In a breakthrough in global maritime safety communications, Iridium’s GMDSS service will provide a second option for ship emergency communications
The US-headquartered satellite owner launched its commercial Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) service on 11 December. For the first time shipowners have a choice in their provider of GMDSS, with Inmarsat providing the other option over its L-band geostationary satellites.
Iridium has proved it can provide seafarers a real-time emergency response and rescue service that works worldwide, including over the poles using its US$3Bn Next constellation of low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites for low-latency, L-band communications with search and rescue experts during emergencies.
“This is a historic moment in both the satellite and maritime industries,” said Iridium chief executive Matt Desch. “It is not every day you get to announce the launch of a service that will most certainly save lives and is bringing innovation to this important maritime service,” he said.
GMDSS is an internationally regulated service, governed by IMO’s SOLAS convention. It provides life-saving assistance to seafarers in distress and has required equipment on board more than 60,000 ships.
Iridium’s service offers real-time emergency voice calling service, distress alert (SOS button) and maritime safety information (MSI) with global coverage. The first terminal available for Iridium GMDSS is the Lars Thrane LT-3100S, which combines the three key GMDSS services – distress alert, distress voice and MSI. This terminal can be used for both primary and emergency ship communications.
It is an industry-first as it combines these services in one terminal accessible to smaller vessels that may not otherwise be able to afford this equipment.
Iridium had to pass multiple regulatory hurdles as part of its path to launch commercial GMDSS, receiving approvals from the International Mobile Satellite Organization (IMSO) and testing by shipowners, such as Maersk Group, and Rescue Coordination Centers (RCCs).
IMSO director general Captain Moin Ahmed explained the qualification process for Iridium. “Our formal evaluation of Iridium took more than four years,” he said, “and at each step, Iridium successfully demonstrated its safety voice, distress alert and Iridium SafetyCast maritime environment broadcasts not only met all IMO requirements, but in many cases exceeded them.”
Maersk master mariner and senior marine specialist Captain Brian Soberg Petersen shared his experience as part of the testing process. “At Maersk, we have been very satisfied with the capabilities of the Iridium system and are presently analysing our future communications plans,” said Capt Petersen. “We believe Iridium GMDSS could serve an additional function as a backup data connection as well, in lieu of our existing system,” he said.
This approval process was a considerable undertaking for Iridium that required state backing and partnership with authorities, said Mr Desch. “When we started this process, there was no process,” he said. “No company had ever tried to do what we have now achieved.”
Iridium worked with IMO, US Coast Guard and IMSO to receive regulatory approval and validation of its GMDSS, starting the process to become a GMDSS provider in 2013 and meeting several objectives.
“Developing and qualifying a GMDSS system was extremely challenging, so we did not want to just do the minimum or what has been done before,” Mr Desch said. “We wanted to make our system more accessible, affordable and feature-rich.”
After being recognised by IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee to provide GMDSS, Iridium worked closely with IMSO to meet all conditions required for service introduction including validation of worldwide technical integrations and signing a public services agreement with IMSO in April 2019. This agreement detailed the conditions for IMSO to act as regulator and maintain oversight of Iridium’s GMDSS.
Iridium received a letter of compliance in December 2019 stating it was authorised to begin providing its service when ready.
Seafarers in an emergency can use a red distress button on an Iridium GMDSS terminal. A signal is immediately routed through the Iridium LEO satellite network and delivered to a designated RCC.
Unique to the Iridium system, this is then followed automatically by a distress phone call, allowing the vessel to immediately speak with the RCC.
The RCC can then quickly understand the nature of the emergency, while alerting nearby vessels and local search and rescue authorities to provide the required immediate assistance.
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