A new iPhone 14 feature could save lives. At today’s release event, the tech titan announced an emergency response function that uses Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite services to connect users to critical support agencies rather than cell towers. The Emergency SOS via Satellite feature, according to reports, will allow users in distress — whether they’re stranded in the ultra-rural backcountry or crashed on a mountain ridge road — to request emergency assistance by answering a series of simple questions that describe the nature of the emergency and who is injured or in need of rescue.
The satellite feature is a scaled-down version of ambitious early concepts that theorized a system in which users could talk on the phone or text even when there was no cellular network coverage. Apple announced today that the service will be free for two years for iPhone 14 users and will be available in the United States and Canada beginning in November. The “groundbreaking new service” makes satellite connectivity possible by utilizing Apple-built software and components, including a feature that guides users in pointing their phone upward to establish a connection with overhead satellites flying miles above our planet.
Making emergency communications concise and simple
Usability will be dependent on the presence of cloud and tree coverage, among other conditions, as with any satellite-reliant communications, which Apple said was a driving force in making the system as quick as possible through a pre-determined questionnaire rather than texting or phone communications. According to Apple, staff at relay centers will then notify emergency specialists of the request for assistance.
“With satellite communication, bandwidth is so limited that even sending a text message is a technical challenge,” Apple claims. “Typically, the only way to connect to such a network is through an expensive device with a large external antenna.” The built-in questions — a “custom short-text compression algorithm to reduce the average size of messages by a factor of three,” according to Apple — are intended to make communicating via satellite faster and easier when every passing minute or hour is critical.