When mariners are at sea, safety is a top priority. The Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) was established more than 20 years ago to help ensure safety for those at sea by requiring specific types of onboard radioc ommunications equipment, both satellite and terrestrial, to send and receive distress and safety information.
For decades, only one company was allowed to provide satellite GMDSS service, which consequently limited coverage reach, capability and choice for captains and crew at sea. But, in 2018, that changed when the International Maritime Organization (IMO) adopted a “Statement of Recognition” declaring that the Iridium® network met the requirements necessary to provide GMDSS services.
Since receiving IMO recognition last year, Iridium continues to work closely with GMDSS regulators and potential users of the service and anticipates a launch date in January 2020. This past April, Iridium announced the signing of a Public Services Agreement (PSA) with the International Mobile Satellite Organization (IMSO) which details the conditions for IMSO to act as regulator and maintain oversight of Iridium GMDSS services. With Iridium, mariners will for the first time in history have a choice in GMDSS equipment and a service provider which has the ability to cover 100 percent of the world’s oceans, helping protect mariners no matter where they sail.
Kyle Hurst, who is contracted as the Iridium Director of Maritime Safety & Security Services, has been instrumental in making Iridium GMDSS a reality. We sat down with Kyle to learn more about the process of bringing Iridium GMDSS – and with it, real choice – to the maritime industry.
Q: Can you give us an overview of what GMDSS is?
A: Essentially, GMDSS includes three key maritime safety services. The first one is distress alerting, and that’s what most ships have right now. If you find yourself in distress, you go to your GMDSS terminal and just hold the red button down for three seconds and it will send a small, but effective piece of information to a Rescue Coordination Center (RCC) so people know who you are, where you are, and that you’re in distress. With this information they can then help you.
The second component is distress voice, which is also activated by a red button that you hold down and then it immediately fires off a distress-level call to one of the RCCs that are located around the world. With the current product in market, this happens through a separate terminal. Not many vessels have the additional terminal, and therefore don’t use distress voice. This is because these terminals use older technology, they have been superseded – and they’re not cheap! So currently few vessels have access to distress voice, which is something we look to change by making it a more cost-effective option.
The third service is what they call Maritime Safety Information, or MSI. MSI is basically the information that is automatically received by the GMDSS terminal. There are a couple of different “flavors” of information and they are: nav messages (or navigational warnings), met messages (meteorological or weather warnings), and safety-related messages (messages about safety incidents or general safety). The other term that’s associated with MSI is “Enhanced Group Call” or EGC – that is a generic name for an MSI service. When we launch, this part of our GMDSS services will be called Iridium SafetyCastSM.
Q: It sounds like currently, each portion of GMDSS works through a different terminal or device. Will that be the case for Iridium GMDSS services?
A: No. We are working with our Value Added Manufacturer (VAM) Lars-Thrane who has developed a new terminal [LT-3100S] for Iridium GMDSS that will integrate all three services into one, small, saucy-looking terminal. The LT-3100S uses an Iridium 9523N transceiver which has the ability to process voice and data. Our Iridium Certus® transceivers, which can provide even greater processing speed and bandwidth, are also compatible with GMDSS and we are working with several Iridium Certus VAMs on developing below-deck hardware to plug straight into the existing Iridium Certus terminals, making them also GMDSS terminals. It will be the Iridium standard that all Iridium GMDSS-capable terminals support all three GMDSS services.
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background?
A: I grew up in Australia as part of a maritime family. My family was in fishing, so I had a very small, but significant maritime background. After I got out of the military in my 20s, I was looking for something to do and I ended up getting into the Queensland Shark Control program, which is just that, a program that controls sharks in Queensland to provide bather safety. From that, I got into maritime enforcement and I was a Queensland Boating and Fisheries Patrol officer for about five years. I was quite lucky – I was at the Great Barrier Reef. If you’re ever going to go to sea, doing it in a tropical paradise is probably the best place to do it.
So, you know, I’ve been a mariner, I did have a maritime qualification. But, I had also become involved with the use of satellite technology in maritime enforcement, which is called the Vessel-Monitoring System (VMS). Governments started requiring satellite tracking technology onboard fishing vessels, and I was involved in the very early stages of that. From there, working my way up in satellite tracking, I started working for commercial organizations, such as Iridium. And, so now, here I am!
I was originally brought into Iridium as part of the maritime team, but there was a systems requirement for GMDSS. Due to my background having worked in a maritime environment, having been at sea, having used GMDSS, having contributed to Search & Rescue operations, I was asked to come in and help take us from an aspirational concept to actually building the system. And, it’s not all down to me, there are so many people involved with it.
Q: What has the process of getting GMDSS recognition and building the system been like?
A: I think it was a difficult process, and that comes about because it’s not like a normal process you would typically go through. Because the IMO is an international body, there’s a lot of diplomacy and administrative procedures to – pardon the pun – navigate. I also learned that strong people skills are important as work with people from all over the world with different backgrounds and cultures, all focused on making important decisions on crucial matters regarding safety at sea. Lastly, because the IMO only meets once a year, things moved slower than I expected – the IMO is very deliberative!
I thankfully had the help and support of so many people, starting with the absolute boss, Matt [Desch], right down to people who have had not-so-obvious roles, but contributed and helped us take steps forward. It’s been a big push, but we did it, and we will continue to do it!
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to share about Iridium GMDSS and your role in the process?
A: One of the big things people may not realize is that it’s easy to hear the words GMDSS and have a general idea of what we’re doing in safety and security. But, the one thing I am massively conscious of, because I’ve been to sea and I’ve been in distress situations, is that it’s very scary. It’s amazing how quickly your home – the boat you live in, when you’re on the ocean and in trouble, suddenly starts to feel like your coffin.
When things go wrong, you think to yourself, “I’m 100 nautical miles from shore. I can’t just step off the boat and be okay.” So, having the ability to press a button and tell people that you need help anywhere in the world, is a really big deal. People will depend on our technology to save their lives. And we will save lives. It’s a really big thing to be able to do that, and it’s a big honor to be able to work on this program because the stakes will be so high. People are going to be relying on us with their lives, so we need to make sure that we do our utmost, and that whenever we are working on this program, it’s done to the absolute highest standard.
To learn more about the Iridium GMDSS services, expected in January 2020, please visit https://www.iridium.com/services/gmdss/.