How ICT can assist maritime search and rescue operations

Conflicts in the Middle East and Africa has led to a significant movement of people. Each week, thousands of people are risking their lives to reach Europe by attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea. So far and estimated number of 3,000 people have already drowned this year. Save the Children and other NGOs have launched ships to rescue the many people who put to sea in unseaworthy boats. On board the rescue ships, the NGOs take care of immediate medical needs, provide food and water and transport the rescued people to a safe port in Europe where they will be looked after by the authorities.  

Technology has a very important role in support Search and Rescue (SAR) operations. Being on a ship has a lot of similarities to working in a remote field site ashore. Similar technologies are used, but there are also technologies used in such an operation which are unique to the marine environment. In this article, we will explore the technologies used to support SAR operations.

Operational overview
The movement of people from Turkey to Greece has significantly reduced due to the deal reached between the EU and the Turkish Government. Further west, the situation is very different as people leave the shores of Libya to attempt the long and treacherous journey to the Italy, Malta and other destinations. Save the Children, MOAS, MSF and other NGOs are running search and rescue ships under the coordination of the Italian Coastguard. This operation has become even more necessary as people traffickers are sending boats to sea of ever decreasing quality. In some cases boats are being sent with just about enough fuel to reach the areas where rescue ships operate.  

 The boats are often overloaded which means that getting people off them is dangerous and requires a lot of communication with the people on board in advance of rescue. NGOs are using cultural mediators who have the language skills to explain to people how to leave the boat safely. The main danger is capsize of the boat caused by all people on board rushing to the same side of the boat to be rescued.

It is now the peak season for migration as the sea is fairly calm. But rescue is still needed when weather conditions deteriorate as the boats continue to put to sea. The traffickers just sell off tickets at half price. People are taking huge risks as the likelihood of people coming to harm increases significantly in bad weather.  

Airborne Surveillance
moas_droneUnmanned Airborne Vehicles (UAVs) are being used by MOAS. In humanitarian work, we try to avoid the term “Drones” as military drones have been used in many places to fight wars. The use of UAVs is well established in disaster response where small battery powered UAVs are used to gather aerial images.

MOAS has partnered with Schiebel and have two long range UAVs on the rescue ship. These UAVs are miniature helicopters with powerful engines running on aviation fuel. They are controlled from a ops room on the ship by trained pilots.

When on deployment, these UAVs will cover a large area of up to 100 miles from the ship. From the on-board cameras, boats needing rescue can be identified and locations shared with the Coastguard. Depending on the location of SAR ships, the nearest ship will be tasked to conduct a rescue. This could be the MOAS ship if it was the nearest.

Tracking the SAR FleetaisOn land, safety and security managers are often keen to know the whereabouts of vehicles on the road in places where the situation is insecure.  In maritime operations, there are also security risks to ships from threats such as piracy. There have been incidents reported by some  ships and as a result, most organizations involved in the effort have developed procedures to deal with such situations.  

Tracking the locations of ships is very easy and does not require much up-front investment in technology as any ship over 300 tons which operates outside of national waters is required to carry the Automatic Identification System (AIS) under the IMO SOLAS regulations. This requirement was introduced in 2002 and has been extended in some countries to cover national coastal and inland waters.  

AIS operates on the VHF radio frequency at a maximum power of 12.5W. Each ship transmits its location, speed, heading, identity and other information about the ship. The original intention of AIS was for collision avoidance (supplementing RADAR which displayed just displayed range and bearing of objects which reflected a signal). As the system was designed for the purposes of collision avoidance, the system was never intended by the IMO to be a long range tracking service. However long range tracking has evolved thanks for private sector and the internet .

AIS signals are in the public domain. It’s very easy to buy an AIS receiver for $100 and with some ingenuity, the data can be displayed on a google map. Some hobbyist have demonstrated this though setting up AIS websites which display live data from ships at sea. John Ambler created a google map for the busy waters surrounding the Isle of Wight on the south coast of England (see

Commercial AIS tracking websites such as have appeared and brings together a global network of people operating AIS receivers. Many of these sites are free to view, but for a fee, there are more advanced functions available. In recent years, low orbiting satellites have been equipped with AIS receivers so that ships can be located outside of the areas covered by the land based AIS stations. The AIS websites will normally charge a fee to access the Satellite AIS. As satellite AIS is evolving, there can be significant gaps of up to 8 hours between position reports.

Another benefit of using the “paid for” services is that organizations can mark out areas on the map so that operations can be informed about key events such as when a ship leaves port, arrives at its destination or enters into a specific area. In some operations, SAR ships will be required to keep a certain distance from the coast and only allowed to enter a specific area to conduct a rescue. Alerts can be set up to let operations staff know when such areas are entered.

Emergency & routine communicationsgmdss
Many NGOs have safety and security policies which require there to be at least two separate modes of communication. On land, this may include radio and satellite communications. Local mobile networks are sometimes included if they are considered to be stable enough. The main purpose of such policies is to enable teams to be able to call for help from specific trusted contacts. As NGOs take to the sea and conduct SAR operations, the need to reach out for help when the rescue ship itself encounters a problem is covered under the various laws and standards which regulates ships (flag state & IMO).

All commercial ships deploying to sea are required to carry equipment which complies with the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS). For many years, ships have been equipped with various types of radio. In the late 1970’s the worlds very first commercial satellite communications network INMARSAT was introduced to shipping and later on was adopted by NGOs and other sectors working ashore. The complex array of radio and satellite communications was managed by the ships radio officer.

In the 1990s. GMDSS was launched and became a game changer. As a new standard, GMDSS integrated all modes of radio and satellite communications into a single control console where routine and/or distress messages could be sent easily at the push of a button. The design of GMDSS systems meant that all communications could be handed by the bridge crew thus making the role of the Radio Officer redundant.

There is a well-established system at sea where as soon as a distress is sent by any vessel, nearby ships are required to assist if they are able (and it’s safe to do so). Every part of the worlds ocean is covered by a capable rescue authority which coordinates a range of rescue assets ranging from helicopters to warships. Where NGOs commission ships for SAR operations, they should consider the safety and security aspect of communications as outsourced to the ship’s crew as the GMDS system on board will most likely exceeded any requirement stated in the NGO’s policy.

For routine communications, NGO teams will need their own ways to communicate with their operations people ashore. Mobile phone networks are fine for when the ship is alongside, but out at sea, satellite communications will be required for when the ship moves beyond mobile phone coverage which is typically limited to 10KM or less from the coast. Save the Children have set up Iridium for its communications on its ship as Iridium external antennas are Omni-directional. For on-board communications between the team, short range UHF radios are used which are set up on IMO frequencies designated for on-board use.

Internet accesskvhAt sea, access to the internet is just as important as it is on land.  Whilst in harbour, it’s easy to connect to internet services provided by mobile networks. Further offshore the internet needs to be provisioned through satellite services such as VSAT. On land, a VSAT dish is fixed to the ground and pointed at the satellite, shore based systems typically cost $4500. At sea, the ship is constantly moving which means more complex technology is required to keep the VSAT dish pointing at the satellite. If the dish is misaligned by anything greater than ½ degree, the signal is lost and internet fails.

Marine VSAT systems are much more expensive due to the technology involved. Typically the budget systems start out at $20,000 for the hardware. They tend not to track satellites very well in rough seas. If there is a high dependence on internet access, more robust and expensive systems costing as much as $40,000 will be needed. On top of this, there will be the monthly usage fees.

The technology is also quite expensive and complex to install. The larger systems need special consideration as the antennas and their protective domes  weigh a lot and installers need to work closely with the ship owners as these systems will have a minor effect on the overall ship’s stability.  

Save the Children  chartered a vessel which already had a VSAT installed. The KVH system is at the low end of the technology and limited to 1MB capacity which costs $4,000 a month to run. For the 12 crew on board, this is sufficient and the crew have been able to access online resources such as health information systems, email, conference calling and a tool used to collect information about the people rescued.  Many organizations are using tablets and Kobo software to collect anonymous information about the people rescued.  

Weather forecastingmet-office

Mariners are well trained in meteorology and its normal for ship crews to be able to access local weather information. As part of the GMDSS infrastructure, various coastal stations and coastguards broadcast weather forecasts several times a day. Weather information is also transmitted to GMDSS text based systems such as Navtex and Inmarsat C safety net. Generally these forecasts are limited to a 48 hours forecast window and covers a wide area.  

Save the Children is sourcing weather information the UK Met office. The forecast format provides a 5 day outlook. A fresh forecast is generated every 12 hours and sent directly to the ship by email. The forecast is for a specific location near to where rescues take place and gives the team information about predicted wind, wave and swell height. The format of the forecast was designed for the oil industry and includes wind data for a height of 100m above sea level – quite useful information for the MOAS UAV operators.

Good quality weather predictions could enhance the efficiency of the rescue operation. If sea conditions are predicted to worsen for a few days making it impossible to rescue, ships could use the downtime to return to port and replenish fuel etc.

Lessons learnt
​NGOs entering SAR operations may not have maritime experience at all, if they take the same approach to providing similar technology to what would be used on land, budget holders will be completely shocked at the complexities and costs of setting up the required technologies. It is really important that programme managers engage technical experts from the get go, preferably well before budgets are set. Technology at sea is a very specialist area which means that organizations may  need to look beyond their internal ICT teams if they do not have in house maritime expertise.

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