Locating Titan Should Have Been Quicker And Less Expensive

Jun 23, 2023

distress beacon

Locating Titan Should Have Been Quicker and Less Expensive; Why Were There No EPIRBs and/or Pingers on This Submersible?

WASHINGTON, D.C. (June 23, 2023) – Many ships and airplanes reportedly were visually scouring the surface of the ocean in the faint hope of spotting the tiny submersible on the chance that it had somehow made its way to the ocean’s surface, but such a search is difficult, very expensive, and time consuming given the huge area which must be covered, and the problems of detecting – even with infrared sensors, thermal vision, and/or radar – a small object which could easily be hidden by waves, especially in bad-light conditions.

But that should not have been a problem, and any vessel floating on the surface can and should be located very quickly and precisely, if it had – as many yachts and other small boats already do – an EPIRB [Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon] which broadcasts a distress signal in real time to overhead satellites anywhere in the world, says professor John Banzhaf of George Washington University.

An EPIRB Would Have Helped Locate Titan More Quicker

Such a very inexpensive and readily available device, if it had been installed, could have told authorities exactly where the submersible was if it were on the ocean’s surface, and the absence of its signal would have told those searching that it was not on the surface where it could be spotted.

If the EPIRB was of the floatable type, it would have bobbed to the surface above where the Titan was, and like the black boxes of airplanes, it could also contain and transmit information about various parameters (e.g. depth) of the Titan as well as any recorded messages from the crew.

In this era of smart phones, small ground-to-satellite transmitters, smart watches, and GPS units, there should be few if any such mysteries, says MIT engineer, inventor, and now professor John Banzhaf.

Indeed, the submersible’s position if it had been on the surface should have been known immediately from a simple piece of existing technology known as an EPIRB, says Banzhaf, who has two U.S. patents and many technical papers to his credit.

Most ships and even private yachts are already required to have EPIRBs on board; a technology that has been in use for decades in marine environments. Indeed, a fully-functioning EPIRB can be made small enough to attach to an individual sailor’s or passenger’s inflatable life jacket to locate where the wearer is floating on the ocean.

When activated manually by the crew in the submersible, or perhaps automatically when the device is released from the submersible and floats to the surface, it sends out an emergency distress signal – which immediately indicates the identity of the signaling vessel – to several search and rescue satellites which are always overhead no matter where in the world the signal is sent from.

If linked – as even small personal hand-held EPIRB devices now commonly are – to an internal GPS locator of the kind found in many cell phones and even smart watches, the devices will also broadcast their location with pinpoint accuracy to the overhead satellites, and in addition permit rescuers who subsequently arrive on the scene to hone in on its radio signal to locate it on the surface.

“Since all of this can be packed into a small hand-held device weighing only ounces, which can transmit your identity and your location anywhere in the world for at least 24 hours, and is even waterproof and designed to float, there is no reason why one or more EPIRBs designed especially for submersibles (and perhaps even submarines) should not be able to do the same with a bigger battery sending a more powerful signal, and able to last for weeks,” Banzhaf argues.

As Popular Science just reported: “One of the most popular devices, a Float-free Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (FF EPIRB), is frequently utilized by the Coast Guard during rescue missions. But according to the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, EPIRBs activate only when a vessel capsizes to a depth of 1-4 meters—thus rendering them all-but-useless for a submersible such as Titan.”

Use Of A Modified EPIRB

However, as engineer Banzhaf points out, such devices, especially if manufactured especially for submersibles, could easily be redesigned to be triggered manually by the crew when their vessel reaches the surface.

Such a modified EPIRB could also be designed to send a distress signal only after a predetermined ocean depth has been reached and then the submersible subsequently returned to the surface – unless manually shut off by a member of the crew or recovery team within a brief period of time to permit such a deactivation, suggests the professor.

This is like my Apple watch, says Banzhaf. If it believes that I have fallen, it will give me a brief period of time in which to turn off the I-have-fallen program sequence which would otherwise place an emergency call. If I don’t turn it off promptly, it sends a distress signal.

Thus an EPIRB designed for submersibles could send a distress signal only once the craft returns to the surface, but then only if someone doesn’t turn it off – as I do with my Apple watch, says Banzhaf.

A similar suggestion was also made in an academic forum which said: “Some submarines are equipped with a distress beacon, the equivalent of an emergency position indicating radio beacon (EPIRB). This can be released at the captain’s order, or via a “dead-man” switch; if the pilot responds to a test at regular intervals, a sudden lack of response leads the system to assume the crew is incapacitated.”

Another very useful device which would have helped searchers locate the Titan if it wasn’t on or near the surface would have been a high-frequency acoustic pinger which would emit loud “pings” which could be heard by listening devices even dozens of miles away. Such ping devices are already incorporated in airplane “black boxes” to make it easier for them to be found and recovered.

The Titan reportedly did have a device which emitted pings every 15 minutes as the vessel descended, but the device apparently was not equipped with a dead-man control which would automatically start pinging if the timing mechanism was not manually shut off at periodic intervals by the crew (e.g. in case they were all unconscious or badly injured, or in the event of a catastrophic event such an implosion).

Such a device would make it much easier for surface vessels, and/or acoustical detectors dropped into the water, to pinpoint the location of the submersible. Such pinging devices could also be altered to permit the crew to send out simple messages in Morse Code if there was trouble (e.g. if trapped by cables or other debris near the Titanic) in addition to periodic pings whose only function is to aid in locating the transmitter, suggest Banzhaf.

Prof Banzhaf previously proposed that commercial aircraft be equipped with one or more automatically-inflatable EPIRBs after a crashed Sriwijaya Air passenger jet, and another from Malaysia Airlines, were unable to be found.

While it now appears that the craft imploded even before reaching the depth of the Titanic, neither an EPIRB nor a ping generator would have prevented the implosion. But if Titan had been equipped with either or both such devices, the futility of an expensive visual search of the ocean surface would have been apparent and resulted in a great saving of valuable resources.

Similarly, a ping generator aboard the Title would have made it quicker and much less expensive to locate, says Banzhaf.

So perhaps in the future, submersibles, and perhaps even submarines, should carry (floatable as well as attached to the vessel) EPIRBs set to transmit (unless manually turned off) under a variety of circumstances: e.g. upon subsequently reaching the surface, if there is no movement for a considerable period of time, if manually deployed by a member of the crew, etc.; and also generators likewise set to begin pinging under appropriate circumstances, he suggests.

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