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The Ultimate Guide to Safety Beacons (PLBs, EPIRBs & AIS Beacons)

Emergency location beacons are fast becoming essential items of safety equipment that everyone should have on board. The cost of these devices has fallen dramatically over the last few years, so now is a great time to add some peace of mind to your next adventure. With such a vast range of models on the market, however, which is the right one for you?

See our guide below for the different types of safety beacons available and which is best for your needs.

 

What are the different types of safety beacon?

There are three types of emergency location beacon but each have different applications and requirements for use. These are:

1. Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB)

2. Personal Locator Beacon (PLB)

3. Automatic Identification System Beacon (AIS)

 

What is an EPIRB?

An Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon, or EPIRB is a device carried on a vessel which can alert Search and Rescue to your location in the event of an emergency. EPIRBs are registered to your vessel.

 

What frequencies do EPIRBs transmit on?

EPIRBs send a coded message via the 406 MHz distress frequency which is relayed via satellites to Search and Rescue, giving the beacon worldwide cover.

The majority of the device’s we sell have built in GPS receivers which send out your position as well. This then gives a location accuracy of under 100m. In addition EPIRB’s utilise a 121.5 MHz homing beacon. Rescuers use this when they are in the right area to pinpoint your exact location. 

Recently we have seen the introduction of an EPIRB with a built in AIS (Automatic Indentification System) beacon. The McMurdo G8 EPIRB / AIS when activated, sends out the normal message on the 406 MHz freqency as well as an AIS message to AIS equipped vessels within range. This increases and rapidly speeds up your chance of rescue if there is help within range.

 

McMurdo G8                       Ocean Signal EPIRB1 

 

 

What is a PLB?

PLB stands for Personal Location Beacon. It is a device that can be used in life or death emergency situations to alert Search and Rescue services to the location of an individual.

Once activated it sends a message via the 406 MHz distress frequency which is relayed via satellites to Search and Rescue. This gives the beacon worldwide cover.

All PLBs that we sell have built in GPS receivers which send out your position encoded into the 406 MHz frequency. This then gives a location accuracy of under 100m.

An additional built in 121.5 MHz homing beacon is standard with a PLB meaning rescuers use this when they are in the right area to pinpoint your exact location.

 

Who uses a Personal Locator Beacon?

There are many activities where having a PLB is useful, and not just on the water. As PLBs are programmed to the individual they are ideal for crew members that regularly move between vessels. Solo sailors would also benefit from having a PLB on them at all times.

PLBs are also ideal for a multitude of onshore / land based activities. For example as an emergency beacon for hikers or if you are in a location with no mobile phone reception.

The aviation industry has also adopted the use of Personal Locator Beacons for anyone flying light aircraft.

 

 McMurdo Fastfind 220 PLB       Ocean Signal RescueMe PLB1

 

 

EPIRB Vs PLB: What's the Difference between a PLB and EPIRB?

 

PLB

EPIRB

Registration

Registered to an individual and therefore smaller - good for those who move between vessels or partake in land-based activities

Registered to a vessel - mandatory in all commercial vessels and commonly used on leisure boats and yachts

Application

Can be used on land as well as at sea

Used only at sea

Activation

Manual activation by the individual

Manual or automatic activation (following water submergence)

Transmission Duration

A minimum of 24 hours (as long as battery is in date)

At least 48 hours

Floatation

Not all float and may require additional floatation support

All devices float

 

What is an AIS Beacon?

An Automatic Identification System (AIS) is an automatic tracking system originally designed for vessels to aid in collision avoidance. Now the same technology has been adapted to be carried by individual crew members to help in ‘man over board‘ (MOB) situations. Because of this, you might often hear them referred to as AIS Man Overboard (MOB) devices. 

An AIS beacon, once activated, transmits an MOB message to AIS equipped vessels within range (approx. 4-5 miles). A built in GPS receiver ensures that your exact location is sent.

This is then displayed on a chart plotter or other screens that have an AIS interface as an MOB icon.

Most AIS beacons are designed to be fitted inside a lifejacket and will activate automatically upon inflation.

 

McMurdo Smartfind S20 AIS          Ocean Signal MOB1 AIS 

  

Should I buy an AIS beacon or PLB?

We are often asked this question and is hard to answer. This is primarily because the two devices have a very different purpose. AIS beacons are primarily designed for MOB rescue, whilst PLBs alert the emergency services to a life or death situation.

In a 'man overboard situation' the first thing to consider is who is most likely to rescue you? The best chance of rescue is usually from your own vessel. An AIS beacon would be more suited for this situation, as it will alert your own boat or boats within range.

Single handed sailors would probably benefit more from a PLB to contact the emergency services, especially if there are no other vessels within range.

Also, if you want to be able to see AIS MOB on your vessel you will need to have an AIS system on board.

Neither device has a subscription fee, although you are required to register the PLB with your local authority.

 

EPIRB, PLB and AIS Beacon Model Comparison Table

Beacon Type EPIRB PLB AIS Beacon
Make / Model  McMurdo G8
Eprib / AIS
Ocean Signal EPIRB1 McMurdo 220 Ocean Signal PLB1 McMurdo S20 Ocean Signal MOB1
Battery Life (Standby) 10 years 10 years 6 years 7 years 7 years 7 years
Minimum Operation Time 48 hours 48 hours 24 hours 24 hours 24 hours 24 hours
Dimensions D x W x L (mm)* 121 x 125 x 270 89 x 89 x 178 34 x 47 106 32.5 x 51 x 75 27 x 47 x 124 27 x 38 x 134
Weight (grams) 710 422 152 116 120 92
Activation Auto & Manual Auto & Manual Manual Manual Auto** & Manual Auto** & Manual

*Smallest stowed dimensions

**When fitted correctly in lifejacket