Software integrates beacons, AIS, satellites to pinpoint location more accurately and speed up response times


During a recent incident in New York Harbor, the U.S. Coast Guard sent out a very high-frequency signal relaying a distressed vessel’s mayday message to nearby ships. However, the VHF radio coordinates were off, and the distressed vessel was found only because a nearby ship noticed the inaccuracy and used its own onboard tracking device, locating the mayday at less than one nautical mile away.

But a solution has been created that could have melded these methods into one technology to cut down on search-and-rescue time.

In February, McMurdo Group took its first step in marrying all these technologies, announcing that its software fleet management solution is now available globally and can be integrated with existing maritime platforms.

The Web-based messaging and mapping software can integrate with all the devices mariners currently have, for example an automatic identification system (AIS). It can relay the signal simultaneously to an AIS receiver on board a vessel and to shore-side personnel, so as many people as possible near the distress signal are aware there is an incident.

Courtesy McMurdo Group

And the process to get that signal might be faster with this new system. The beacon-to-alert process has been reduced to a few seconds instead of several minutes because of the implementation of the next-generation Cospas-Sarsat system. McMurdo Group’s parent company, Orolia, in March partnered with Transas to provide an integrated search-and-rescue and maritime-domain-awareness functionality, enhancing the Cospas-Sarsat solution with Transas’ vessel traffic management, training and simulation services.

“We’re bringing together all of the different technologies into a solution that makes sense to save as many lives as we can and prevent as many issues as possible,” Irwin Rodrigues, president of McMurdo Group, said in an interview with Professional Mariner.

“It’s always a little bit challenging to innovate inside the regulation,” he said. “The challenge always is how do you make the regulated world work very effectively with the non-regulated world. And that’s where I think our differentiation and our unique position in the maritime industry is.”

Bob Landsfield, chief executive of the mobile services solutions company Skymira, agreed that bringing together technologies seamlessly for all types of devices in the offshore environment is a challenge.

“Anything Web-based is a constant challenge anyway, just because of the changing nature of browsers and so forth,” Landsfield said. “Of course with tablets and now even smartphones, we are getting interest in vessel managers, and port captains and engineers and so forth actually want to be able to see this on their smartphone. They don’t necessarily need a nautical chart.”

He said going from screen to screen with these technologies is difficult, and companies will often try to fit in too much information on devices with smaller screens.

“A lot of companies will make a mistake in thinking they need to be able to take a giant application and make it available, every feature, on an iPhone, and the reality of it is that you can’t,” he said. “It’s impossible to do that without making it so unfriendly that nobody will use it.”

Another innovation may just be in changing shipside protocol. Currently, operations directors and compliance directors focus on their own areas, said Rodrigues. McMurdo is trying to bring those two worlds together and make safety an everyday part of operations.

Landsfield said that for Skymira’s mostly oil and gas customers, operations directors rarely look at other technologies in this way.

“Half the customers that we even provide GPS tracking to don’t even look at it,” he said. “Their operations don’t even look at it. They rely on text-based reporting coming across a fleet management system.”

However, he said this type of information could be useful even outside of search and rescue for applications around offshore supply boats, where a ship going through zones detailed by a rig owner needs to perform certain safety functions at specific times.

“There is some interest and some work being done in regard to that and that visibility is on the rig,” he said. “I believe the idea is to beam it back to an operations center for whoever the rig owner and operator is.”

McMurdo Group announced its presence on the search-and-rescue and maritime-domain-awareness market in February, with the mission of being the industry’s first end-to-end tracking solution provider. The new company is a brain trust of veteran lifesaving-product makers including McMurdo, which currently makes 25 percent of the beacons employed in the world. Additional players include integrated satellite communications company Boatracs, precision navigation company Kannad, and maritime tracking specialists Techno-Sciences Inc.

“The McMurdo Group was formed to do a lot more in the area of search and rescue and maritime domain awareness than any one particular company or brand could do on its own,” said Rodrigues.

He said there is a strong convergence in the industry, where people are using technology on board ships that runs the gamut — ranging from highly regulated technologies, like those from the International Cospas-Sarsat Programme, right down to shipside smartphones and tablets. McMurdo Group sees the opportunity to have a more comprehensive market approach that combines all these technologies in an innovative end-to-end solution approach.

“Because we’ve just brought the McMurdo Group together now, there are definitely pieces of it where different groups have sold to different regions more predominantly than others,” Rodrigues said.

Higher-tech solutions for search and rescue might be coming soon. Rodrigues said one of the next likely evolutions in search and rescue is building beacons directly into the material of safety suits and life rafts so there’s no possibility of a beacon detaching. “I think it’s around the corner, to some extent. The technology all exists. It’s a matter of getting the different partners together to work on it.”

By Professional Mariner Staff