The history of the EPIRB

What is the history of the Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon EPIRB?


In the vast and unforgiving expanse of the world’s oceans, where human presence is but a speck in the grandeur of nature, safety at sea has always been a paramount concern. For centuries, mariners have navigated treacherous waters with a constant awareness of the perils that can strike at any moment. Among the many innovations aimed at ensuring their safety, the Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) stands as a beacon of hope, a lifesaver born from the union of technology and necessity.

The birth of the EPIRB

The history of the EPIRB can be traced back to the early 20th century when the world was grappling with the aftermath of the Titanic disaster. The sinking of the Titanic in 1912 revealed the critical need for better communication and rescue systems for vessels in distress. Over the ensuing decades, radio technology advanced, and efforts were made to create effective distress signaling systems.

The EPIRB, as we know it today, emerged in the 1970s when technological advancements and a series of maritime disasters spurred the development of a more efficient emergency beacon. Those beacons, primarily based on radio frequency technology (VHF/AM and military UHF frequencies and operated at both 121.5MHz and 243MHz) were used to transmit distress signals to nearby civilian and military aircraft. When an aircraft received a distress signal on 121.5MHz or 243 MHz, the aircraft alerted the shoreside SAR forces and any nearby vessel to where the distress signal was detected.

In 1970, Jotron was the first in the world to develop an EPIRB and receive national approval. This first EPIRB was called the Tron 1. Approval of this EPIRB was achieved through a joint venture including the Norwegian Maritime Authority and the Civil Aviation Authority of Norway.

The advent of satellite technology

The real breakthrough for EPIRBs came with the advent of satellite technology in the late 20th century. In the 1980s, the development of the COSPAS-SARSAT satellite system revolutionized search and rescue operations at sea. An EPIRB could then transmit distress signals to satellites, which would then relay the information to ground stations, dramatically improving response times and accuracy. Jotron was at the forefront of the development of a 406MHz satellite EPIRB.

In 1989, Jotron was the first to receive Cospas-Sarsat approval, approval number TAC 001. EPIRBs evolved from simple radio beacons to sophisticated devices equipped with built-in GPS receivers, which enabled them to transmit accurate position information. This critical enhancement meant that search and rescue teams no longer had to rely solely on triangulating the source of the distress signal. They could now pinpoint the location of a vessel or individual in distress with remarkable precision. Today, the Cospas-Sarsat satellite program consists of both LEO-Sar (Loworbit) and MEOSAR (Medium Orbit) satellites which detect all 406MHz distress signals even faster.

EPIRB as a mandatory lifesaving appliance

The SOLAS Convention in its successive forms is generally regarded as the most important of all international treaties concerning the safety of merchant ships. The first version was adopted in 1914, in response to the Titanic disaster, the second in 1929, the third in 1948, and the fourth in 1960. The 1974 version included the tacit acceptance procedure. As a result, the 1974 SOLAS Convention has been updated and amended several times. Today, it is often referred to as SOLAS, 1974, as amended. The United Nations and IMO (International Maritime Organization) are responsible for revising the SOLAS convention. The IMO started working on a global maritime distress and safety system (GMDSS) in the 1970s after several maritime disasters highlighted the need for a more modern and comprehensive system. In 1988, IMO adopted the GMDSS concept which was mandatory for all passenger ships and cargo ships with over 300 gross tonnages in 1999. An EPIRB is a part of the GMDSS regulation.

Read more about our GMDSS products