In August 2010, a single-engine airplane crashed in the Alaskan wilderness killing five passengers, including former Sen. Ted Stevens. His friend, former NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe, survived the crash and was stranded on the side of a mountain with three others for more than 18 hours while awaiting rescue and medical assistance.
One reason the search and rescue team took so long to reach the crash site was the failure of a small distress beacon in the aircraft, called an emergency transmitter, which is supposed to signal authorities and provide the approximate location of those in need of help.
This accident, coupled with the disappearance of a Malaysian airliner in 2014 and other instances where emergency beacon systems failed, prompted NASA’s Lisa Mazzuca to examine the growing problem. Through two years of research and testing, Mazzuca’s team developed a sturdier, more reliable, second-generation transmitter and an upgraded global satellite system to help responders locate crash sites more precisely.
“This is a huge development. It’s going to help people out in the most distressing circumstances and will have an enormous impact on scores of people who may not otherwise have had a chance to see another day,” O’Keefe said.
Cathy Barclay, a NASA deputy program manager, described Mazzuca as the “architect and designer of the entire new system” that will be more reliable and have “far-reaching national and global applications.”
Capt. Peter Martin, a Coast Guard commander in the Houston/Galveston region, said the repeated failure of the legacy emergency system has become a pressing safety problem for the aviation and maritime industries.
“This new technology provides search and rescue authorities with much more information so that we can understand who is in distress and where they are, and get help to them as quickly as possible. This makes a difference between life and death,” said Martin.
Mazzuca said she and her NASA colleagues realized that the emergency transmitters were not working as intended, had vulnerabilities and were not always surviving plane crashes.
In 2014, she and her team initiated a study to identify the primary reasons for the failure of the beacons, tested a large number of the devices on the market and performed three controlled airplane crash tests to evaluate failure scenarios.
This work led to the development of a new beacon with a more robust signal that is less prone to interference. It should be better able to survive the impact of a crash and thus reduce the time it takes to detect and locate a distress call. Coupled with the new generation satellite and ground systems, victims can be found with an accuracy of 100 meters, a vast improvement over the current system’s one kilometer accuracy.
“The distress signal gives you a fighting chance,” said O’Keefe, who suffered a fractured neck and other injuries from the airplane crash. “There were a lot of moments I thought ‘Well, I survived this part of the crash, but I may not survive the next part.’”
Emergency transmitters are mandated on all commercial airplanes, required for most general aviation aircraft and used in the maritime industry and by the Coast Guard. There were 307 rescues from search and rescue satellite systems in the United States in 2016, while more than 41,000 people have been saved worldwide since 1982 when this technology was launched.
Barclay said Mazzuca knew that the numbers of those rescued could improve dramatically with a more reliable and upgraded system in place.
The recommendations from the work Mazzuca performed on beacon crash survivability has resulted in upcoming regulatory changes in both the U.S. and Europe that will produce a significantly better beacon and improved practices for installing these devices in aircraft.
In addition to developing the new beacon and coordinating its use with the upgraded satellite system, Mazzuca led discussions regarding the new technology with representatives from 42 other countries as well as airplane manufacturers and other stakeholders.
While spending her working hours on this project, Mazzuca also serves as a volunteer with the Baltimore County Police Department in both maritime and aviation evironments supporting local search and rescue missions.
“I have this whole other half of me that not many people at NASA know about,” Mazzuca said. “This job really is a complete dovetail into the other half of me, and it keeps me driven to succeed. Having the technical ability to make a positive difference in someone’s life is personally what I am most proud of over my career.”