The Evolution of Emergency Beacons

We’re all familiar with Emergency Position Indication Radio Beacons (EPIRBs). Yachts venturing further than 2 NM off the coast are obliged to carry them on board. In addition, some of us may also carry Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs), attached to our life vests to help find us in a man overboard emergency.

Both EPIRBS and PLBs send a signal to overhead satellites to set off an alarm at the Rescue Authority, in Australia that is AMSA. While these beacons have a proven track record in saving hundreds of people in emergency situations, they still suffer from some limitations. For example, EPIRBs can only send an “all out” Mayday message, with no possibility of indicating the level of emergency, nor can rescue authorities acknowledge or establish return communications. PLBs will only send a mayday and position to the rescue authorities, rather than to those closest to the incident, usually surrounding vessels, who are in a position to provide immediate assistance.

A variety of alternative beacons and Man Overboard devices have come on the market and I thought it would be interesting to highlight two new types which overcome some of those limitations.

Satellite Emergency Notification Devices (SENDs) use commercial satellite systems to trigger an alarm. With these devices, an alarm to the rescue authority can be accompanied with more specific details, as well as making information about the rescue activity available back to the vessel in peril. What’s more, wherever they are, boats can also be notified about on-shore emergencies, for example sick relatives. The DeLorme inReach device (pictured) features two-way messaging and allows a Smartphone to send messages via the satellite connection. Additionally, on demand or continuous tracking can be enabled on a SEND, making the boat’s position available on an associated website.
While the purchase price of EPIRBs and SENDS will be similar, there is a cost to the convenience provided by SENDs, they will require a monthly subscription. Many expect that over the next few years, SENDs will replace conventional EPIRBs, or at least provide an alternative. The required standardisation is being done and the Australian Marine Safety Authority has systems in place to manage emergencies triggered by SENDs.

AIS is becoming common on yachts, particularly on those which need to cross busy shipping lanes. While AIS was designed to provide information about the position of other vessels in surrounding waters, its use has expanded to navigational aids and now personal AIS beacons. The pictured McMurdo S10 attaches to a life vest and uses the alarm feature of the AIS system. When the unit is activated, an alarm will go off on any AIS receiver in the vicinity and the Beacon is tracked on a boat’s AIS display or chart plotter until recovered. The Smartfind S10 is waterproof to 60 meters, will transmit continuously for a minimum of 24 hours and has a 5 year battery storage life. It also features a flashing indicator light, giving a localised visual fix and assisting in attracting attention after nightfall.

These are welcome developments. Mind you, none of us would hope to use these devices “in anger”.

Further information:

Doug Ritter’s blog
DeLorme inReach
MacMurdo Smartfind

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