IMO needs to approve global GMDSS safety communications

As IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) meets next week to discuss emergency communications, there are calls for it to approve the modernisation of the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS).

It was introduced 30 years ago

with messaging-only technology and one satellite provider, Inmarsat, but has not been officially updated since. It has stood the test of time, providing seafarers with vital communications during emergencies and helped save thousands of lives.

However, technology has moved on. A modern GMDSS should also include voice and data services and have global coverage that includes coverage in the Arctic. This is according to Lars Thrane chairman and founder, Lars Thrane. He has produced GMDSS onboard terminals for decades, previously with Thrane & Thrane and now with his new company.

He advocates the addition of Iridium’s satellite constellation into GMDSS as a way to provide voice, text and data services to safety communications. “To meet these needs, GMDSS technology must include greater capabilities and worldwide coverage,” he told Marine Electronics & Communications.

“Terminals should be multifunctional, capable of supporting both GMDSS and day-to-day voice and data needs within one device. There is no reason for the lack of a single, cost-effective terminal that can meet the most basic and expected requirements of today’s crews and the GMDSS.” This is as seafarers increasingly require more safety information during voyages worldwide.

Inmarsat’s GMDSS service is provided by geostationary satellites and the company has started to migrate these to its fourth generation of satellites and is seeking approval from MSC this month to continue this work.

As an alternative, Iridium is working to gain IMO approval for GMDSS services over its low Earth orbit satellite constellation that provides L-band coverage worldwide, including over polar regions, where Inmarsat satellites do not.

Mr Thrane thinks GMDSS should cover northern sea routes across Arctic seas in the SOLAS defined Polar A4 sea area, where there is increased ship traffic. “Ships that primarily traverse through those waters are required to carry equipment that will not work due to today’s lack of GMDSS satellite coverage,” he said.

“This puts the maritime community at risk, in arguably some of the most dangerous seas on the planet.”

Lars Thrane created a GMDSS terminal with Iridium global coverage and tested it in Q4 2017 for the International Mobile Satellite Organisation (IMSO), the inter-governmental organisation appointed by IMO to manage oversight of satellite GMDSS providers.

IMSO tested and evaluated 39 case conditions required for Iridium GMDSS approval, using this Lars Thrane terminal in co-ordination with Denmark’s Rescue Co-ordination Centre. “The results were clear, the new terminal and Iridium network met 100% compliance,” said Mr Thrane.

He thinks IMO should progress with approving Iridium as a GMDSS provider and allow shipowners to purchase alternative terminals.

“Mariners will be able to streamline vessel communications and run standard voice and data connectivity plus emergency communications from one terminal that works everywhere, including the current sea area A4.

This process can begin with the MSC 99 meeting between 16-25 May. This committee meeting can build on what has already been achieved in GMDSS modernisation discussions at IMO.

On the agenda of next week’s meeting, MSC will consider the recognition of the Iridium mobile satellite system for use in the GMDSS and adopt a statement of recognition provided by Inmarsat for use of its satellites in the GMDSS.