December 3, 2018

Key milestones

How distress beacons came about

The Cospas-Sarsat programme was initiated in the early 1970s, in the midst of the Cold War. To be able to respond effectively to distress calls anywhere in the world, an international organization was required while leaving responsibility for the system to national administrations. To this end, four nations—the United States, Russia, Canada and France—decided to work together despite the political tensions of the time.

Until the 1970s, maritime and aeronautic rescue systems had used VHF radio frequencies. U.S. legislation made distress beacons mandatory for the first time in 1972, and in 1975 an emergency locator beacon system was deployed for aircraft and pleasure boats—more than 250,000 beacons in total.

The genesis of Cospas-Sarsat

In 1976, Canada, the United States and France began using a Doppler detection system (operating on a frequency of 121.5 MHz) called SARSAT. At the same time, Russia had started trials of an equivalent system for ships called COSPAS.

The official date on which the programme agreement was signed is 1988, but the partners had already signed up to use the system in 1979 and the first human lives were saved in 1982 thanks to a satellite in low-Earth orbit launched the same year.

An operational system

The organisation became fully operational in 1985 and totally independent in 2005.

At the end of 2015, it was decided to extend Cospas-Sarsat’s capabilities to aircraft. The Global Aeronautical Distress and Safety System (GADSS) was deployed starting in 2016, in line with the recommendations of OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe), which has 57 participating member states in North America, Asia and Europe.