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Airborne search and rescue missions undertaken by military and civilian helicopter aircrews are dangerous and demanding operations, usually conducted at night or in bad weather over water or rough terrain. As crews are often searching for small specks among massive waves, rocks, trees or snow, situational awareness is paramount.

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

New developments will 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, according to

At sea, high winds and sea states 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.

Several solutions are offered to confront these challenges successfully:

  • Wireless System – 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 aircrew to move around the aircraft and on the ground to recover and help people without losing vital communications.

  • Upgraded Satellite System – 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.

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

  • New Generation of Beacons – 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.
  • 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.

At the core of these solutions are resilient positioning, navigation and tracking products, technologies and systems. Such advanced capabilities either exist or will soon be commercially available, supporting both civilian and military helicopter crews.

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.