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Saving lives with satellite data

21/01/2009 554 views 1 likes
ESA / Applications / Telecommunications & Integrated Applications / Technology Transfer

Rescuing crew that have fallen overboard in bad weather is fraught with difficulty. Handling the boat and returning to a position close enough to the person is not always easy, especially when operating under stressful conditions. A new system proposes to use satellite navigation to locate the precise position of casualties, and ultimately save lives.

Peter Hall and Christine Edwards, both of British start-up company Sci-Tech Systems, have come up with a scheme to help save lives using the Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS). Named Person Overboard (POB), the system provides real time monitoring of the casualty’s position, enabling an immediate and more efficient local rescue. The operation has been enhanced by an original design created by London Associates.

Best chance of survival is rescue by own crew

Peter Hall explains POB at SYSTEMS trade fair
Peter Hall explains POB at SYSTEMS trade fair

"The innovation of our system is that it sends the real-time position coordinates back to the ship of where the person is in the water, not where the person fell overboard. This will help in locating the casualty faster," says Peter Hall, Technical Director of Sci-Tech Systems.

"A fast rescue is important, especially if the casualty is in cold or freezing water when survival time is short."

"There are systems which can record the GPS position of where the person has fallen overboard. However if you have a cross tide of 3 knots, then after 15 minutes, which is the time it might take to turn the boat around, the person can already be half a mile down tide. So when you are back to the recorded GPS position, you are half a mile away from the casualty."

The system is composed of a crew unit and a ship unit. All crew members onboard wear a crew unit in their lifejacket, which deploys and starts transmitting its position when the person falls overboard.

The ship unit receives and feeds this position into the standard onboard navigation equipment, which then guides the crew back to the casualty's position.

"The moment the person falls over, the unit signals that a crew member is in the water. It receives GNSS signals and transmits the exact position back to the boat. Because it is transmitted to the boat and the distance is not great, the power required is considerably less than that required to send a signal to a satellite. We should therefore be able to package it well and get a small and easy to wear unit the size of a mobile phone," explains David Lewin, Business and Marketing at Sci-Tech Systems.

New system for more efficient local rescue
New system for more efficient local rescue

"The product design is also the key to the success of the system", adds Christine Edwards, Technical Director of Sci-Tech Systems.

"The innovative industrial design of the POB, which was created by Will Bentall of London Associates, ensures that it will float upright in rough seas, essential for good radio communications with the ship."

The accuracy of both the boat and the casualty's position is critical since rescue will usually be attempted in bad weather conditions, possibly at night, with little or no visual contact with the person in the water. Initially the system is planned to operate using GPS signals, with improved accuracy provided by EGNOS. In the future it will operate with Galileo in order to take advantage of its higher accuracy.

Person Overboard (POB) system
Person Overboard (POB) system

As experienced sailor David Lewin emphasises, "The idea to display the position of the crew member in the water on equipment that is being used all the time on a ship is a very important element. As leisure sailors, we spend our days and nights staring at a GPS receiver."

"When a person goes overboard and we have a casualty situation, we will know exactly what to do because we know the equipment. It will give us all the information we need to get to where the person is in the water."

Panic at sea
Panic at sea

"When panic strikes and one must do the right thing under the extreme stress of an emergency, it is important that the crew be using equipment that they are very familiar with," emphasises David Lewin.

As the POB unit will transmit the location of the person in the water back to the ship unit on an open radio frequency, the signal can be automatically picked up by any other boat in the area using the same equipment.

This is a great advantage in some situations, for example in a fishing fleet or a sailing race, where all boats can cooperate and look for the casualty together.

Person overboard idea wins two international prizes

Galileo Master winners Christine Edwards and Peter Hall of Sci-Tech
Galileo Master winners Christine Edwards and Peter Hall of Sci-Tech

The POB system won two first prizes in this year's European Satellite Navigation Competition: the overall Galileo Master prize out of 300 submitted ideas, and the European Global Navigation Satellite System Supervisory Authority (GSA) special prize for being the best application taking advantage of using the improved localisation provided by the EGNOS overlay signal on GPS.

"The status of the system is that all the circuitry is known and we have tested all the concepts. We need some help from an antenna manufacturer and a chip manufacturer to make it small, and to bring down battery consumption. We are also looking for a funding partner for the next stage," says Christine Edwards. "We should be able to get our POB system to the market within 12 to 18 months."

The system is targeted at commercial fishing boats, merchant shipping, offshore exploration (oil rigs), passenger vessels, and the leisure yachting market.

European Satellite Navigation Competition supported by ESA’s TTPO

The European Satellite Navigation Competition (ESNC) is supported by ESA through its Technology Transfer Programme Office (TTPO). The main mission of the TTPO is to facilitate the use of space technology and space systems for non-space applications and to demonstrate the benefit of the European space programme to European citizens. The TTPO is responsible for defining the overall approach and strategy for the transfer of space technologies including the incubation of start-up companies and their funding. For more information, please contact:

ESA’s Technology Transfer Programme Office
European Space Agency ESA - ESTEC
Keplerlaan 1, 2200 AG, Noordwijk ZH
The Netherlands
Phone: +31 (0) 71 565 6208
Fax: +31 (0) 71 565 6635
Email: ttp @

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