The Cospas-Sarsat international programme for search and rescue developed a unique satellite-based system that detects and locates emergency beacons activated by aircraft, ships, and adventurists (hikers, climbers, snowmobilers, etc.) in distress. The system provides accurate, timely and reliable alert and location data to search and rescue authorities who assist persons in distress, even in the world’s most remote areas, at no charge to the end-user.
Crucial role for GNSS in Search and Rescue
Thanks to the Cospas-Sarsat (C/S) programme, SAR forces around the world are notified in a timely manner for their immediate search and rescue response every time a distress beacon beacon is activated.
Cospas-Sarsat terminated the satellite processing of 121.5 MHz distress signals by the year 2009 and the 406 MHz distress beacons were introduced. The new system showed far superior capabilities to the older 121.5 MHz system with improved power output, radio frequency stability, digital message identification and the possibility to include in the beacon message location data derived from a GNSS device. The additional accuracy and faster response times facilitated by GNSS improved the search and rescue capabilities resulting in a higher success rate and tens of thousands of human lives saved so far.
In the period from 1982 to December 2018, the Cospas-Sarsat System provided assistance in rescuing at least 48,738 persons in 14,531 SAR events . Looking more closely at the statistics for 2018, 904 confirmed distress alerts were detected, resulting in the rescue of almost 2,185 individuals. Whereas the majority of the events took place on land (396 events), it is in the maritime environment where most people get rescued.
The Galileo involvement into Cospas-Sarsat goes beyond the provision of a large number of SAR instruments on board the Galileo constellation. Indeed, the Programme has deployed a significant Ground Segment infrastructure, which provides localization services for distress alerts over a wide area comprising continental Europe.From 2020 onwards, Galileo will become an even greater differentiator with the introduction of a new service the Return Link Service (RLS). This service will provide an acknowledgement capability to the distress beacon confirming that the alert has been detected and located by the C/S System, and informing the person(s) in distress that their distress alert has been received. The RLS will rely on Galileo’s L1 navigation signal and will be available worldwide for RLS-enabled beacons.
Types of beacons
A buoyant market
In 2018, the global installed base of Cospas-Sarsat GNSS-enabled EPIRBs amounted to 266,000 units, of which 84,000 units were in the EU28. The installed base of PLBs was 595,000 and 116,000 units respectively.
In relation to annual shipments, with close to 95,000 units in 2019, increasing to an expected 150,000 units by 2029 the PLB category is by far the largest group of GNSS-enabled search and rescue beacons being sold each year. The leading market for PLBs remains North America whilst the European Union is leading the market in both AIS-SARTs and AIS-MOBs.
Currently, the overall installed base of SAR beacons is roughly 2 million beacons and this is expected to double by 2029. PLBs contribute to around 50% of this global installed base and despite the fact that both AIS-SARTs and AIS-MOBs are forecast to increase their installed base by 14% over the next year (as opposed to only 2% for PLBs), PLBs are expected to continue dominating the global installed base in absolute numbers. One reason for this is the growing share of GNSS uptake across PLBs (89% of units produced in 2017) compared to other SAR beacons such as EPIRBs (49%) and ELTs (41%).