There has been some really interesting advancements in the technology behind personal locator beacons (PLB) which could speed up the discovery and rescue of sailors and paddlers at sea.
Finnish defence company Patria, Tampere University of Technology and the European Space Agency have partnered together to develop a new type of rescue lifejacket with an integrated PLB antenna that dramatically reduces the time it takes for the distress signal to be picked up by satellites.
The new antenna design itself is quite a step forward in technology. Before this the units were always restricted to long whip-like antennas as it was the only type of antenna that reliability transmitted the very low frequencies that the satellite system uses. Whip antennas also overcame the problem of the human body disrupting the signal by getting the transmitter up and away from the body via the antenna.
The new patch antenna design is still fairly large (about the size of a washcloth) but it allows the PLB and antenna to be sewn directly to the lifejacket. It’s made of a waterproof, salt proof and flexible material so it will stand-up to the rigors of the shipping/sailing worlds.
The problem with attaching the antenna directly to lifejackets is that they won’t transmit below the waters surface but by attaching multiple antennas to various sides of the lifejacket they also overcome the problem of transmission signals getting disrupted by the body.
So far the new vests are still in the testing and SOLAS certification stage but testing is looking very positive. Recent trials showed that the test subject’s exact location was determined by satellites within minutes which was considerably faster then the cumbersome whip-antenna beacons.
How long until we can possibility see these at your local sailing or paddling shop is difficult to tell. Right now it’s mainly being developed for the industrial shipping industry but word is that Suunto is developing and integrating the technology into their diving rescue vests to assist divers who become lost at sea.
Photo credits: A. Le'Floch, ESA
Released in September 2007, the SPOT Messenger was developed by Globstar and designed to bring search and rescue technology to the general public who were not likely to purchase $700-1000 personal locater beacons (PLB's).
What makes this little unit really unique compared to locater beacons is that it is able to send out a signal to your family (or whoever you designate) that you are OK. Think of it as a check-in. When you click the check-in button, your family gets a preprogrammed message along with a link that they can click which will bring up your location in Google Maps. Really slick.
Click the "Help" button and your family will get another message that you have a non-life threatening emergency and you need help. If you are in a real emergency, click the "911" button and your location is transmitted to the rescue coordination center where they will activate search and rescue.