How do satellites save lives?

Since the 1957 launch of the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, satellites have revolutionised the world. Even people who don’t work with satellites still use them on a daily basis for tasks like navigation and watching television.

There’s one particularly interesting satellite function we didn’t go into in our article on the applications of satellites, and that’s the way satellites are used to save lives. We’re going to take a look at that in this post.

Emergency beacons

Mobile phones have made it easy to call for help if you get lost or there’s an emergency. Even if you don’t have any signal with your network provider, most phones will still allow you to make emergency calls using other terrestrial networks.

However, some places may not have any mobile signal at all, regardless of network. Unfortunately, these are often places where it’s easy to get into trouble, such as moors, deserts, mountains and oceans.

This is where satellites come in. To communicate with a satellite, you don’t need a mobile tower within range; all you need is a clear line of sight to the sky.

Most mobile phones can’t make contact with satellites, sadly; they can receive satnav signals from space, but they don’t have the power to send signals into space themselves. In the near future, phones may be designed to send emergency messages by satellite as a matter of course. Right now, though, if you want to make use of satellite coverage in an emergency, you’ll need to take satellite communication equipment with you into the wilderness: a satellite phone or satellite emergency beacon.

Some emergency beacons will only transmit your coordinates to emergency services, but more elaborate versions allow you to send messages or make calls. Being able to send messages to emergency services allows you to communicate exactly what you need, but some opt for a simple ‘SOS only’ beacon with no requirement for ongoing payments, as in that case the only cost is the upfront cost of the beacon itself. Of course, if your beacon only communicates coordinates, it’s important not to move from those coordinates after activating it.

In the UK, emergency beacons must legally be registered. They should never be activated unless it’s an actual emergency, as false alarms will pull emergency resources away from the places they’re needed.

The International Cospas-Sarsat Programme

If you use a satellite emergency beacon, there’s a good chance the Cospas-Sarsat search-and-rescue satellite network will come to your aid.

Cospas-Sarsat satellites detect signals from emergency beacons and send the coordinates to the search-and-rescue authorities in the country where the beacon is located. They also alert the government of the country where the beacon was purchased or registered – so, for example, if you’re a UK resident who registered a beacon in the UK and then got into trouble in Nepal, the authorities in both Nepal and the UK will be alerted.

Cospas-Sarsat is an international programme and started life as a collaboration between Canada, France, the USA and the Soviet Union: an impressive show of cooperation, given that it was begun in the late 1970s, squarely in the Cold War.

The first Cospas-Sarsat rescue was on 10 September 1982, when three people were retrieved after a plane crash in the Canadian province of British Columbia. On the second page of this Cospas-Sarsat bulletin (issue 25) from 2013, you can read the personal account that the pilot gave thirty years later.

According to the 2020 Cospas-Sarsat system data report, the system had a hand in rescuing at least 51,512 people between 1982 and 2020: an average of over 1,300 people per year.

Satellites and disaster management

From the vantage point of space, it’s often possible to predict, identify and monitor large-scale disasters: floods, hurricanes and wildfires, for example.

In order to mitigate natural disasters and arrange rescues, authorities need information quickly. Where are the fires springing up? Where might people have been stranded after a flood? These are questions that satellites can answer.

The European Space Agency (ESA)’s Earth Watching project aids in disaster relief by using satellites to monitor current and potential disasters. The project was started in 1993, in response to flooding in Germany. In its overview of fires, ESA clearly conveys how much of a difference satellite imagery can make in an emergency:

Every year many hectares of forest and savannah are destroyed all around the world, with consequences on the entire ecosystem (human life, animal/plant habitats, carbon cycle disturbance, property loss etc.) … Prevention and early warning are the only means of reducing these costs. Satellite data can rapidly provide a general overview of the situation over large areas of terrain, detect fires, identify risk areas and finally assess the damage by mapping the extent of the burned areas.

Satellites can also be used to broadcast warning messages. Japan’s J-Alert system uses satellite broadcasts to give residents early warning of events such as earthquakes, tsunami, severe weather and volcanic eruptions.

Despite their distance from us, satellites can have a very real, personal impact on the lives of people on Earth. This can be seen in many ways, but it’s perhaps most dramatically visible in the thousands of people who are alive today because satellites helped to rescue them at a desperate moment. Projects like Cospas-Sarsat and Earth Watching are an incredible testament to the power of cooperation, compassion and satellite technology.

Darwin Innovation Group is an Oxfordshire-based R&D company focusing on autonomous vehicles and communications, both terrestrial and satellite. If you’d like to keep up with our articles, you can follow us on LinkedIn or Twitter. If you’re interested in working with us, take a look at our careers page.

News tags