An avalanche rescue dog, poised in the snow, symbolising the vital role of European satellite technology in enhancing search and rescue operations in challenging terrains

How Europe is saving lives with satellite technology

Explore how satellite technology, developed and deployed by European industry, helps in search and rescue across Europe

Search and rescue operations are vital for saving lives in emergency situations, such as natural disasters, maritime accidents, or mountain incidents. SAR teams rely on cutting-edge technology to help them reach people quickly and safely. Explore how satellite technology, developed and deployed by European industry, assists in search and rescue in Europe.

Cutting-edge technology in search and rescue

Search and rescue missions demand resilient and state-of-the-art technological solutions that can operate under extreme conditions such as severe weather, darkness, high altitude, or heavy swell. Modern helicopters, reaching emergency scenes three to five times faster than ground vehicles, are often the only option for difficult-to-access terrain.

Crucially, European manufacturers have developed groundbreaking technology, the Mobile Phone Detection and Location System (MPDLS) that turns every mobile phone into a rescue beacon, enabling search and rescue helicopter crews to quickly pinpoint stranded people, potentially making the difference between life and death.

Enhanced camera systems, night vision goggles, thermographic solutions, and new-generation remotely operated rescue craft further demonstrate the commitment of the European aerospace, defence, and security industries to saving lives through innovation.

Communication and navigation

Successful rescue missions depend on effective communication. European manufacturers have been at the forefront of developing technology that allows operators to track team members in real time, making rescue missions safer and faster.

Space applications like Europe’s Global Navigation Satellite System, Galileo, play a pivotal role in tracking distress signals. The SAR/Galileo service, launched in 2016 as part of Galileo Initial Services, relays radio beacon distress signals to search and rescue crews by Galileo satellites, supported by three ground stations strategically positioned across Europe. Since 2020, the SAR/Galileo Return Link Service (RLS) provides an automatic acknowledgement message back to the user informing them that their request for help has been received.

Earth observation and situational awareness

Another key aspect of search and rescue operations is the ability to monitor and assess the environment and the situation on the ground. Earth observation satellites, such as those operated under the Copernicus programme, provide valuable data and imagery that can help search and rescue teams plan and execute their missions.

For example, the Sentinel-1 and Sentinel-2 satellites can provide high-resolution radar and optical images of the Earth’s surface, regardless of cloud cover or daylight. These images can be used to map the extent and impact of disasters, such as floods, landslides, earthquakes, or wildfires, and to identify the best routes and locations for rescue operations.

The Sentinel-3 and Sentinel-6 satellites can measure sea surface height, temperature, and colour, as well as ocean currents and wind speed. These data can be used to support maritime search and rescue missions, such as locating and tracking vessels in distress, or predicting the movement of oil spills or floating debris.

The Sentinel-5P satellite can monitor the atmosphere and detect pollutants, such as carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, or ozone. These data can be used to assess the air quality and the potential health risks for search and rescue teams and affected populations.

European cooperation and coordination

The development and deployment of satellite technology for search and rescue purposes is the result of a longstanding cooperation and coordination among various European actors, such as the European Space Agency, the EU, the European Global Navigation Satellite Systems Agency (GSA), the European Organisation for the Safety of Air Navigation (EUROCONTROL), the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA), ASD-Eurospace, and European companies. 

They have been working together to ensure the interoperability, compatibility, and complementarity of the different satellite systems and services, as well as to promote their use and uptake by the search and rescue community and the general public.

Moreover, they collaborate with international partners, such as the International Cospas-Sarsat Programme, a satellite-based search and rescue distress alert detection and information distribution system, or the International Charter on Space and Major Disasters, a worldwide collaboration among space agencies to provide free satellite data and information to support disaster response.

Satellite technology build by the aerospace, security and defence industry is a key enabler for search and rescue operations in Europe because it provides essential information and services that can improve the performance and safety of search and rescue teams, as well as the chances of survival of those in need of assistance.