Improving Situational Awareness for Airborne SAR Missions – McMurdo

Guest Editorial By Steve Waters, McMurdo Inc.

Airborne search and rescue missions are some of the most dangerous and demanding operations undertaken by military and civilian helicopter aircrews.

Usually conducted at night or in bad weather over water or rough terrain, crews are often searching for small specks among massive waves, rocks, trees or snow.

Every moment counts. Situational awareness is paramount and requires high levels of vigilance, efficiency and coordination among crew members.

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Current technologies for locating people in distress and for inter-crew communications can sometimes lead to potential delays, mistakes and even disaster.

However, advancements are becoming available to greatly improve crew situational awareness and the ability to locate persons in distress.

These capabilities include wireless communications equipment and new satellite constellations designed to detect and locate emergency beacons with greater speed and accuracy.

Noise, Darkness and Wind Challenge Crew Safety

Many search and rescue operations occur in dangerous weather situations.

Often they take place at night and can be subject to high winds and sea states, which can make locating people difficult, even with emergency beacons that provide GPS coordinates.

On land, mountainous terrain or jungle and forest canopies can obscure the location of a downed aircraft or people in need of rescue.

In wartime, aircraft must operate stealthily to avoid detection, thus increasing the potential for both accidents and damage due to enemy activity.

(Learn More, courtesy of Journeyman Pictures and YouTube)

Visibility and real-time communications are crucial factors for situational awareness.

Helicopters must hover over an area and deploy rescue personnel by cable in a carefully choreographed maneuver of pilot skill and coordination with the winch crew.

At the same time, rotorcraft are noisy, requiring the crew to wear noise-reducing earphones while using intercom equipment to communicate with each other.

Even with complete coordination, accidents can occur.

For example, an acquaintance of mine, a former Royal Air Force medic, was a winch operator on a mission to recover a climber stranded on a hillside in the United Kingdom.

As she was being lowered to attend to the climber, high winds slammed her into the hillside with enough force to break her pelvis. She had to retire on a medical discharge due to the extent of her injuries.

So, risk is a major factor in these rescue operations.

Cutting the Cable to Better Connect the Crew

Current rotorcraft crew communications are accomplished via plug-in communications systems. Crew members have a cable that connects their headsets and microphones into the aircraft’s intercom system.

When they shift positions, as is routine for winch operators and rescue personnel, they must unplug themselves and replug into a communications jack at their new position.

Just this brief lag in communications can lead to an accident, because there is a brief loss of information to the pilots about what is happening in the back of the aircraft.

One solution to this problem would be to go wireless. A wireless system would allow air crew to move around the aircraft and on the ground to recover and help people without losing vital communications.

(McMurdo SARBE CommLink is an advanced, versatile digital wireless intercom system that brings optimum audio clarity, security and ease of use to single- or multi-group life saving and other hazardous missions. Courtesy of McMurdoGroup and YouTube)

Another useful feature would be the selective ability of different groups to discuss action among themselves.

For example, a cover screen of personnel could coordinate protection of a recovery site while a second group could be the SAR team dealing with the survivor.

Each group should be able to separately communicate while also using the helicopter as a hub to “broadcast” to all personnel.

Additionally, crew locations could be tracked on a graphic display—either on the pilot’s instrument panel or at the flight engineer’s station.

Ideally, this interface would also pull in and manage crew communications devices such as radio handsets.

Tracking handset GPS coordinates could become quite meaningful when rescue personnel leave the aircraft or when, due to weather conditions, the helicopter temporarily withdraws, leaving personnel on the ground or in the water.

Accelerating the Speed and Location Accuracy of Distress Alerts

Every search and rescue operation begins with a distress alert, and the speed and accuracy of these alerts is another crucial factor in situational awareness.

Today, both civilians and military personnel use emergency beacons that operate on the dedicated 406MHz frequency as part of the International Cospas-Sarsat satellite program dedicated to search and rescue.

Military beacons are similar to civilian devices, but are built for rugged conditions and designed to route distress alerts to the correct authority.

Relying on Low-altitude Earth Orbit (LEO) and Geostationary Earth Orbit (GEO) SAR satellites, the Cospas-Sarsat system has helped to save over 40,000 lives since 1982.

Cospas-Sarsat is in the process of significantly upgrading their satellite system with Medium- altitude Earth Orbit Search and Rescue (MEOSAR) satellites.

(This excerpt from “The 5 Critical Stages of the Search and Rescue Ecosystem” webinar walks briefly through each part of the process from emergency beacon activation to the rescue effort. Courtesy of McMurdoGroup and YouTube)

Over the next few years, the world of search and rescue will be revolutionized by MEOSAR, which offers near instantaneous signal detection with greater coverage, reliability and location accuracy.

Once operational, MEOSAR will make it much faster and easier for rescue crews to locate ships, aircraft and people in distress.

In fact, even as early MEOSAR satellites started to come online for testing, lives were saved.

U.S. Navy Personnel facilitating a rescue operation
U.S. Navy Personnel facilitating a rescue operation

A hiker in New Zealand fell more than 90 feet, breaking his leg and leaving him unable to walk. After he activated his personal locator beacon, the distress signal was relayed by the MEOSAR satellite system to the Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand in only four minutes – 50 minutes sooner than the existing LEOSAR system picked up the same distress signal – allowing for a rescue operation before dark.

Though we’ll never know for sure, the hiker is convinced, “I wouldn’t be here” if it weren’t for such a fast response within the limited daylight hours left that day.

Another benefit of the MEOSAR technology will be a “return link” capability.

With today’s emergency distress beacons, people who signal for emergency assistance have no way of knowing when – or if—their signal is received.

Some emergency beacon manufacturers are already designing a new generation of beacons with a return link service feature that lets the user know their distress message has been received and help is on the way.

(McMurdo is a global leader in emergency readiness and response including market-leading search and rescue and maritime domain awareness solutions. Courtesy of McMurdoGroup and YouTube)

At the core of these solutions are resilient positioning, navigation and tracking products, technologies and systems that have helped to save over 37,000 lives since 1982.

Strengthening Situational Awareness and Response

Such advanced capabilities either exist or will soon be commercially available, supporting both civilian and military helicopter crews.

For operations in wartime, where stealth is vital, military beacons will provide a secure signal for downed pilots in enemy territory to be located and rescued quickly.

Situational awareness is especially crucial in these situations, and the combination of MEOSAR satellites and wireless communications will dramatically improve both the speed and overall safety of such missions.

Likewise, next generation technologies will not only aid crewmen who may become separated from their aircraft during an operation, but potentially any private, commercial or military vessel or aircraft, and their crews and passengers.

About the Author:

Steve Waters
Steve Waters

Steve Waters, Key Military Account Manager, McMurdo Inc.

Prior to joining McMurdo, Mr. Waters, as the Engineering Manager & Technical Business Manager for Sarbe, Signature Industries Limite, led the R&D Team and Product/System Integration.

Waters received his education at Brunel University London, and has been actively involved in the Royal Navy Royal Marines Riding Stables Bickleigh charity, aimed at providing affordable equestrian activities for service personnel, service dependents and entitled civilians (MoD Civil Servants).

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