Palm-Size Emergency Beacons Make Nationwide Debut

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On Tuesday, personal locator beacons (PLBs), which have been in use in Alaska since 1994, became available to pilots in the lower 48 (see AVweb's review). The small, easily portable beacons, which use satellite signals to pinpoint location, have been credited with saving hundreds of lives in Alaska. Boy Scouts in Waterbury, Vt., carried out the official test of the technology on Tuesday, and were quickly located in the woods by rescue crews. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says lower-end units are available for $300 to $500, but a quick Internet search this week found many prices from $599 to $1,200. Prices are expected to come down as demand and production increase. Users of PLBs must register them with the NOAA. Upon activation, a PLB sends a signal to the satellites that encircle the globe. The signal is then relayed to a ground station and routed to the appropriate mission control center, where the unique identification signal is matched to the beacon owner's registered data. The location and data are then forwarded to the U.S. Air Force Rescue Coordination Center, which coordinates the rescue with the local search-and-rescue agency. If no GPS data is loaded into the PLB, searchers can pinpoint the PLB's location to within 2.3 miles. If a GPS unit is connected to the PLB, emergency response speed is increased. The approval for the technology is long overdue, according to Doug Ritter, of the Equipped To Survive Foundation. The PLB is "a proven lifesaving device that's been available elsewhere in the world for many years," he said. Ritter will conduct a forum about the PLBs on July 31 at EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh.