Using satellite technology to save lives

Saturday - 5/29/2010, 12:36pm EDT

Darrian D'Olio,
Special to wtop.com

WASHIGNTON - Since 1982, the Search and Rescue Satellite-Aided Tracking System (SARSAT) has saved over 27,000 lives worldwide, over 6,200 in the U.S. alone. Now, NASA and its partners are making an effort to save both time and lives with new technology.

The Distress Alerting Satellite System, or DASS, is the most recent innovation in satellite search and rescue technology. DASS is a collaborative effort between NASA and other government agencies, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Air Force.

DASS can almost instantaneously detect and locate distress signals coming from emergency beacons installed in aircrafts and marine vessels or from hand held beacons individuals can carry with them. The most modern beacons have a GPS receiver in them, which can transmit the exact location of the emergency to the satellites.

"Almost instantly, I can begin processing the signal to determine its precise location," said Mickey Fritzmaurice, space systems engineer for the NOAA SARSAT program. "Right now, it can take an hour or more before we can even act on a signal."

There are currently 9 NOAA weather satellites flying with the DASS technology, and another 12 are planned.

Dennis Clements knows how valuable this new technology is; he owes his life to his emergency beacon, the Electronic Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB). Earlier this year, a storm capsized his boat off the coast of Cape Hatteras. The EPIRB he had was an older model and did not contain a GPS locator, so it was unable to send his exact location to the satellite system. However, after the emergency beacon was activated, it only took a few hours for the distress signal to be picked up by the SARSAT and for the U.S. Coast Guard to arrive.

"The people who work for the U.S. Coast Guard are all heroes in my book," said Clements.

Clements spoke to a representative from the manufacturer after the ordeal and told him that he was a very satisfied customer.

"The EPIRB was instrumental in saving my life," said Clements.

George Theodorakos, NASA Search and Rescue Mission chief staff engineer, says the DASS technology is a public service, and he wants people to take advantage of the system. He says that all people need to do is buy and register emergency beacons, which are readily available to the public.

There are three types of beacons. One is meant for airplanes, one is designed for marine vessels (the EPIRB), and the most recent ones are Personal Locating Beacons, which are hand held devices designed for use while hiking, camping, or other outdoor recreation. The aeronautic and marine beacons have an automatic deployment system; meaning if there is a crash or other emergency, it will set itself off. Personal Locating Beacons, or PLB's, must be manually activated when a person is in distress.

After purchasing the beacon, register it online with the NOAA database. The database stores information about your beacon so in the event of an emergency, the satellites can gather all of that information right before they signal for a response to the call. By buying and registering the most appropriate equipment, consumers can get the best service.

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