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Special Report

Emergency Locator Beacon Technology

Beyond the Frontier Satellites That Make the System Work Beacons of Life Who Uses Beacons? Frequency Matters

Sponsored by

Published by Global Business Media



Emergency Locator Beacon Technology

Contents Foreword


John Hancock, Editor

Beyond the Frontier

Beyond the Frontier Satellites That Make the System Work Beacons of Life Who Uses Beacons? Frequency Matters

Sponsored by

Published by Global Business Media

Published by Global Business Media Global Business Media Limited 62 The Street Ashtead Surrey KT21 1AT United Kingdom Switchboard: +44 (0)1737 850 939 Fax: +44 (0)1737 851 952 Email: Website: Publisher Kevin Bell Business Development Director Marie-Anne Brooks Editor John Hancock Senior Project Manager Steve Banks Advertising Executives Michael McCarthy Abigail Coombes Production Manager Paul Davies For further information visit: The opinions and views expressed in the editorial content in this publication are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily represent the views of any organisation with which they may be associated. Material in advertisements and promotional features may be considered to represent the views of the advertisers and promoters. The views and opinions expressed in this publication do not necessarily express the views of the Publishers or the Editor. While every care has been taken in the preparation of this publication, neither the Publishers nor the Editor are responsible for such opinions and views or for any inaccuracies in the articles.


Kannad Aviation

A Wide Choice for Civilian or Military Use Size Matters Functionality is Determined by User Needs Avoiding Attraction in a War Zone Keeping it Simple The Importance of Support A Single or Dual-Purpose Device? The SARBE Solution Contact

Satellites That Make the System Work


John Hancock, Editor

A New Technology A Programme for Rescue How it Works

Beacons of Life


Peter Dunwell, Staff Writer

Safety Versus Thrills Beacons do the Work PLBs Authorised The Golden Day

Who Uses Beacons?


Francis Slade, Defense Correspondent

Headline Rescues The First PLB Rescue PLBs Now Legal Dangerous Work Military Considerations

Frequency Matters


Peter Dunwell, Staff Writer

Some Useful Facts New Frequency Means Better Chances New Beats Old

References 15

Š 2012. The entire contents of this publication are protected by copyright. Full details are available from the Publishers. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the copyright owner. | 1


Foreword F

rom time to time people need to be rescued

will suffer some kind of disabling catastrophe

but, more often than not, when a rescue is

requiring them to be rescued at sea and returned

required in a country with advanced infrastructure,

to a place of safety. Or maybe a hill walker will find

a call to the emergency services will set in train a

themselves trapped by bad weather or, worse

well organised process where emergency services

still, suffering a fall and consequent injury which

will be co-ordinated and directed to the place where

again will require them to be rescued. On a larger

the rescue is required. From there, they will conduct

scale, the kind of people who undertake major

the rescue and, having extracted the person in

expeditions for scientific or exploratory purposes

need, will move them to a place of safety where any

may find themselves suffering injury or even

injuries they may have sustained can be treated.

illness far away from any recognised infrastructure

The opening article in this Special Report reviews

of civilisation. In every case, before they can be

the various types of equipment in use for Search

rescued, they will need to be found and that is

and Rescue (SAR) recovery and for Combat Search

often the most challenging part of any operation –

and Rescue (CSAR) extraction, and asks whether

it’s why it’s called Search and Rescue.

different equipment is required or could one size fit

For just these sorts of circumstances, a global

all? The most important factor for Personal Locator

infrastructure has been created to facilitate the

Beacons (PLBs) is size but, at the same time, the

most important part of any rescue mission,

functionality of equipment must take account of

finding the person in need of rescue. This paper

the needs of the user. Military PLBs generally have

looks at the various components of that global

a need for greater functionality than their civilian

infrastructure and in particular at the technology

counterparts. However, with today’s technology,

that accompanies vessels, aircraft and individuals

multi-purpose products, serving both SAR and

making it possible for those endeavouring to rescue

CSAR purposes are a real possibility.

them to find them.

Sometimes we get an inkling of a different type of rescue event: one that is nowhere near as straightforward as that which is our usual experience. Perhaps a fisherman or leisure sailor

John Hancock Editor

John Hancock joined as Editor of Defence Reports in early 2012. A journalist for nearly 25 years, John has written and edited articles and papers on a range of defence, engineering and technology topics as well as for key events in the sector. Subjects have included aeroengineering, testing, aviation IT, materials engineering, weapons research, supply chain, logistics and naval engineering.

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Beyond the Frontier Kannad Aviation

In the military search and rescue theatre, when facing the difficulties of Search and Rescue (SAR) recovery, and Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) extraction, do forces require different equipment for SAR and CSAR? Or could one size fit all?

CSAR 7 Black Hawk


lobal military organizations continue to benefit from the COSPAS-SARSAT (C/S) Program when carrying out non-warzone rescue operations. Since its inception in 1982, and becoming operational in 1985, over 30,000 survivors have been rescued with the aid of the C/S system and it is expected to continue to be the global SAR standard for the foreseeable future. The natures of these rescues encompass all forms of land, marine, and aviation incidents where individuals or groups are at risk. Survivors are from both the civilian and military groups; the C/S system does not differentiate or give priority to either faction. This free-of-charge service for reporting alert and location information is available to all in ownership of a device able to radiate an appropriate emergency signal.

A Wide Choice for Civilian or Military Use A wealth of choices exists for anyone who would want to carry an alerting device to provide access

to the C/S service. The SAR distress products approved by C/S are generic types: – Emergency Location Transmitters (ELTs) for aircraft fitment. – Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRBs) for marine use. – Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs) for individuals. All of these SAR equipments work by communicating with the C/S system to provide an alert to the search and rescue authorities in the event of an emergency. Globally, there are many manufacturers of SAR equipment, mostly catering for civilian but also military use. For military SAR use, PLBs are the most commonly carried device. For CSAR operations the choice of equipment types is less generous. A limited number of equipment providers service this market, and correspondingly, the number of users is considerably lower than in the civilian sectors. NATO warzone needs are catered for with the longstanding use of General Dynamics PRC-112 equipment. The PRC-112 is an older piece of equipment, but remains the de-facto standard for CSAR operations under NATO control. However, for specific uses, other covert capability radios are also carried by NATO forces; an example is the SARBE G2R, in use with a number of countries for a variety of purposes. Countries outside of NATO can choose to use alternative CSAR radios. The SARBE G2R is popular, and provides user groups with a highly capable SAR capability, but also has a CSAR mode which can be used for covert and warzone tracking and extraction.

Size Matters With regards to PLBs, if military users were asked what the most important factor is when choosing a PLB, they would be sure to say “size”. Almost without exception aircrew, ground forces, surface or submarine fleet personnel carry a variety of operational and survival equipment with the size and weight of equipment being of the utmost importance. Reduced equipment package sizes and lighter weights are always preferred as is the opportunity to decrease the number of individual | 3


Since its inception in

support expected to maintain capability and performance availability in the extremes of the user environment. Equipment of this kind can be expected to suffer mechanical and thermal threat during normal use. They also have to withstand the electro-magnetic interference influences generated by the air, surface, and submarine fleets of global nations. Providers of these equipments have to be fully versed in the design and manufacturing of the elite products needed by the elite military user community.

1982, and becoming operational in 1985, over 30,000 survivors have

Avoiding Attraction in a War Zone

been rescued with the aid of the C/S system and it is expected to continue to be the global

Military PLBS need more functional elements, anything from voice transmission to inertia switch triggered activation

SAR standard for the foreseeable future.

equipments required. The complexity of the user Equipment Assembly (EA) can often be mission specific. The smaller the component parts of the EA, the easier the equipment fitter’s job becomes.

Functionality is Determined by User Needs Generally, the functionality needed in a military PLB exceeds that of its civilian counterpart. Civilian distress beacons generally provide relatively simple transmission of rescue alert signals. Military requirements usually need more functional elements; these can be anything from voice transmission and reception to salt water contact for auto-activation, and inertia switch triggered activation. The military user often wants a range of capabilities that the civilian marketplace simply does not need. The variation in configuration for the military user is often subtle. An example of this is the need for manual and auto-activation mechanisms to cater for alternative orientations when integrated into aircrew garments, the direction of pull for triggering activation may be defined by elements other than the PLB. This may sound paltry, but a failure of the PLB design to accommodate these minor configuration requirements would have major implications for aircrew equipment specialists when assembling EAs. Fortunately there are products available that provide facilities for variations in use. Industrial organizations supporting this market segment need to be fully aware of the use profile experienced by their equipment in the field. They also need to provide the logistical

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Although occurrences are thankfully very rare, the rescue of military survivors is needed for ejections, bail-outs and other events both during operations and in training. This can be over land, but is often over sea and survivors can be injured or may be unconscious. The provision of auto-activation for PLBs and hands-free operation of antenna systems is a huge benefit if the survivor is unable to deploy the equipment manually. Whilst carrying out flying operations, a common sortie profile is understood to be for aircrew to carry an SAR PLB when in non-warzone airspace. As soon as a defined warzone is entered, any auto-activation mechanisms for the SAR PLB would then be disabled to prevent attracting hostile forces if the PLB was triggered. A second radio, a CSAR PLB, is then used if any event causing the need for personnel recovery occurs whilst in the warzone. When the aircraft leaves

SARBE G2R PLB provides users with SAR capability but also has CSAR mode for covert and warzone tracking and extraction


Aircrew carry a SAR PLB when in non-warzone airspace

the warzone, the auto-activated SAR PLB can be re-connected so that it is available for general SAR operations.

Keeping it Simple Dual or multi-mode equipment could become unnecessarily complex when catering for both SAR and CSAR as they not only have to include features for each mode, but also need the

ability to change between modes. Care in design and minimizing features that do not provide worthwhile benefit can reduce complexity to acceptable levels. Equipment that can be programmed before missions to match expected performance profiles can take complexity away from the user in the field, and reduce the need for in-depth knowledge of a specific product. Pre-mission programming can cater for the SAR or CSAR dedicated functional profile requirement. There is of course a huge benefit to be had with a device of this kind; only a single radio is needed to support both SAR and CSAR operations and without imposing a choice of use on an already heavily occupied war-fighter. The modern military field operator is required to be competent with the use of multiple pieces of personal equipment. We can all be grateful for the commitment and dedication given by front line and support personnel, often in environments the average Joe would never experience, but would only read about. To reduce the operational demands for these admirable individuals is a contribution manufacturers can make. Simplicity in use can be forgotten with the continual drive to increase functionality and to provide additional benefits, which can be detrimental to the overall needs of the user. Simplified equipment requires simple training and simple use. To over complicate safety and rescue equipment is a mistake. It would of course be better to have fewer types and lower quantities of equipment in service with any single military unit. Although, this could only be found of benefit if the dual purpose product provided appropriate levels of performance in both modes. It would also need to be as simple to operate by the user as a single mode dedicated equipment.

The Importance of Support A pre-requisite for military equipment is the need to be able to provide availability, reliability, and maintainability (ARM) in a way that ensures the user-group always has the equipment they need. The logistical support of field equipment is a huge and complex subject in its own right, but suffice to say, the greater the efficiency with which a fielded equipment is supported, the lower the requirements for the supply chain and the easier it is to keep the forces equipped. Manufacturers need to provide this support. Again, reducing the variety of field assets helps, as does decreasing complexity.

SARBE G2R ELT – a wealth of choices exist for anyone who would want to carry an alerting device

A Single or Dual-Purpose Device? So, do military forces need separate equipment for SAR and CSAR use, or can a single dual | 5


Industrial organizations

fewer chances of obsolescence issues reducing the operational availability of service assets that can’t be repaired or replaced. Modern industries focus their research on providing optimum design concepts for supplies to the military. It is certainly not beyond the capabilities of today’s professional safety equipment suppliers to provide multi-purpose product that both reduce the load on military support facilities, and provide exemplary product solutions to benefit the service user.

supporting this market segment need to be fully aware of the use profile

The SARBE Solution

experienced by their equipment in the field. Field Operators are required to be competent with the use of multiple pieces of personal equipment – Rousseau©Thales

purpose device carry worthwhile and justifiable benefits? Of course it can is the answer! There are always exceptions to the rule, but correctly designed, a single unit with a dual purpose can provide benefits on all fronts. Without exception, there are potential gains in all aspects of ownership, operation and support. The requirements for the purchase of equipment, spares, and peripherals can all be reduced with the need to source just a single type of product. Training needs for users and for maintenance should be lower with fewer product types to cater for. The supply chain for maintenance of equipment availability in the field is reduced with every single product that can be removed from the user portfolio. Another potential gain not to be forgotten is the lessened threat of obsolescence. Less equipment types means

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War-fighters have always deserved the best the industry can offer. With the management and technology available today, there is no reason why the best cannot be made available. SARBE strive to achieve this goal. The SARBE brand is globally recognized by military users to be a longstanding provider of ruggedized location and rescue device equipment. Over the past 5 decades the SARBE products have consistently evolved in line with changing operational needs, technology updates, and for continuing interface with associated operational and support equipment. SARBE has been chosen by over 50 countries for the supply of rescue equipment. Synonymous with exemplary equipment performance and fitness for purpose, SARBE remains a leading supplier of rescue radios in the field of SAR and CSAR.

Contact Kannad Aviation incorporating SARBE is a business of the Orolia Group, a high-technology group specialised in precise Positioning, Navigation and Timing (PNT). Since 2006, the Orolia Group has established itself as one of the leaders in PNT solutions at a global level through its strong brands: Spectracom, SpectraTime, T4Science, Boatracs, McMurdo, Kannad Aviation and Kannad Marine.


Satellites That Make the System Work John Hancock, Editor Cospas-Sarsat satellites provide a full range of capabilities to aid in the location of vessels and people in need of rescue.


he task of locating the site of an emergency and finding the people endangered or injured there has always been the single most challenging element in any rescue operation. Up until the late 20th century, there were regular and distressing cases where people were lost and never found or were lost in inhospitable territory where the site of their catastrophe was only discovered by chance and long after any rescue could have helped. Like the case of Amelia Earhart, the aviator who disappeared in 1937 while attempting to circumnavigate the world. By considering where the last known sighting of her was and knowing where she should next have been sighted, it has been calculated that she disappeared over the central Pacific Ocean near Howland Island – but that is a very large area of ocean: the most intense visual search would have stood only an infinitesimal chance of finding a tiny aircraft even had it remained on the surface. Sadly, when people disappeared, they were usually gone forever.

A New Technology Various technologies were tried to assist the location of sites where the victims of emergencies required rescue but, even when those technologies moved away from pure visual location to the use of various types of transmitter, there were still problems where rescues had to be mounted in inhospitable or radio blocking environments such as mountainous areas, forests or on the ocean but far from land. During the late 20th century a new communication technology based on satellites arrived. It enabled parts of the world that were ‘over the horizon’ from each other to communicate as easily as for places within sight or easy radio range of each other and one part of that has been used to create the COSPAS-SARSAT (Cospas-Sarsat) network of rescue systems. COSPAS is the acronym for a Russian term meaning ‘Space System for the Search of Vessels in Distress’

and SARSAT is the English acronym for ‘Search And Rescue Satellite-Aided Tracking’. The system was initially developed by four nations, the former USSR, USA, Canada and France, who signed a memorandum of understanding in 1979. It was for a system that would utilise a number of satellites so that somebody in need of rescue and with a suitable transmitter could send a signal to global rescue services via one or more of the satellites. Also, it would be possible to pinpoint their location by a process of triangulation or, if the satellite to which they were transmitting was an orbiting device, by a system based on Doppler technology – using differences in the quality of a signal from an object that is approaching as opposed to one that is moving away. According to the Cospas-Sarsat programme; “Following the successful completion of the demonstration and evaluation phase started in September 1982, a second Memorandum of Understanding was signed on 5 October 19841 by the Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES) of France, the Department of National Defence (DND) of Canada, the Ministry of Merchant Marine (MORFLOT) of the former USSR and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) of the USA. The System was then declared operational in 1985. The first part of the system, a satellite called COSPAS-1 was launched from Plesetsk Cosmodrome in June 19822, becoming active in September of that year and tracking the two original types of distress radio beacons, EPIRBs (Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacons) used by ships and ELTs (Emergency Locator Transmitters) used by aircraft. Since then, a third type of radio beacon has become available with the introduction in 2003 of PLBs (Personal Locator Beacons). As the name suggests these are for use by individuals who find themselves in a situation from which they need to be rescued but not necessarily involving any ship or aeroplane and who are away from easy access by normal emergency services. | 7


The system has been used for thousands of search and rescue missions and can be credited in the rescue of more than 31,000 people in nearly 9000 incidents worldwide between 1982 and 2010.

A Programme for Rescue On 1 July 1988, the four States providing the space segment for the system signed the International Cospas-Sarsat Programme Agreement, which ensures the continuity of the System and its availability to all States on a non-discriminatory basis. In January 1992, the Government of Russia assumed responsibility for the obligations of the former Soviet Union. A number of States, NonParties to the Agreement, have also associated themselves with the Programme. Through their association with the Programme, [those] States can contribute ground receiving stations which enhance Cospas-Sarsat distress alerting capabilities, and/or participate in international Cospas-Sarsat meetings dedicated to the world-wide co-ordination of System operations and Programme management. To date there are some 43 countries and organisations participating in the system including the four parties to the original agreement. The stated objective of the Cospas-Sarsat system is to reduce, as far as possible, delays in the provision of distress alerts to SAR services, and the time required to locate an incident and provide assistance, both of which have a direct impact on the probability of survival of the person in distress at sea or on land.3 To achieve this objective, Cospas-Sarsat Participants implement, maintain, co-ordinate and operate a satellite system capable of detecting distress alert transmissions from radio beacons that comply with Cospas-Sarsat specifications and performance standards4, and of determining their position anywhere on the globe. The distress alert and location data is provided by CospasSarsat participants to the responsible search and rescue services. Cospas-Sarsat co-operates with the International Civil Aviation Organization, the International Maritime Organization, the International Telecommunication Union and other international organisations to ensure the compatibility of the Cospas-Sarsat distress alerting services with the needs, the standards and the applicable recommendations of the international community.

How it Works The system uses a combination of two types of satellite5: five geostationary (GEOSARS) and six low-earth polar orbit (LEOSARS) satellites to ensure maximum geographical coverage and to help locate those in need of rescue. The two systems are complementary6 with the GEOSAR satellite, being able to provide almost immediate alerting when any distress beacon is activated within its footprint, while the LEOSAR satellites 8 |

are able to cover those polar regions which are beyond the range of geostationary satellites and use Doppler processing techniques to calculate the location of an emergency. Additionally, because they are in continuous orbit, they are less susceptible to obstructions which may block a beacon signal in a particular direction. LEOSAR and GEOSAR Capabilities LEOSAR •B  eacon identification information and location information provided. • Global coverage, but not instantaneous. GEOSAR •B  eacon identification provided, and location information available if encoded in beacon message (location protocol beacon). •N  ear instantaneous alerting in the GEOSAR coverage area. Table from Cospas-Sarsat

The satellites communicate with ground receiving stations, known as Local User Terminals (LUTs), from where signals are passed to control centres that, in turn, act as clearing houses to send the information from a beacon to a rescue co-ordination centre from where appropriate rescue services can be dispatched. The first recorded use of Cospas-Sarsat as part of a search and rescue operation was in September of 1982 when a light aircraft crash in Canada left three people needing rescue from a wilderness area7. Since then, the system has been used for thousands of search and rescue missions and can be credited in the rescue of more than 31,000 people in nearly 9000 incidents worldwide between 1982 and 2010. The Cospas-Sarsat satellites are what enable the various tracking devices and beacons used to aid search and rescue operations to actually do their job.


Beacons of Life Peter Dunwell, Staff Writer The transmission devices that notify emergencies to the system

Safety Versus Thrills We are a contradictory society; rightly obsessed with safety on the one hand and yet determined to experience life at its extremes on the other. But when problems occur and we need assistance, we like to know that it can be summoned. Ships and aircraft have long carried beacons to make it easier to locate them in the event of an emergency and, of course, they do often cross less accessible areas where, in the event of an emergency, communication of a message, let alone any locational information, faces significant barriers. These days it is not only ships and aircraft but ramblers, hikers, off-road bikers, horseback trekkers and a host of other outdoor pursuit enthusiasts who often go into places where, in the event of an accident, there will be challenges for those seeking to find and rescue them. The CospasSarsat system was originally devised to make easier that task for ships and aircraft but now the system is available for ordinary citizens who simply wish to enjoy the great outdoors, wherever that might be.

Beacons do the Work While satellites operated by Corpas-Sarsat may be the most glamorous components in the modern search and rescue (SAR) mix, they would be pointless hunks of scrap unless people and vessels in emergency situations had a means to communicate with them. In fact, the whole infrastructure of satellites, ground receiving stations and mission control centres8 exist primarily to receive, interpret and act upon signals from the various types of distress beacon. The original beacons, when the system was launched in 1982, were fixed to vessels: Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRBs) are used at sea while Emergency Locator Transmitters (ELTs) will be found on aircraft. EPIRBs and ELTs are usually about 30 cm cubed (1 cubic foot) in volume, weighing 2 to 5 kg (4-11lbs). These would represent fairly significant packages for an individual hiker or leisure sailor to use and so, since 2003, a third type of Beacon has been available called a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) ranging in size from a cigarette packet to a paperback book and weighing between 200 g to 1 kg (up to 2 1/2lb),

sarbe 6-406 PLB

i.e. small enough and light enough to be carried by an individual9.

PLBs Authorised At one time, the use of PLBs on land was forbidden in the UK but, as the result of campaigning by a number of associations involved in outdoor pursuits, such as the Equine Ramblers Association, it has been legal to use PLBs on land in the UK since January 2012. Up until now, PLBs have been mainly available from suppliers of marine/electronic devices. However they should soon be more readily available in high street retailers who cater for the outdoor pursuits market. Currently retailing at between ÂŁ190 and ÂŁ350, enthusiasts of outdoor pursuits who enjoy the challenge of more remote areas may consider them cheap at the price. One question, though, remains: when | 9


By interfacing directly

the beacons now being very reasonably priced, especially in the context of other outdoor pursuit equipment, and especially the ones carried about your person. More importantly, what price would an individual or their families put on their safe recovery in the event of an emergency? As far as mobile phones are concerned, the reality is that cellular coverage tends to focus on population areas and heavily used transport routes and hubs leaving almost all of the world’s oceans and more remote land areas (the areas where outdoor pursuits are often enjoyed) without cover. Added to that, mobile phones are not usually designed for harsh environments whereas beacons and transmitters in the rescue system most certainly are brightly coloured, waterproof and, in many cases, automatically activated in water.

with the Corpas-Sarsar system, such beacons make it more likely that those needing rescue will be reached within a period known as the ‘golden day’.

The Golden Day europter

should a PLB be used? The official guidance is that users who need assistance should first contact the normal emergency services, i.e. in the UK, dial 999 and ask for the appropriate service. “A PLB should be activated only when there is no realistic, alternative means of rescue and the situation is serious.”10 In the early days of the system, it may well have been the case that the equipment was quite expensive and quite unwieldy so that many people made the decision not to buy a beacon or transmitter even though they were going into fairly isolated situations such as going to sea, hiking in remote areas or mountaineering. Then, with the advent of mobile phones, some people took the view that their mobile device was all they needed to summon help if need be. However, both of these views suffer significant flaws. Cost is no longer an issue with many of

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By interfacing directly with the Corpas-Sarsar system, such beacons make it more likely that those needing rescue will be reached within a period known as the ‘golden day’ – the 24 hours following an accident or emergency during which most survivors can be saved. The first transmitters operated on a frequency of 121.5 MHZ but those devices are now being superseded by 406 MHZ devices which can carry and transmit a great deal more information (including having a GPS capability) to make rescue easier, and can be detected by geostationary weather satellites. In reality, “121.5 MHZ beacons are not reliable (2 out of 1000 signals are for real), they transmit anonymously, have very low accuracy (15 - 25 km), unable to transmit digital data and thus need Doppler detection to locate the beacon and have no GPS capability… In short: These new beacons take the search out of the search and rescue!11” None of this should be seen as replacing the need to notify the relevant authorities of trip details but these beacons can ensure a faster and safer recovery in the event of an emergency arising12.


Who Uses Beacons? Francis Slade, Defense Correspondent More people and in more circumstances than you might imagine


ospas-Sarsat is not of itself a search and rescue system but it is the system that supplies information to make the work of search and rescue services more efficient.

Headline Rescues Of course, the rescues that make the headlines tend to be those where some extraordinary circumstance is involved: where, perhaps, somebody in a rainforest sends out an alert which is then handled by the UK Coastguard in Falmouth, Cornwall who co-ordinate a rescue across the world. But these are often newsworthy because the people are not those one who would normally associate with danger: extreme tourists, walkers, lone sailors even academic explorers – people who do not need to face danger but choose to. It may have been with such people in mind that personal locator beacons (PLBs) were first authorised for general use.

confirm his whereabouts and set the wheels in motion for his rescue.” (Backpacking Light)

PLBs Now Legal This shows how simply a PLB device can assist when the going gets tough or danger threatens. Although it only became legal to use PLB devices in the UK in February 2012, the Police immediately welcomed the development14. Speaking recently on behalf of all UK police forces, DCCs Andy Cowie and Ian Shannon said: “This legislative change will allow members of the public to use handheld PLB devices on land anywhere in the UK. When activated, they will send a distress alert message that will be picked up by satellite and relayed via the UK Mission Control Centre (UKMCC) direct to the authorities. The UKMCC, co-located with the Air Rescue

The First PLB Rescue The first person to be rescued using PLB technology following the devices becoming available for use in the USA in 2003 was… A Cleveland, Ohio, man… rescued by the U.S. Army Fort Drum Air Ambulance Detachment outside of Watertown, N.Y… through the help of a personal locator beacon or PLB…13 Carl Skalak, 55, was in the Adirondack Mountains of Upstate New York when he activated his PLB. At 10:45 a.m. EST, personnel at the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center (AFRCC), at Langley Air Force Base, Va., were notified of the distress call via the Search and Rescue Satellite Aid Tracking System (SARSAT), operated [in the USA] by NOAA. The AFRCC notified the appropriate state emergency rescue agency in the area where the PLB was activated. According to Lt. Daniel Karlson, SARSAT operations support officer for NOAA, “The system worked like a gem.” Mr. Skalak decided to activate his PLB after he realized he was facing a life-threatening situation because of his isolated conditions and the brutally frigid weather. In a matter of a few hours, Mr. Skalak might have become acutely hypothermic putting his life at risk,” Karlson explained. “Since he had properly registered his PLB, we were able to immediately

sarbe 10 Submarine PLB | 11


At an even further

boat to capsize. Even if the crew managed to get into a life raft it will almost certainly drift a long way from the site of the sinking by the time that any rescue effort can be mounted when somebody notices that the vessel has failed to communicate with or failed to return to port. It is noteworthy that of rescues using information from the Cospas-Sarsat , Maritime rescues make up by far the largest group at 56% of the total. Land rescues at 24% and aviation rescues at 20% are considerably less16. Going to more extreme cases, people working in remote locations such as those undertaking exploration for mineral resources will, by the very nature of their work, not always be following known routes, will often be literally ‘far off the beaten track’ and, again by the nature of their work, be undertaking high risks. Any accident or injury that they suffer could leave them very vulnerable if it proves difficult to locate them.

extreme, members of the Armed Forces working not simply off the beaten track but often in a hostile and threatening environment face very high threats of injury and may well be in need of rescue.

Military Considerations submarine

Co-ordination Centre (ARCC), currently at RAF Kinloss, will receive, process and verify coordinates for activations before informing the relevant police force.” It hadn’t always been that easy. As a correspondent wrote to Equine Ramblers15: “Like a lot of people I go exploring the countryside, very often on my own on horseback and in May 2007 I was completing a long ride with a friend and fell off the horse and broke my leg. I was lucky that I wasn’t alone and also that we had mobile phone reception.”

Dangerous Work But there are many circumstances in which people can find themselves in need of rescue in places far more inhospitable or unstructured than those above; and where they ‘have to’ rather than ‘choose to’ be there. People like fishermen who need to go to sea for a living can suffer catastrophic failure in their equipment, such as a net catching on the seabed causing the fishing

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At an even further extreme, members of the Armed Forces working not simply off the beaten track but often in a hostile and threatening environment face very high threats of injury and may well be in need of rescue but from a place that is not only away from their known infrastructure, but also where it will be dangerous for them to make any local contacts or do anything to reveal themselves. Combat search and rescue (CSAR) is a specialised area because, in the nature of the asymmetric warfare faced by most combatants today and the fact that many enemies do not play by the acknowledged rules, even the act of sending an alert to a satellite could bring enemy personnel to the site where a combatant is trapped and, possibly, injured. For understandable reasons, military forces do not publicise all of their systems but they do use versions of PLBs for non-threat environment missions. Overall, the answer to ‘who uses beacons?’ really has to be anyone who ever leaves the well-trodden and well used routes around the world.


Frequency Matters Peter Dunwell, Staff Writer In fact, all of the developments in beacon technology matter when your life depends on it


LBs (personal locator beacons) are radio beacons, (usually operating at 406 MHz) that are linked to an international satellite system for Search and Rescue (Cospas – Sarsat). This satellite system has global coverage with a typical ‘time-toalert’ of between 3 and 45 minutes. When activated, the PLB will transmit a message which includes a code uniquely identifying the individual PLB. This code can subsequently be matched with information supplied when the PLB was registered on purchase – name, address, next-of-kin, relevant health/medical issues. This information is held in a global database, UK data being managed by the UK Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) Registry.”17 This excellent snippet from’s announcement that PLBs had become legal to use in the UK in 2012 includes a number of factors of which users should be aware.

Some Useful Facts OK, so if you didn’t know what a radio beacon was you might want to rethink that plan to walk the Amazon or even climb the Munros. But if you found yourself in a situation where there was a need to call on rescue services, knowing that the time that it takes to alert the system could be as much as 45 minitutes, then adding onto that the flying/walking/climbing time that it might take rescuers to reach you could be useful. For instance, if the weather around you was cold or cooling, it might be sensible to try and make yourself as warm as possible in the circumstances or if it was raining, endeavour to find shelter, again, if possible. It would also be useful to know that, on purchase, your device needs to be registered in order for you to be able to get the best from it. This is not just a matter of the authorities being nosy, although the questions may seem a lot for registering a hand-held beacon. But the information they require could help them to contact the person who is in trouble using their mobile phone (subject to the kind of problems that mobile phones suffer in remote environments) or the device itself and they will certainly know of any

medical or other conditions that could dictate the equipment or supplies loaded onto the rescue mission.

New Frequency Means Better Chances And, although it looks rather technical, the fact that devices on sale today operate at 406 MHz is useful. Early devices (though probably not PLBs in the UK) operated on the analogue frequencies of 121.5/243 MHz. Since first of February 2009, devices tuned to those frequencies will no longer be picked up by the international satellite system that guides search and rescue teams. But the newer 406 MHz devices do offer a number of additional features, including the ability to transmit an encoded message that carries a unique identifier for the device and may include location data if the unit is connected to a global positioning system. They can also limit the search area to a roughly 9 square mile patch of the Earth’s surface where the area in which the old devices might be found could be as much as 400 square miles. All of this will greatly enhance the chances of a successful and timely rescue. And, with the 121.5/243 MHz beacons, only one out of every 50 alerts was a genuine distress situation: the remainder were false alarms. This was a significant waste of resources and detrimental to the effectiveness of search and rescue services. With 406 MHz beacons, false alerts have been considerably reduced (about one alert in 17 is genuine) and, when the beacon is properly registered, can normally be resolved with a telephone call to the beacon owner using the encoded beacon identification to establish the authenticity of the alert. Consequently, real alerts can receive the attention they deserve. Robb Metcalfe, Head of the General Aviation Inspectorate at the UK CAA’s Safety Regulation Group, said of emergency locator transmitters (ELTs), the beacons used by aircraft, “Owners of ELTs need to check that their transmitters can broadcast on the new frequency, as 406MHz beacons are superior to their analogue predecessors and with GNSS input provide far more accurate information to rescue teams, thereby bringing help to pilots in | 13


The newer 406 MHz devices do offer a number of additional features, including the ability to transmit an

distress much faster than was possible with the old system.”18 That would be true for most beacons.

New Beats Old Many of those involved with and interested in safety issues, such as AOPA Pilot Magazine have long expressed concerns that too many users of beacons, especially private pilots, have not updated their equipment often enough to take advantage of all the technical developments that are taking place in the Cospas-Sarsat system. The problem with this is that not only may users be relying on a now defunct frequency, but also that the equipment itself may be old, worn, too

encoded message that carries a unique identifier for the device and may include location data if the unit is connected to a global positioning system.


14 |

bulky and based on less reliable technology than the equipment available today. Like cars, mobile ‘phones, computers and all of the many technologies with which we surround ourselves, radio beacons are constantly improving as the latest applicable technological advances are incorporated. The queues outside Apple Stores around the world when the latest ‘iDevice’ is launched testify to how important it is to get the latest in some equipment. For those who enjoy outdoor and off-the-beaten-track pursuits and, especially for those whose work takes them to remote places, it should be just as important to have the latest safety devices.


References: 1

 History of Cospas-Sarsat




Cospas-Sarsat Mission Statement


Cospas-Sarsat Mission Statement






First use of Corpas-Sarsat







Experimental Aircraft


Queensland Government Maritime Safety Authority


Backpacking Light



Equine Ramblers UK


Wikipedia and scroll to bottom of page.



CAA | 15

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