EU Space enables safer maritime operations

EU Space enables safer maritime operations


It’s the middle of the summer holiday season and an earthquake strikes Greece, rendering all ground-based communication services worthless. At this exact moment, a leisure boat sailing several kilometres off the coast of Athens experiences an on-board fire. Luckily, they have a Galileo-enabled Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) to send a distress signal with, meaning they don’t have to rely on now inoperable ground-based services. 

The coastguard picks up the yacht’s distress signal and establishes its location. Due to the lack of viable ground-based communication networks, the coastguard and other emergency services communicate using the GOVSATCOM system to coordinate all search and rescue (SAR) operations. To facilitate the search and rescue itself, authorities rely on optical and in-situ data generated by Copernicus regarding, for example, current strength, wave height and water temperature. 

The end result? Disaster is averted and lives are saved, thanks in large part to the EU Space Programme.

Prioritising safety at sea

This is but one example of how safety at sea has long been one of the European maritime sector’s top priorities. Today, the European Commission is building on this tradition by investing in digital technologies that help further ensure the safety of passengers and crew, while also minimising the sector’s environmental impact. Many of these new technologies rely on the data and services generated by the EU Space Programme. 

Take for example the ground-breaking Galileo Return Link Service (RLS), part of the Galileo SAR service. Thanks to the RLS, sailors in distress, when equipped with the appropriate beacon, will see a light verifying that their distress signal has been received by emergency first responders and that their location has been established. 

Galileo is the only GNSS constellation to offer such a service to its end-users. The RLS is proven to increase survival rates by giving an important psychological boost to people in distress. Experts of Cospas-Sarsat estimated that the international SAR system, with the contribution of the Galileo SAR service, saves more than 2,000 lives a year. 


EU Space in Action

On the occasion of the Pytheas Space Maritime Forum, EUSPA, in collaboration with the Greek authorities, organised a demonstration that showcases the importance of space technologies in Search and Rescue (SAR) Operations. The exercise involved the activation of a Galileo-enabled EPIRB equipped with the innovative Return Link Service on board a leisure boat. 

Note: this was a test exercise for the purposes of promoting the SAR service. Both Cospas-Sarsat and the Greek coastguard had previously been notified.

The yacht departed Floisvos Marina, Athens at 13:15 EEST and sailed towards the Saronic gulf.
When the boat was around 3 nautical miles off the Athens coast, EUSPA staff activate the Galileo-enabled beacon.
The signal was picked up almost immediately by the Greek Mission Control Center, taking only 1’08 ‘’ – a record time for the Galileo SAR service.
Upon acknowledgment of the location, the Galileo Return Link Service was activated. 
Onboard the boat, demo participants saw a blinking light on the beacon, confirming that their distress signal had been picked up. 

Director for Outreach and Innovation at DG DEFIS, European Commission Catherine Kavvada and EUSPA Executive Director, Rodrigo da Costa, watched the exercise live from the Operations Room of the Hellenic Coastguard. The demonstration showcased the capabilities of the Galileo SAR service, and highlighted the added vbalue of the return link to people in distress.  

Visualise with Copernicus

Accidents often occur in poor weather conditions, where it is difficult or dangerous to deploy manned assets like helicopters. When an accident happens in a remote area, there may not be the option to send vessels or aircraft to verify the situation. In both contexts, the Copernicus Maritime Surveillance (CMS) service can provide valuable additional data to help detect, track and potentially identify the vessels in distress. By doing so, the CMS helps support SAR efforts. 

Specifically, Copernicus utilises synthetic aperture radar images, which can be used to help search for vessels over large areas, during the night and even in poor weather conditions. This capability is especially useful when a vessel loses communication and goes adrift (e.g., following a fire or tracking storm damage). Identifying the location of a vessel helps optimise the use of search and rescue assets and allows authorities to direct resources to where they are of most use. Optical images can also provide a wealth of additional information, including positively identifying the vessel, characterising the damage caused and detecting any deployed lifeboats in the water. 

Communicate with GOVSATCOM

While Galileo and Copernicus provide the necessary data and positioning, some security incidents also require a means of communication that is robustly protected against interference, interception, intrusion and other risks. GOVSATCOM bridges this gap between the need for assured and secure communication and the capabilities already offered by Copernicus, Galileo and EGNOS.

Once active, GOVSATCOM will provide secure, cost-efficient communication capabilities to security and safety-critical missions, operations and infrastructure. EUSPA has been entrusted with the procurement of the secure operational ground segment (GOVSATCOM Hubs), its operations and the coordination of the user-related aspects of GOVSATCOM, all in close collaboration with the Member States and other involved entities.

Putting it all together 

Thanks to the EU Space Programme, authorities and maritime operators can rely on three different types of satellite data and signals that allow them to see, navigate and communicate. First, Copernicus provides the near real-time data needed to evaluate the state of the sea, currents and temperature. Galileo, on the other hand, makes navigation easier and more reliable, thanks to its accurate signals. Completing the maritime safety trifecta is GOVSATCOM, which ensures uninterrupted communications, even on the open seas. 

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