When it comes down to trying to add iPhones into your communications network, there really aren’t great options for making it work. Realistically, the vast majority of gear set up to run with radios and ATAK is android based. It’s even in the name. However, there are two software/app options that you can look at if you are stuck with iPhone. Today, we’ll talk through those two options and analyze their strengths and weaknesses.
By way of background, only one of these apps (iTAK) is currently available in the App Store. Meshtastic is available only through TestFlight. That means that what we discuss today could change before it is actually released to the public, so keep that in mind with our analysis.
The obvious app to tackle first is iTAK. iTAK is a stripped-down version of ATAK for the iPhone. While it has a few advantages over the other app, it still comes with a lot of limitations that aren’t present on ATAK. First up is the lack of plugins. Because of how iPhone apps work versus Android apps, you can’t use plugins to expand the usefulness of iTAK the way you can with ATAK. The biggest issue this causes is that you can’t network iTAK without cell network or WiFi connectivity to a server. This really limits its usefulness in a grid-down scenario. No connectivity means no sharing of info, whether points, routes, media, or chat. And you can’t connect it at this time to a mesh network or to a radio like you could with ATAK and a plugin, although I have heard rumors of planned goTenna compatibility. You also can’t use specialty plugins like drone controls or even search and rescue programs like WASP. In essence, this relegates iTAK to tracking software with a little bit of mission planning capability. And when I say “a little bit,” I mean exactly that. You can do routes, chat, video, points, and some drawing. But, in another blow to the app’s usefulness, not all the markers and other icons available within ATAK translate over to iTAK. At this time, according to the research I’ve done, inclusion of an unrecognized icon in a mission package will cause iTAK to reject the entire mission package. While that isn’t a mission-ending issue, it can wreak havoc with mission planning if very careful SOPs aren’t followed. Finally, the primary map for iTAK is Apple Maps. While it’s quite useful on a cell or WiFi network, its usefulness decreases significantly when it is not on a network. Adding offline maps is a bit of a mystery, as there really isn’t a lot of documentation to tell you how to add maps. I’ve tried importing KMZ files – without success thus far. I also can’t find a way to cache maps for offline use the way ATAK allows.
The other app is Meshtastic, available in TestFlight. Now, I can say that I actually like the Apple Meshtastic better than the Android Meshtastic, for two reasons. One, I can send individual messages instead of just a broadcast message. Hopefully they’ll incorporate that feature into future Android versions. Two, because it’s an overlay on Apple Maps, I can get Apple’s hybrid map/satellite imagery. The obvious downside to to the overlay is the same as with iTAK. Without internet connection, the imagery won’t load, and there isn’t a way to load offline maps. To be fair, that’s an issue with the Android Meshtastic maps as well although the base maps remain slightly more functional than the satellite overlay. Other than that, it’s virtually identical to the Android version. It allows messaging and tracking of other users on your network. Unfortunately, unlike ATAK, it doesn’t allow you to drop points, plan routes, or do any of the mission planning that ATAK (and iTAK to an extent) allows. The one positive thing I found recently is that Android devices running the ATAK/ATAK Forwarder/Meshtastic combo can see iPhone users on the network within ATAK and Meshtastic. However, for the iPhone users, they can only see the Android users within Meshtastic.
Of the two systems, iTAK has a slight edge when a cell or WiFi connection is available. Assuming solid SOPs are followed to avoid conflicts between iTAK and ATAK, the ability to do at least some mission planning tips the scales in iTAK’s favor. For off-grid work, Meshtastic takes the prize, at least until iTAK comes with some sort of mesh networking capability.
Having been an iPhone guy for years, it pains me a bit to say that if you are planning on using ATAK tools in a disaster scenario, your best bet is to make the switch to the Android platform early and get your whole planned team on the same page. These apps simply don’t reach their full potential on Apple platforms, and given that most of their major customers are on Android, I don’t foresee that changing any time soon.
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