Trying to transmit a GPS position report over a mountain rescue radio has been an on going project for several years. The initial concept was suggested as a Lake District MR project in September 1997 and work began the following year after some research into how it might be done had been carried out. The original system was fairly easily assembled using existing amateur radio technology. This worked but was designed to operate either as a fixed location system or from a moving vehicle. At the time, no hardware existed that would allow operation via a hand portable radio such as the ones in use by mountain rescue teams in the Lakes.
During the next year or two a system was devised by which team radios could be connected to the available hardware in order to prove the concept rather than to actually produce a viable GPS tracking system. Using existing vehicle tracking technology and the skills of local radio amateurs, GPS position reports were eventually transmitted from a Philips PF85 mountain rescue handset, back to a temporary mapping program provided by a commercial company. A number of not insignificant hurdles were crossed on the way including obtaining OfCom (then the Radio Communications Agency) permission for tests to be carried out and the OK from the Home Office to use the police owned mountain rescue radio channels and the allocation of temporary callsigns and permissions to allow the radio amateurs to operate on the mountain rescue frequencies. A huge amount of help was also given by the engineers at Philips/Simoco when it came to actually connecting it all together.
In all of the above situations, details of our precise intentions had to be drawn up and submitted for approval or suggestions. Preliminary testing before any requests were made of the authorities, was carried out on existing amateur radio frequencies where such experimental work is already permitted by the license all radio amateurs hold. The necessary permissions having finally been received, work began to produce a system that could be demonstrated at the next MRC conference and eventually this was done. The hardware was still of the big and bulky, proof-of-concept type and was never intended to be used operationally by rescue teams. However, it did work.
There then followed a number of years where the work was mainly research into what commercial GPS position reporting systems were available but at the time, only vehicle tracking was well developed and this used hardware very similar to that we already had. Some physically smaller hardware was obtained from America but it still needed us to build it all up and was never going to be a viable option for all the teams who needed it. The break through came when the authorities introduced the ‘Lone-Worker’ regulations requiring that any employee needing to work alone in a potentially hazardous situation should have the means by which he or she could report (ideally automatically) that a problem had occurred. GPS position reporting over radio nicely fills a niche in this respect and radio manufacturers were soon looking at producing GPS speaker microphones for their range of portable radios. Some, but by no means all, were successful in this including Team Simoco (originally Pye/Philips who had always supplied the Lake District with MR radios). As the Lakes had already opted to change to the new UKSAR high band channels using Team Simoco radios, we were in an ideal position to try out the GPS speaker mics that appeared a little after we took delivery of our main hardware order. Because they had been thought through where other manufacturers just bolted a GPS onto their existing equipment, and because we were in a position to actually influence the development of these devices, the Team Simoco hardware works well and provides us with an end to end solution to the problem.
Commercial mapping software was available but expensive and not specifically designed for mountain rescue use. A struggling, in-house software project was taken over by Dave Binks of Duddon and Furness MRT, who wrote the MRMap application. The design philosophy adopted by the Lakes was that the program would be provided free of charge to rescue teams and with the arrival of free OS maps of the entire UK following lengthy negotiations by the MRC’s Penny Brockman and her colleagues, the rest, as they say, is history.
As to the future, well we don’t know the answer to that one but it won’t end here, that’s for certain. GPS via mobile phones is heading our way and with it the fact that everyone, even the casualty will have similar communications equipment to what we might then be using. Digital radio communications will undoubtedly eventually catch up with us in some form or another. Both of these options, we’re already looking at. GPS based Personal Locator Beacons, PLBs, are being investigated by Tom Taylor up at Kinloss, The European GPS project, Galileo, might actually become a reality one day and we’ll have to evaluate the implications of that.
There’s still a lot to do.