Emergency locator beacons are critical to search-and-rescue efforts. These small devices emit a signal that satellites can pick up and use to locate ships, airplanes and individuals in distress. NASA plays a key role in beacon development and testing. The team is currently working on a second-generation beacon beacon and ground receiver system and exploring its many potential applications across diverse search-and-rescue efforts.
Second Generation Beacon
NASA is in the process of developing and testing second-generation beacons, moving from a narrow-band frequency to a spread-spectrum signal in order to increase the robustness of the signal and reduce interference. In combination with the SAR medium-Earth orbit GPS satellite system under development, second-generation beacons will make order-of-magnitude improvements over the current system, reducing the time required to find persons in distress and increasing location accuracy. NASA is responsible for the proof-of-concept testing of second generation beacons, which is currently underway.
The ANGEL project, a partnership between NASA’s SAR Office and Johnson Space Center’s Orion Program, applies current and upcoming SAR technology to human spaceflight. Astronaut escape suits require emergency distress locators to allow rescue forces to locate each individual astronaut in the event of separation. These second-generation beacons are being designed to meet size, mass and environmental constraints in order to be placed on the astronauts’ suits.
Recent events such as the loss of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 have called attention to the need for improved reliability in emergency locator transmitters (ELTs). In partnership with a number of government and commercial entities, NASA’s SAR Office, in partnership with NASA’s Langley Research Center, have completed a comprehensive study of ELT system installations. The goal of this study was to examine failure scenarios and provide improvement recommendations to national and international administrations and agencies, emergency beacon manufacturers and airframe manufacturers regarding ELT survivability.
Global Distress Tracking (ELT-DT)
In connection with ELTSAR and the recent aviation disasters, the international community has requested improved emergency locator beacons be installed on commercial airlines by 2021. NASA is pursuing a second-generation beacon solution to the new aviation ELT system and is working to ensure that their development will meet international requirements.