Beacons in Antarctica

Accurate information on the location and status of people and resources under our care is key to ALE’s safety management process.

Routine and Emergency Communications

ALE’s safety management process includes:

  • Routine communications
  • Emergency communications
  • Capability for two-way voice communications between base and all sites 24 hours a day
  • Back-up or reserve systems
  • A pre-determined Emergency Response Plan

ALE maintains regular contact between our bases and field parties, aircraft and vehicles using various communications devices and systems. For many years HF radio was the only means of long-range communication in Antarctica. But nowadays routine communications are usually by satellite phone and email. Coverage south of 70°S (most of ALE’s operating area) is limited to the Iridium satellite system which has global coverage. Most beacons are a ‘transmit only’ (no receive), one-way communication device. They complement, but do not replace, two-way voice communications such as Iridium satellite communications or HF radio.

ALE policy is that all land-based expeditions carry two Iridium phones each with its own SIM card and at least two iridium batteries per phone and a solar charging system We require solo expeditions and ski sailing/kiting expeditions to carry tracker beacons as well. No contact for 48 hours stimulates a rescue response.

Emergency Communication Beacons

There are two primary categories of beacons:

  • Non-COSPAS-SARSAT tracking beacons
  • The International Search and Rescue COSPAS-SARSAT 406 MHz beacons

Non COSPAS-SARSAT Beacons (Tracking Systems)

Non COPAS-SARSAT beacons provide a one-way transmitting system that can be used for routine communications, personnel and vehicle tracking and emergency communications. Beacons suited for Antarctic expeditions (south of 70°S) use the Iridium network and are independent of the international COPAS-SARSAT search and rescue system. They usually combine a GPS processor with an Iridium short burst data transmitter modem and use mapping software like Google Earth. They may also include the facility to send pre-determined messages, or to send and receive short text messages. Most beacons have ‘normal’ and ‘emergency’ modes. In normal mode the unit sends a position/status report at pre-set intervals. The beacon can be linked to an expedition website to provide progress tracking for supporters and followers and monitoring by ALE. ‘Emergency mode’ alerts the monitor to an emergency situation. Pressing the ‘emergency / alert’ button automatically sends a message to designated responders.

Strengths of Tracking Systems
  • The emergency alert signal stays within the ALE/Expedition communications network and does not go to the International SAR network of the COSPAS-SARSAT system
  • This allows ALE to respond and to manage any incidents using our own resources if this is practicable – without precluding us from requesting assistance from other organizations if needed
  • In many Antarctic incidents the response from ALE will be faster and more appropriate because our base has simply switched from routine tracking to emergency response. By comparison initial contact from a 406 MHz COSPAS-SARSAT beacon to a third party with no prior knowledge of the user will generate a much slower response
  • The information can be accessed from multiple stations and locations within the organization in real time
  • The fact that the beacon (person/aircraft) is stationary can be an indicator of a problem. There may be a reason that a voice call cannot be made, or the beacon manually switched to emergency mode (For example, CO poisoning in a tent when the participants are expected to travel). ‘Activation’ of the beacon may not be required to indicate a problem.
Weaknesses of Tracking Systems
  • In Antarctica all these systems are still reliant on GPS and Iridium architecture. Any failure in these systems, caused for example by excessive sun-spot activity, could have significant effects
    Tracking Beacons for Antarctic Expeditions
Tracking Beacon Options

Various tracking beacons are available. None have been used enough in Antarctica to emerge as the best product. Current options are listed on the Iridium website:

A key question to ask is: How does the beacon or the service provider send the emergency alert message if you call for help? ALE has a 24 hour emergency telephone number at our office in Punta Arenas and at Union Glacier, however, we do not monitor websites or email 24 hours a day.

Note: There are numerous satellite tracking systems available for use in sub-polar latitudes. But these will not work south of 70°S. The Argos system, used by Antarctic expeditions until 2007 is no longer available.


The COSPAS-SARSAT system offers a global emergency SAR alerting system to users anywhere on Earth. Beacons are available for aircraft (Emergency Locator Transmitters ELTs), ships (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons EPIRBs), and individuals (Personal Locator Beacons PLBs). When activated, the beacon sends a 406MHz emergency signal via satellite to a ground station (LUT) and from there to Mission Control and Rescue Control Centers. The emergency response is coordinated by the MCC / RCC using civilian and military resources. The beacon user will have little or no control over the decisions and rescue processes once initiated. More about COSPAS-SARSAT

Strengths of COSPAS-SARSAT in Antarctica

RCCs around the Southern Ocean have agreements regarding SAR coverage. In addition, government and commercial operators have agreed to provide near-real time position and information reports to the various Southern Ocean MCC and RCCs
RCCs have an overview of SAR and resources available in any rescue. This is especially valuable for ships and aircraft operating in the region (but not as applicable to ground expeditions supported by ALE)

Weakness of COSPAS-SARSAT in Antarctica

The COSPAS-SARSAT system is not designed for routine communications, personnel and vehicle tracking
It is an emergency only, one-way transmitting system
The emergency will likely take place beyond the normal operating area of the emergency services in the surrounding countries: Chile, Argentina, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. The search resources available to Rescue Coordination Centers (RCC) in those countries may not be suited to the region where the emergency has occurred. Contacting those who have resources may be complicated, given the diverse international nature of operations across Antarctica. In most situations ALE is able to effect a quicker, more effective response using our own resources.

Choosing Between Iridium Tracking vs. COSPAS-SARSAT Beacon for Expedition Use

Iridium tracking beacon
  • Required for solo and kiting expeditions
  • Useful equipment for multi-person expeditions
  • Has both emergency and non-emergency modes
  • Non-emergency mode useful for daily position reports and website tracking
  • Some new beacons can receive SMS messages for basic two-way communication
  • Operates on Iridium system (no redundancy)
  • Optional extra, in addition to tracking beacon
  • Emergency signal only. No non-emergency mode
  • May trigger response from outside agency, where user has no control over decisions
  • COSPAS-SARSAT operates on separate system from Iridium. BUT if Iridium network were to fail, a functioning COSPAS-SARSAT beacon would not be sufficient for expedition to continue (because emergency response would be activated after 48 hours of no contact)

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