The Future of Search and Rescue: Advanced Technology Designed for a Safer Future

Search and Rescue (SAR) is receiving a lot of attention recently due to several high-profile incidents on land, in the air and at sea.  We’ve all heard about these incidents – a hiker lost in the wilderness, an airline disappearing, a fishing crew lost at sea, a recreational boating tragedy – and we wonder to ourselves, “With all the technology available today, how could this happen?”

The answer to this question is a complex one. But, by understanding a few of the key SAR trends and emerging technologies, we can get a clearer picture of the future of SAR.  Here are the Top 5 SAR ideas and concepts on the horizon that will help to make a crucial, life-saving difference in emergency situations in the very near future:

  1. MEOSAR – The Next-Generation Satellite-Aided Search and Rescue System

Since 1982, the Cospas-Sarsat international satellite SAR system has been instrumental in helping to save nearly 40,000 lives by pinpointing the location of emergency distress beacon signals.  In 2014 alone there were nearly 700 SAR incidents assisted by Cospas-Sarsat resulting in over 2,300 people rescued. The next-generation version of Cospas-Sarsat, known as MEOSAR (or Medium Earth Orbit Search and Rescue), is expected to revolutionize the entire SAR process when fully deployed in the next 3-5 years.  MEOSAR will include global satellite coverage and near-instantaneous distress beacon detection (72 MEOSAR satellites vs. 12 today), more accurate beacon location calculations (by using 6 MEOSAR ground station antennas) and a unique Return Link Service feature that confirms receipt of the distress signal. With MEOSAR, a distress beacon can be located within 100 meters (328 feet), 95% of the time, and within 5 minutes instead of taking up to several hours today. Several countries are already using or implementing MEOSAR systems including two of the world’s most active SAR regions – the U.S. and, as announced recently, the southern Asia Pacific region of Australia/New Zealand.

  1. Advanced Data Recording Devices – Finding Data More Easily

Data recording devices such as Flight Data Recorders (FDRs) or Cockpit Voice Recorders (CVRs) in aviation and Voyage Data Recorders (VDRs) in maritime will play a much larger role in the storage, communications and analysis of key vessel information. In the specific case of aviation, questions often asked include, “Why do we need to wait for an airplane crash to get the flight data recorder and cockpit data recorder information?” or “Why is it so hard to find the FDRs and CVRs?” Several ideas are being considered by aviation organizations and manufacturers which entail making FDRs and CVRs deployable or ejectable before a crash while integrating distress beacon technology to make them more easily located outside of the accident zone or floating on water. Similar concepts are being considered for VDRs so that they can be found more rapidly in maritime incidents.

  1. Vessel Tracking and Monitoring – Activated by Triggers

Continuous vessel tracking and monitoring is another concept that has been discussed at length lately by industry organizations and regulatory bodies such as ICAO (aviation), IMO (maritime) and others. Several industry initiatives including GMDSS (Global Maritime Distress and Safety Systems) and GADSS (Global Aviation Distress and Safety Systems) are proposing to send position data of a plane or a ship every few minutes, not necessarily continuously. If a critical situation is detected on board, however, then location and vessel data is automatically triggered to be sent more frequently, for example, every minute or every few seconds. This data could then be reviewed in real-time by air traffic control, fleet operators or other personnel who could provide real-time guidance to the pilot, captain or crew.

  1. Drones – The Emerging Life Savers

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and drones are taking a more prominent role in SAR operations. Drones are being used as the “first response” to analyze accident scenes, determine emergency routes and locate potential survivors. A demonstration of a drone flying to an emergency location in the ocean and then dropping life preserver rings directly to people in distress was one of the more interesting applications at this year’s World Maritime Rescue Federation Conference. Another concept showed an unmanned rescue raft maneuvering to a location, “scooping up” people from the ocean then transporting them to medical assistance.

  1. Safety Wearables and Gear – Beacon-Embedded Devices and Clothing

Currently, there are an estimated 1.4 million distress beacons registered in the world, but this is a small percentage of the total number of boaters, sailors, hikers, campers and pilots globally. To help increase this percentage, several companies are working together to integrate distress beacon technology into the actual safety devices and clothing. In the future, we will see more examples of beacon technology embedded into life rafts, life vests, flight suits, watches and outerwear. With outdoor sports gaining popularity and given the recent incidents mentioned, we will see a rise in the use of these emergency-ready, location-enabling, wearable safety devices.

Technology Ushers in a New Era of Search and Rescue

In the world of search and rescue there is one primary mission: saving lives. Today’s SAR systems are highly effective, as evidenced by the number of people saved by Cospas-Sarsat. Technology improvement across the entire SAR ecosystem over the next few years, especially to the SAR satellite network, will dramatically improve the safety of maritime personnel, aviators and recreationists around the globe, allowing rescuers to locate those in trouble almost instantaneously. As the awareness and understanding of SAR increases, a number of breakthrough applications, innovations and procedures will emerge to save even more time, more costs and, most importantly, more lives.