How Lost Hikers Can Send an SOS to Space

One solution to the accidental-push problem could be, as a backcountry-skiing blogger recommended after the Colorado debacle, to have the beacons blare an audio message every time they spool up, warning the user that they have triggered it, kind of like how modern carbon monoxide detectors bossily say “Warning! Evacuate!” There are more passive measures already in place: The personal locator beacons all have some sort of two-step activation method, like hinged covers over their help button, which you have to lift.

Given the number and nature of false alarms, Sarsat personnel are always begging people to register their 406 beacons. When registered, they don’t just broadcast calls for help; They also send personal information embedded in a Hex ID, a unique digital code that gives the name and contact information of the owner, as well as their emergency contacts and the locations of places they usually visit. That helps operators figure out what to do. The people who coordinate search and rescue operations are, says Carter, “really like detectives. They’ll call your mom, your sister, your uncle, your cousin, your third cousin, your neighbors. We’ll do whatever we can to try and find the owner and figure out what’s happening. Is this person actually in distress?

If the person’s just fine and say, washing their boat, the search personnel can cancel the distress call. But if nobody answers, and if the beacon’s not registered, they have to treat the situation like an emergency.

Partly because of those issues, the Sarsat program is currently upgrading to what Gedney calls “very uniquely named second-generation” beacons. Their digital signal will be more information-rich, and transmitted more frequently, which will cut down on errors. The signal will be more homed-in on the owner’s position, and with the addition of the middle-altitude satellites, that calculation should also be better.

NOAA is also working to make position-determination better in unstable conditions. Reich, for instance, just finished putting reference beacons out to sea on buoys to study how the ocean’s waves, swells, and currents affect the accuracy of their perceived location. He recently got the first picture back of the buoy in the middle of the ocean—alone, in its own way, but not lost.

Officials are also considering adding “return link service.” Right now, if a beacon deploys, there’s no way to know if anyone has heard the call. You can imagine the kind of extra distress that might cause a missing hiker or boater—even if they believe in both the power of satellites and the competency of government agencies, their minds will have plenty of time to spin out in anxious spirals. “Right now, there is some discussion in the works—it has not been finalized—of including, perhaps, just a confirmation light, saying that your distress has been received and somebody’s coming out to try and find you,” says Gedney.

The pace of upgrades can be frustrating because they involve so many different agencies and countries. “It sometimes moves so slowly,” Reich says. “It’s painful getting this technology out there. It’s just too hard and it takes too long to get everyone to agree.”

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