Vodafone creates airborne cell site for search and rescue

Vodafone in conjunction with Police Search and Rescue (SAR) has developed a mobile cell site that can be fitted into a helicopter enabling rescuers to communicate with people on the ground via their cellphones in areas where there is no mobile network coverage.

In its current form, the device detects a cellphone’s ‘ping’ – a signal mobile phones emit when they are attempting to connect with a nearby cell site.

Once the ping is detected it shows up on an on board computer screen – giving SAR teams a narrowed search area to locate a missing person.

When they hear the helicopter overhead, the missing person on the ground can check for signal bars on their cellphone and make a 111 emergency call, which will be answered by rescue crew inside the helicopter.

The helicopter’s altitude determines the size of the mobile coverage area: at 300 metres the coverage area could be up to 4.5 square kilometres and at 100 metres, up to 1.5 square kilometres.

Vodafone says a prototype device has been successfully tested in the Hunua Ranges — a 15,000 square kilometre zero coverage area of bushland near South Auckland that is popular with trampers, campers and holidaymakers.

However, Vodafone says further tests are required before the Search and Rescue Network could be deployed in real life rescue operations and that, in its current form it would also require public awareness about its capability.

Meanwhile, Vodafone says it will continue to collaborate with SAR to develop the device further with added functionality such as GPS and call bridging, enabling people other than those in the helicopter to communicate with the person on the ground.

Vodafone technology director Tony Baird said: “We’re really keen to keep working with SAR to get this technology to a stage where it could be used in real life search and rescue operations.”

According to Vodafone, the idea for Search and Rescue Network came after American tourists Rachel and Carolyn Lloyd were rescued in the Tararua Ranges in May 2016. The mother and daughter had been missing for several days before a rescue helicopter spotted their ‘HELP’ sign laid out in rocks on the ground.

Vodafone says the prototype is its latest ‘zero coverage’ innovation designed to support emergency services teams operating in remote and isolated areas. In October 2015 Vodafone demonstrated the ‘Nokia Network in a Box’ and ‘Z-Car’ zero coverage solutions – which aim to help first response teams rapidly establish 4G connectivity within minutes of arriving on-site.

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Tags helicopterrescueSARcoverageVodafonepolicePingcellphonesmobilesearch and rescuenetwork

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