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 exact location of the distress signal and the ability to generate localised alerts; allowing nearby vessels to support a rescue. The overall impact has been to accelerate the search and rescue process and greatly 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 latest technologies across a wide range of water users. The most significant technologic change has been the global investment in updating the Cospas Sarsat rescue alert infrastructure via the MEOSAR program, resulting in new satellites and ground antenna accelerating detection of the primary 406 MHz rescue frequency.

A secondary benefit of the MEOSAR satellite investment has been the availability of additional GNSS capabilities, such as the European Union’s Galileo system, to work alongside the better-known GPS and Russian Glonass solutions. Known as multi-constellation capability in rescue beacons, the extra satellites, enhanced accuracy and interoperability offering greatly improved location detection performance compared to GPS alone. As of 2021, Galileo also provides a unique reassurance signal called the Return Link System (RLS), which allows a signal to be sent back to the beacon confirming that their distress alert has been received and the location is known.

Another innovation driving factor has come from the beacon manufacturers reutilising existing technology to solve customer issues. Originally created for vessel situational awareness, the AIS VHF frequency has been successfully repurposed to create a localised recovery alert. First used in standalone Man Overboard (MOB) devices such as the Kannad R10, McMurdo went on to introduce AIS in EPIRBs in 2018. This multi award winning combination allowed the dual alerting signals of the global search and rescue professionals via 406MHz, with the localised awareness and recovery capability of AIS.

The third factor has been the adoption of global and national legislation to increase the range of vessels mandated to carry distress equipment and upgrading equipment standards to reflect the lifesaving capabilities of the latest market available technology. These changes can be as straight forward as Irelands subsidised role out of PLBs for smaller often solo crewed fishing vessels or Canada’s requirement for automated EPIRBs for fishing vessels to increase the likelihood of successful activation. The widest reaching legislative impact has been around the updates of the MCA’s SOLAS regulations, driving the introduction of a range of new technologies for commercial vessels, including GNSS in EPIRBs to greatly reduce the search areas when trying to locate a vessel in distress and the introduction of the technologically superior AIS SARTS to improve location detection accuracy for life rafts.

Overall legislation has provided the most decisive factor in impacting the modernisation of life saving equipment at sea. In 2020 national legislation change via the USA’s RCTM 11,000 deadline, removed 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.

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 2021 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, ensuring critical safety equipment includes innovation to accelerate rescue most be the norm.

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 accept the legislation that one day may safe our lives.