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The phone that changes lives

It’s not going to take on the smartphone giants, but the new CAT phone is more likely to change lives, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

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When emergency responders arrived on the scene of a recent car accident along the Garden Route in the southern Cape, they found an unconscious man in the vehicle. But something about the belongings strewn about suggested there must have been more occupants.

A search of the bushes along the road, using flashlights, didn’t produce results. Then a team member used a Cat S60 smartphone, initiating its thermal imaging camera. Almost immediately, they found two “heat signatures”, which led them to two people who had been thrown out of the vehicle. They were in a serious and critical condition, but could be treated while there was still time. 

“The thermal imaging camera is a life saver for us and has become a must have after it helped save lives and property,” says Gee Swart, team leader at EDR International, a disaster risk reduction and response agency.

The team also use their Cat S60s to take emergency calls, dispatching resources through cellular calls and Push-to-talk (PTT), a two-way radio-type calling function. These were all bonuses; the main reason they were using the phone was for its rugged design and durability in harsh environments.

“The ruggedness and durability are like no other device I’ve used before,” says Swart. “I’ve used it on fire lines where it can be 60 degrees plus. I’ve used it in sub-zero temperatures and it performed brilliantly. It’s been dropped more times than I can remember and it has survived direct sprays from fire hoses.” 

It is rare to come across such enthusiasm for a handset. Yet, Cat phones are almost unknown among consumers. They are built by the Bullitt Group, under license from industrial and construction vehicle maker Caterpillar. 

When the first handsets emerged with that brand, it competed with a wide variety of devices in what became known as the rugged phone category. A heavy focus on durability in extreme situations and specialised requirements in those situations eventually set it apart. The thermal camera on the Cat S60 cemented its reputation, and it was regarded as the ultimate rugged phone.

Now, the new Cat S61 takes reputational leadership of the segment further. It arrived in South Africa this month, to the cheers of emergency workers, game rangers, security officers and construction workers. It refines the design of the S60, with a full rubber back, improved thermal camera, air quality sensor, and a laser assisted distance sensor. A ridge used on the S60 to house additional technology is now a design feature, referred to as a sharkfin, further differentiating the phone.

The distance sensor is intended to be an estimation tool, and is ideal for measuring rooms, buildings and spaces for renovation, repairs, furnishing, and alterations. But it may well produce new approaches and even business models once it becomes widely used.

“Two years ago, we didn’t know how people were going to use the thermal camera,” said Pete Cunningham, vice president and senior product head at Bullitt He is also the mind behind the Cat S60 and S61 phones and their features. “We didn’t invent the thermal camera, but we were the first to put it in a smartphone.  We knew the obvious things. But, for example, we didn’t know how and to what extent it would be used in agriculture. 

“We didn’t expect highly specialised uses like roofers checking if beams are rotten because they can detect higher water content. As a result when UK local authorities are called in to repair a leaking roof, instead of going into a property and replacing a whole roof, they only need to replace a segment of roof.”

Speaking during a visit to South Africa last week, Cunningham said one of his favourite examples of unexpected uses was in animal husbandry.

“Earlier this year a farmer in England, Rob Hodgkins, was out delivering lambs, and he was using the thermal camera because the heat map lets you see inflammation in animals, when one area generates more heat than another. In the past, he had used thermal imaging cameras, which cost thousands of pounds, to help find and identify hypothermic lambs.

“The snow had come late this year, and lambs were being born while the snow was thick on the ground. He learned of a lamb that had become separated from its mother at night, due to a dog scaring the sheep, and raced to the scene. Using the thermal camera on his phone, he found the creature in total darkness.”

In South Africa, the Cat S60 brought instant success to policeman Stoffel Holtzhausen, who bought it when he heard about the thermal imaging feature. Within one week of purchasing it, he used it to catch two dangerous criminals who had escaped custody.

He often drops the phone while holding down criminals, and it has fallen out of his pocket while he was riding a police motorcycle. Yet, it remains completely usable. This kind of experience delivers a level of customer satisfaction that marketing can’t buy. 

Word of such successes spreads fast, and South Africa is consistently Cat’s second or third biggest market in the world, with Germany showing the highest sales. The Cat S60 is expected to have sold half-a-million units when it reaches the end of its marketing life.

“We see tremendously high satisfaction rates,” says Cunningham. “No less than 88% of users say they would recommend us to friends and family, and 89% indicate they are very likely to buy a Cat phone again in future. You have to make a conscious decision to buy one of these products. You’re going against the mainstream. We have a community and they’re very engaged with us.”

The result, in recent years, has been rapid growth. In the first five years after its founding in 2009, Bullitt numbered only 25 full-time staff. Since Cunningham joined in 2014, the team has grown almost ten-fold, and will reach 250 by the end of this year.

“We talk intensively to our customers. Over the last two years we surveyed over 50 000 Cat users. Data and feedback from those conversations drive how we shape the portfolio for the future. The S61 came about because of survey data from our users. For example, customers told us they were disappointed in camera performance, so we used that to guide us to improve it. 

“Now you can use cool technology to enhance images. So if a plumber is taking a photo in low light of a part number under the sink, the software in the phone recognizes text in the photo and enhances the image quality for reading text.”

Cunnignham enthuses about the numerous tests done to push the limits of the phone’s durability, from putting it in tumble dryers to using it in the sea. An underwater mode, now standard in Cat phones, allows the power button to be used to switch between video and still images.

From capturing action under the sea to tracking poachers in game reserves, from tracing hot water pipes behind walls to hanging curtains, it is a phone that is changing working lives. Not to mention saving lives.

CAT S61 specs:

Display: 5.2” Full HD (1920 x 1080), IPS, auto switch support and wet-finger / glove-on working technology; Corning Gorilla Glass 5
Storage: 64 GB ROM
Memory: 4 GB RAM (Expandable via microSD card)
Processor: Qualcomm SD630 Octacore 2.2GHz
Operating system: Google Android Oreo (with upgrade to P, the next version of Android)
Audio: FM Radio, Music Player
Video Recording: 3840 × 2160 at 30 fps Video Playback: 3840 × 2160 at 30 fps
Maximum Downlink Data Rate: 600Mbps
Maximum Uplink Data Rate: 150Mbps
Side: Power key, volume (up/down), programmable key
Sensors: Thermal camera (FLIR); Indoor Air Quality Sensor (humidity & temperature); E-compass; Proximity Sensor; Ambient Light Sensor; Accelerometer; Gyroscope; Location; Barometer.
Dimensions: 150 x 76 x 13mmRugged features: Ingress Protection (IP68) – sand, dust and dirt resistant, waterproof up to 3m for 60 minutes; Drop Tested up to 1.8m onto concrete ; Military spec 810G; Thermal Shock – handles low to high temperature differences from -30°C to 65°C for up to 24hours; resistant to vibration – category 4; Resistant to humidity and salt mist
Main camera: 16MP autofocus with PDAF, Dual LED flash Thermal: FLIR Lepton
Front camera: 8MP fixed focus
Battery capacity: 4500mAh, Quick charge 4.0
Other: Audio Jack, Bluetooth, NFC, USB Type C, USB-OTG, Nano SIM, GPS

  •    Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee and on YouTube

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