Maritime Safety Committee approves amendments to maritime safety information instruments and GMDSS provisions to improve emergency communications
This year has seen significant shifts in maritime safety communications as a second Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) takes shape and an emergency response network gets closer to fruition.
IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) approved amendments to SOLAS regulations and its guidelines for safety and emergency communications equipment. This follows regulatory acceptance of a second GMDSS service provider to Inmarsat in 2018.
In addition, a search and rescue emergency communications network is increasing coverage on a medium Earth orbit (MEO) constellation ready for full implementation in 2020.
In June 2019, MSC met for its 101st committee session where regulatory and guidance amendments were approved to expand safety communications for commercial shipping.
MSC 101 approved amendments to Maritime Safety Information (MSI)-related instruments in June. These are required to accommodate amendments to SOLAS, which were adopted in 2018 and are scheduled to enter into force on 1 January 2020.
These SOLAS amendments were associated with IMO recognising new mobile satellite services for GMDSS and broadcasting MSI transmissions to a defined geographical area through those newly recognised services.
One of these new service providers is Iridium Communications, which is making steady progress in developing, testing and adopting GMDSS services through its second-generation constellation of low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites. This will offer an alternative GMDSS to Inmarsat’s current and future safety services over its geostationary orbit satellites.
MSI includes navigational and meteorological warnings, meteorological forecasts and other urgent safety-related messages broadcast to ships.
IMO’s amendments relate to:
MSC 101 also agreed to circulate an interim Iridium SafetyCast service manual providing information on Iridium’s enhanced group calling service for use in the GMDSS. This will be used when conducting system trials and tests using Iridium LEO interconnected satellites, until final text of the manual is approved by the Sub-Committee on Navigation, Communications and Search and Rescue (NCSR) in Q1 2020.
Iridium’s progress in the first six months of this year includes signing a public services agreement with the International Mobile Satellite Organization (IMSO) in April. This details the conditions for IMSO to act as regulator and maintain oversight of Iridium’s GMDSS. They will work together to compile a letter of compliance, which will state Iridium as being ready to provide GMDSS services, which Iridium anticipates providing from January 2020.
In June, Iridium introduced the first terminal to offer its GMDSS service. The Lars Thrane LT-3100S is a multi-service terminal for safety communications and is approved to comply with SOLAS vessel carriage requirements. Along with GMDSS, it could also be used for voice, texting, and data services. It has a built-in global navigation satellite system receiver and supports the ship security alert system and long range identification and tracking. LT-3100S could also be used for anti-piracy communications.
Iridium director of maritime safety and security services Kyle Hurst says LT-3100S will deliver safety and weather information, and lifesaving communications.
“The navigational and meteorological warnings from the terminals and MSI broadcasts will help mariners try to avoid danger,” he says. “If they cannot, the new terminals’ distress alert and distress voice features will be able to help.”
Inmarsat also made progress with MSC 101 on its proposals to transfer approved GMDSS services to the Inmarsat-4 constellation from older satellites. The committee approved interim guidance on the technical requirements for Inmarsat’s enhanced group calling service, Fleet Safety, for use in the GMDSS. This will initially be provided under the Inmarsat-4 coverage area of the Middle East and Asia.
Inmarsat Maritime president Ronald Spithout says GMDSS, under Inmarsat-C is already served by the Inmarsat-4 constellation. “It is still going strong and will still be available as our new satellites are compatible to this,” he explains to Maritime Digitalisation & Communications. “So, we will be adding more functionality.” This will be based on the data and voice services of FleetBroadband as Fleet Safety.
“We are testing maritime safety terminals by working with rescue control centres”
This provides GMDSS with distress alerting, receiving safety information MSI, voice distress and communications. To achieve this, Inmarsat is conducting sea trials of its maritime safety terminals. “These terminals are software with a graphical user interface and can be bolted on to FleetBroadband,” says Mr Spithout. “We are testing this by working with rescue control centres and in the Baltic with the Latvian search and rescue team.”
He expects the maritime safety terminals will be ready commercially before the end of this year.
Inmarsat also provides emergency communications in the free 505 distress call service over Fleet One, which is now installed on more than 5,000 vessels and does not require FleetBroadband. This distress service connects vessels directly to the nearest search and rescue team in an emergency.
“With Fleet One, we have increased the capabilities by 50%,” says Mr Spithout. This is from a previous level of 100 kbps. “There is a robust future and vessels can run on L-band in the long term,” he adds. Inmarsat’s sixth generation of satellites will have L-band payloads for Fleet One and FleetBroadband.
Cospas-Sarsat MEOSAR to be fully operational in 2020
Investment in a key maritime emergency communications system will culminate in a fully operational medium-Earth orbit (MEO) constellation in 2020. The International Cospas-Sarsat Programme has built a communications network using repeaters on satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO) and geostationary orbits to connect those in distress with search and rescue (SAR) organisations.
Over the last 15 years, it has added repeaters on the Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) – GPS, Glonass and Galileo constellations – in MEO. This MEOSAR system operates regionally, but is scheduled to be worldwide in 2020.
Cospas-Sarsat operates with distress radiobeacons on 406 MHz frequencies. In maritime these are emergency position-indicating radio beacons (EPIRBs).
When these transmit, a distress signal is detected by satellites and transmitted to ground receiving stations. These process the downlink signal to generate distress alerts to mission control centres that relay messages to SAR organisations closest to the distressed mariner.
MEOSAR satellites transmit distress messages to multiple ground stations improving the likelihood of quick detection and accuracy of the emergency.
MEOSAR also facilitates other planned enhancements for Cospas-Sarsat beacons, including a return-link-service that will provide EPIRBs with a confirmation the distress message has been received.
Cospas-Sarsat conducted a demonstration and evaluation phase from 2013, started providing distress alerts to SAR authorities in December 2016 and intends to start the initial operational capability phase by the end of this year. MEOSAR should have full operational capability in 2020.
• EPIRB performance
In June, IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee adopted performance standards for float-free EPIRBs operating on 406 MHz. These will be applicable to float-free 406 MHz EPIRBs installed from June 2022. The performance standards include requirements for EPIRBs to be provided with an automatic identification system locating signal and consolidate type-approval provisions.