Innovation in maritime search and rescue beacon technology has been developing at an exponential rate, resulting in faster detection of digital cries for help, greater accuracy in pinpointing the exactlocation of the distress signal and the ability to generate localised alerts; allowing nearby vesselsto support a rescue. The overall impact has been to accelerate the search and rescue process andgreatly lessen time in the water, which consequentially reduces preventable fatalities.
There are a number of drivers impacting the speed of development and user adoption of the latesttechnologies across a wide range of water users. The most significant technologic change has been the globalinvestment in updating the Cospas Sarsat rescue alert infrastructure via the MEOSAR program, resulting in newsatellites and ground antenna accelerating detection of the primary 406 MHz rescue frequency.
A secondary benefit of the MEOSAR satellite investment has been the availability ofadditional GNSS capabilities, such as the European Union’s Galileo system, to workalongside the better-known GPS and Russian Glonass solutions. Known as multiconstellation capability in rescue beacons, the extra satellites, enhanced accuracy and interoperability offering greatly improved location detection performance comparedto GPS alone. As of 2020, Galileo also provides a unique reassurance signal calledthe Return Link System (RLS), which allows a signal to be sent back to the beaconconfirming that their distress alert has been received and the location is known.
Another innovation driving factor has come from the beacon manufacturers reutilisingexisting technology to solve customer issues. Originally created for vessel situationalawareness, the AIS VHF frequency has been successfully repurposed to create a localisedrecovery alert. First used in standalone Man Overboard (MOB) devices such as the KannadR10, Orolia Maritime went on to introduce AIS in EPIRBs in 2018. This multi award winningcombination allowed the dual alerting signals of the global search and rescue professionalsvia 406MHz, with the localised awareness and recovery capability of AIS.
The third factor has been the adoption of global and national legislation to increasethe range of vessels mandated to carry distress equipment and upgrading equipment standards to reflect thelifesaving capabilities of the latest market available technology. These changes can be as straight forward asIrelands subsidised role out of PLBs for smaller often solo crewed fishing vessels or Canada’s requirement forautomated EPIRBs for fishing vessels to increase the likelihood of successful activation. The most wide reachinglegislative impact has been around the updates of the MCA’s SOLAS regulations, driving the introduction of arange of new technologies for commercial vessels, including GNSS in EPIRBs to greatly reduce the search areaswhen trying to locate a vessel in distress and the introduction of the technologically superior AIS SARTS toimprove location detection accuracy for life rafts.
Overall legislation has provided the most decisive factor in impacting the modernisation of life saving equipment at sea. The first weeks of January 2020 seen already seen national legislation change via the USA’s RCTM 11,000 deadline, removing a number of outdated safety beacons from the shelves by setting new minimum standards around GNSS in EPIRBs. Although not yet retrograded to remove older equipment already deployed, the change brings significant lifesaving advantages by reducing search areas and improving accuracy of alert location detection, moreover it brings US national legislation in line with global commercial standards in relation to GNSS.
Global legislative best practice for maritime safety is not easy as scores of countries are required to find agreement on what can be highly technical solutions. However, it still proves more effective than market forces alone in identifying and deploying equipment that will make life for those working on the water much safer.
One such ruling has been the IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee update of the SOLAS requirements for EPIRBS in June 2019. The new regulations will apply from the 1st of July 2022 and require the EPIRB to include an internal AIS frequency alongside the 406 MHz and GNSS requirements.**
This solution in the form of the SmartFind G8 AIS or Kannad SafePro AIS EPIRBs have been available since 2018 but has been largely adopted by leisure and elite sports marine users, whereas commercial vessels are more reactive to
Some will argue that market freedom should dictate what equipment a captain deploys, as each equipment upgrade typically carries a higher cost than the previous model and incurs additional administration burden of monitoring changes and deploying new solutions. However, in 2020 what price does an organisation put on a crews’ life? In a society that accepts duty of care for one’s employees and understands the risk and resources required by a nation to maintain a search and rescue capability, is there a market case for saving up to £400 every decade by not moving to GPS or not accepting localised alerts via AIS.
Lifesaving marine safety innovation is often lauded at launch, reflected in the industries countless awards and magazine’s top safety gear supplements. But, if we truly value life at sea sometimes we may have to bite our tongues and accept the legislation that one day may safe our lives.
**Source: Recommendation on performance standards for float-free EPIRBs from IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) 101/24/Annex 24 2.3.16