Return Link Service, a major PLB & EPIRB improvement

26 Nov


Many of us carry an EPIRB or PLB satellite distress beacon for worst-case emergencies at sea, and while they’ve earned an excellent success record, they also have a nerve-racking drawback. The rare boater who actually activates one will not know if the distress message was received until the search and rescue heroes actually show up. Or don’t show up! But that intensely tense uncertainty is about to change thanks to a newly revealed technology called the Return Link Service (RLS).

Orolia introduced Return Link Service at METS with a big blinking blue light to suggest how the small blue LED on their new FastFind ReturnLink PLB will tell a user that the International Satellite System for Search and Rescue (Cospas-Sarsat) has received their distress message and knows where they are. I can only imagine — so far in my boating life — how reassuring that blue signal would be.

It’s appropriate for Orolia — you may know them by their McMurdo and/or Kannad brands — to introduce RLS because they were involved in its development, but the feature is equally available to all distress beacon manufacturers just as the Cospas-Sarsat communication services are available to all beacon users without cost. In fact, ACR also has a PLB with Return Link ready to go, though the official announcement awaits uncertainty regarding the global availability of RLS that I’ll discuss below.

Galileo Return Link Service diagram
Galileo Return Link Service diagram

First, it is important to understand that the Return Link Service will be a unique capability of the Galileo GNNS satellite constellation that has recently joined GPS and GLONASS as components of the vast Cospas-Sarsat system. Only Galileo can mix an RLS message specifically tagged to your PLB or EPIRB into its regular GNSS (global navigation satellite system) position-fixing data streams. So a distress beacon must be able to receive Galileo signals to have Return Link.

Moreover, even the relatively new PLBs that do use Galileo along with GPS — like the McMurdo FastFind 220 and the ACR ResQLink series — do not include Return Link. New models have to be introduced because Cospas-Sarsat won’t approve them until RLS is fully activated (and perhaps because a reassuring feature that doesn’t quite work yet could have the opposite result). Note, however, that existing multi-GNNS beacons should already enable faster rescues as recently demonstrated in Operation Shark Bait.

Orolia hopes to start selling the FastFind ReturnLink PLB in January 2020

So the FastFind ReturnLink is a new model of the FastFind 220 that will only be available for purchase when “Galileo’s RLS {is} expected to be fully operational in January 2020.” In fact, Orolia recently specified a January 20 start date to me, although they added that “individual national approvals are still a work in progress, but we expect units on the shelves by the end of Q1.”

Kannad SafeProAIS EPIRBs with Return Link are coming, but not yet for sale
Kannad SafeProAIS (and McMurdo SmartFind AIS) EPIRBs with Return Link are coming, but not yet for sale

Orolia also showed off McMurdo and Kannad EPIRBs with ReturnLink at METS, though again they will not be available to purchase until RLS is fully activated. But, wow, there will eventually be an AIS EPIRB able to assure you about the SARSAT system while also notifying local vessels of your distress.

(Incidentally, NOAA SARSAT — the acronym standing for “Search and Rescue Satellite Aided Tracking” — is certainly part of the 41-nation Cospas-Sarsat organization and also publish the impressive rescue statistics along with lots of other systems info.)

The ResQLink View RLS has not been authorized as required by the rules of the FCC. This device is not, and may not be offered for sale or lease, or sold or leased, until authorization is obtained.
The ResQLink View RLS has not been authorized as required by the rules of the FCC. This device is not, and may not be offered for sale or lease, or sold or leased, until authorization is obtained.

Meanwhile in another METS stand, ACR showed off their ResQLink View RLS model, but only to pesky boating writers like Ben Stein and I. They also insisted that we include the official FCC disclaimer with what is likely the first public photo of the model.

I’ll discuss next why their caution is quite understandable, but, wow, there will eventually be a PLB that not only blinks blue but spells out Return Link reassurance on that bright little screen (like the useful messages I saw with the current ResQLink View). In fact, the ResQLink View RLS has already passed testing and only awaits Cospas-Sarsat (and FCC) approval, apparently much like the FastFind ReturnLink.

Activation of the Return Link Service has taken longer than expected!
Activation of the Return Link Service has taken longer than expected!

But the more I learn about the Return Link Service — see this 2014 presentation PDF, for instance — the more I realize what a trial it’s been for the beacon manufacturers. Yes indeed, they were supposed to receive “all required information to build up RLS capable beacons” by the end of 2014, with the actual Return Link Service to start “by the beginning of 2016”!

I do not know what’s been going on behind the RLS scenes for all this time, but I do gather that some regulatory issues are still being worked out (as Orolia’s “individual national approvals are still a work in progress” suggests). So what we have here is a significant improvement to the already excellent Cospas-Sarsat global search and rescue system with an uncertain timeline. No one suggests that it won’t happen — heck, this seems to be a 41-nation glacier on the move — but let’s not presume when it will happen (which may even vary from region to region).

I hope that readers also see the Return Link Service as great news, and let’s together track its actual rollout in the comments section below.

Navico CEO Knut Frostad (courtesy Viggo Lund Management)
Navico CEO Knut Frostad (courtesy Viggo Lund Management)

I’ll add that while the Return Link Service will bring a valuable but minimal two-way feature to the premier SARSAT service, much better two-way distress messaging already exists. Which is particularly on my mind as it came up surprisingly in a METS interview with Navico’s relatively new CEO Knut Frostad

Frostad told Ben Stein and I a lot about where Navico is headed, likely best shared as the results materialize. But this extremely experienced skipper — offshore racing especially, family cruising too — also spoke passionately about products and technologies that have nothing to do with Navico. One of which was global Iridium tracking and two-way messaging, especially for when things go wrong.

He favors YB Tracking products (like the YB3i I once tested) while I’m fond of Garmin inReach handhelds, but I think we agree that one of these and a Cospas-Sarsat beacon is a good way to go.

This article was syndicated from Panbo


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