SWITCH TO 406
The ongoing transition to 406 MHz beacons
The world-wide decision to terminate COSPAS-SARSAT satellite processing of 121.5 MHz and 243 MHz signals as of February 1, 2009, was taken after much debate nine years ago, following a request by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and coordination with the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). The COSPAS-SARSAT Council is well aware of the impact of this decision on users, particularly those who may not have switched to the 406 MHz frequency at this time. However, from a satellite system management perspective, international changes of this magnitude require long-term planning and careful coordination prior to implementation. There are no viable options for turning back from the global decision made in 2000.
Over the past several years, the COSPAS-SARSAT Council has continuously advertised the need for beacon owners to switch to 406 MHz and encouraged the development of lower-cost 406 MHz beacons. Beacon prices have been steadily decreasing as new models became available and the number of 406 MHz beacons is rapidly growing (+21% in 2007). Many administrations developed plans to prepare for the transition, in accordance with the international regulations issued by IMO and ICAO. However, national regulations for ships and aircraft not under the ICAO or IMO conventions’ jurisdictions are quite diverse and reflect a far from uniform approach to the transition, as illustrated below.
The carriage of 406 MHz emergency positioning indicator radio beacons (EPIRBs) is a requirement of the IMO Global Maritime Distress and Safety System for all vessels operating under the Safety of Life at Sea Convention. For commercial aviation, 406 MHz automatic-fixed emergency locator transmitters (ELTs) have been a mandatory requirement for new aircraft since 2002, but the ICAO regulation revised in 2007 allows carriage of non-automatic 406 MHz ELTs on older aircraft. A discussion of the advantages and drawbacks of fixedautomatic ELTs versus “survival” ELTs or personal locator beacons (PLBs) published in the Information Bulletin in February 2008 is available on the COSPAS-SARSAT Web site at www.cospas-sarsat.org.
Transition to 406 in other countries
In the USA, manufacturing, sale or import of 121.5/243 MHz EPIRBs was banned in 2003 and their operation at sea has been illegal since 2007. No regulation has been issued by the US Administration concerning the carriage of ELTs on general aviation aircraft; therefore, 406 MHz ELTs are not currently a requirement for small aircraft in the USA.
In most countries, 406 MHz EPIRBs are now standard safety equipment for the merchant marine, as well as the fishing industry and sailing/ pleasure craft navigating beyond coastal waters. For example, Australia and New Zealand both had former regulations requiring carriage of 121.5 MHz EPIRBs. The carrying of 406 MHz EPIRBs is now mandated for all ships navigating beyond coastal waters and both countries also made the carriage of 406 MHz ELTs mandatory onboard general aviation aircraft. A very active registration campaign for 406 MHz beacons is underway with more than 4,000 beacons being registered each month in Australia alone.
New regulations for the carriage of 406 MHz EPIRBs, ELTs or PLBs have been issued in many European countries in accordance with the applicable “European directives”. In France, the carriage of 406 MHz EPIRBs has been mandatory since 1996 for cargo and passenger ships and for most fishing vessels since 1999. In accordance with ICAO recommendations, 406 MHz automatic ELTs are mandatory equipment for commercial aircraft. For light, general aviation aircraft, an ELT or a PLB operating on 406 MHz is required.
These examples show that the transition to 406 MHz beacons or other means of distress alerting will continue well beyond the February 1, 2009, deadline. This is a very significant step for the International COSPAS-SARSAT Programme, 27 years after the 1982 launch of the first satellite. It opens up the path to another transition, i.e. the future introduction of the Medium-altitude Earth Orbiting Satellite System for Search and Rescue, or “MEOSAR”. This new system will ensure the continuity of the 406 MHz satellite alerting service for many decades to come and provide new opportunities for service enhancements, to the benefit of all users and administrations worldwide.
Daniel Levesque participated in the development of the Sarsat system at the French National Space Center (Centre National d’Études Spatiales). Since 1987, he is the Head of the Secretariat of the International COSPAS-SARSAT Programme, which moved from London, UK, to Montréal, Canada, in 2005.