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MOB Guardian alerts and locates

The system combines active vessel tracking and man-overboard monitoring

The system combines active vessel tracking and man-overboard monitoring

Fishermen in the United Kingdom call it their guardian angel. It’s MOB Guardian, a satellite-based system that sends man-overboard and vessel distress alerts from fishing boats off Ireland and Great Britain to a rescue center in Poole, Dorset, headquarters of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.

Concerned about loss of life in the commercial fishing fleet, RNLI — the U.K.’s volunteer life-saving service — teamed up with private companies Active Web Solutions and EPIRB manufacturer McMurdo to develop the system. It’s the first to combine remotely monitored man-overboard alerts with vessel monitoring. RNLI is offering MOB Guardian hardware (www.mob to U.K. fishermen virtually free of charge.

A benefactor is offering fishermen a 30-percent discount on a unit’s approximate $2,000 cost through RNLI. The governments of England and Scotland are underwriting another 40 percent, and major insurers — Sunderland Marine and Scottish Boatowners Mutual Insurance — are offering fishermen insurance rebates of 30 percent of the cost.

“What we’re trying to do is bring a 21st-century approach to an age-old problem,” says Jim Cullumbine, RNLI’s business development manager.

Cullumbine says MOB Guardian differs from COSPAS/SARSAT, which uses 406-MHz EPIRBs and personal locator beacons to alert rescuers, because MOB Guardian is an active tracking system that is in continuous contact with the boat, recording its position every hour and continuously monitoring crew on board via personal safety devices.

In time, the system or similar ones may be in place for pleasure boats and commercial vessels around the world.

RNLI says its lifeboats responded to 747 incidents involving fishing boats in 2005, and 15 of those were crew overboard cases. The fishing fleet routinely loses 20 to 30 crewmembers a year in the course of their work. RNLI is particularly concerned with quick response to a crew overboard and early alert of distress on boats fished by just one person.

“If a fisherman is out by himself and he goes over the side, who’s going to know about him?” Cullumbine asks. “With this system, he hits the water, and we know about it in two minutes. For the single-handed fisherman this is a lifesaver.”

Cullumbine says some 7,000 commercial fishing boats are registered in the United Kingdom, 4,500 to 5,000 of them boats 50 feet and smaller. The skippers of these unregulated vessels are the ones RNLI is trying to convince to carry MOB Guardian. Cullumbine has taken 200 orders and aims to put Guardians on 2,000 fishing boats within a few years. Delivery of production units begins in September.

The system consists of a base unit on the boat and personal safety devices, or PSDs — transmitters about 3/4 the size of a cell phone — that crewmembers hang around their necks or stuff in their pockets while under way. The base unit automatically transmits to the RNLI monitoring station hourly updates of vessel position, course and speed via Iridium satellite. If the station misses an update, its computer tries to re-establish contact with the vessel. If those efforts fail, the station tries to contact the skipper by satellite or mobile phone, or by whatever means the skipper has requested. If there’s still no contact, RNLI passes on the information to the Coastguard — within 10 minutes of the initial alert — so a search can be initiated in the vicinity of the last reported position.

The PSDs send a continuous signal to the shipboard base station, and when a fisherman falls in the water that signal is interrupted. The base station sounds an MOB alarm on board and transmits an alert to the monitoring station ashore, which receives it within two minutes. As a fail-safe, the base station also issues an MOB alert if the PSD moves more than 70 meters away from it. A fisherman also can press a panic button on the PSD to issue an alert, and hit another button identifying the alert as a false alarm.

Cullumbine says the system is very user-friendly. When a fisherman turns MOB Guardian off in port, it automatically sets up a 500-meter “geo-fence” around the boat so that the next morning, if the fisherman forgets to turn the system on, it will remind him to do so as he motors past that geo-fence. As part of the activation sequence, the skipper must key in the number of crewmembers on board so rescuers will know that critical information if they receive an emergency alert. About the size of a chart plotter, the base station also acts as charger for up to four of the PSDs.

“We’ve given the product a fantastic amount of thought in design,” Cullumbine says. “We wanted it to be foolproof for the fisherman.” Fishermen pay a flat fee of about $45 a month for satellite time.

Though now available only in the United Kingdom, MOB Guardian likely will be available for pleasure boats and other workboats around the world, as soon as RNLI satisfies fishermen’s needs, says Richard Anscombe, a director of Active Web Solutions, which developed Guardian’s software and communications system. In pleasure-boat applications, Guardian probably will offer satellite-phone service and Web-based access to the monitoring site for family so they can track cruisers while they are away.

Cullumbine expects Guardian to not only save lives but deliver some efficiencies for RNLI, which operates on volunteer contributions. “We’ll be able to decide where to send our search-and-rescue assets with a high degree of accuracy,” he says. “We should be able to send one lifeboat or one helicopter to search for a fishing boat. We have far too many incidents where we send six or seven lifeboats. It’s not cheap.”