure friends and family where they are when they are suddenly off- grid because there is no wifi or cellular coverage.
And, as you may have noticed, if you’re outside with no cellular coverage, you may see the coverage icon switch to SOS and then adds a tiny icon of a satellite.
The service requires iOS 16.1 or later to work. However, it gets even better when users have iOS 16.2—expected any minute—on their iPhones. In the UK the emergency services number is routinely 999, while it’s 112 in Europe (although 112 works in the UK, too but many people don’t know that.
However, with iOS 16.2, users who dial a local emergency service number will automatically be routed to 112, if the call does not go through due to a cellular or Wi-Fi connection not being available. This means they can use Emergency SOS via satellite even if they don’t dial 112. Even better.