Milestone-Proposal:The first human rescue and life saving enabled by space technology

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Docket #:2014-12

This Proposal has been approved, and is now a Milestone

To the proposer’s knowledge, is this achievement subject to litigation? No

Is the achievement you are proposing more than 25 years old? Yes

Is the achievement you are proposing within IEEE’s designated fields as defined by IEEE Bylaw I-104.11, namely: Engineering, Computer Sciences and Information Technology, Physical Sciences, Biological and Medical Sciences, Mathematics, Technical Communications, Education, Management, and Law and Policy. Yes

Did the achievement provide a meaningful benefit for humanity? Yes

Was it of at least regional importance? Yes

Has an IEEE Organizational Unit agreed to pay for the milestone plaque(s)? Yes

Has the IEEE Section(s) in which the plaque(s) will be located agreed to arrange the dedication ceremony? Yes

Has the IEEE Section in which the milestone is located agreed to take responsibility for the plaque after it is dedicated? Yes

Has the owner of the site agreed to have it designated as an IEEE Milestone? Yes

Year or range of years in which the achievement occurred:


Title of the proposed milestone:

First Search and Rescue Using Satellite Location Technology, 1982

Plaque citation summarizing the achievement and its significance:

On 9 September 1982 an aircraft crashed in the mountains of British Columbia. A Canadian ground station in Ottawa located the aircraft using the COSPAS-SARSAT satellite system. Search and rescue teams were dispatched and all on board were rescued. Since the first incident, many tens of thousands of lives have been saved around the world using this technology.

200-250 word abstract describing the significance of the technical achievement being proposed, the person(s) involved, historical context, humanitarian and social impact, as well as any possible controversies the advocate might need to review.

IEEE technical societies and technical councils within whose fields of interest the Milestone proposal resides.

In what IEEE section(s) does it reside?


IEEE Organizational Unit(s) which have agreed to sponsor the Milestone:

IEEE Organizational Unit(s) paying for milestone plaque(s):

Unit: Ottawa section
Senior Officer Name: Janet Davis, Chair

IEEE Organizational Unit(s) arranging the dedication ceremony:

Unit: Ottawa section
Senior Officer Name: Janet Davis, Chair

IEEE section(s) monitoring the plaque(s):

IEEE Section: Ottawa section
IEEE Section Chair name: Janet Davis, Chair

Milestone proposer(s):

Proposer name: Mike Stott
Proposer email: Proposer's email masked to public

Please note: your email address and contact information will be masked on the website for privacy reasons. Only IEEE History Center Staff will be able to view the email address.

Street address(es) and GPS coordinates in decimal form of the intended milestone plaque site(s):

Canada Aviation and Space Museum11 Aviation Pkwy, Ottawa, ON K1K 2X5, Canada, 45.458542,-75.6462657

Describe briefly the intended site(s) of the milestone plaque(s). The intended site(s) must have a direct connection with the achievement (e.g. where developed, invented, tested, demonstrated, installed, or operated, etc.). A museum where a device or example of the technology is displayed, or the university where the inventor studied, are not, in themselves, sufficient connection for a milestone plaque.

Please give the address(es) of the plaque site(s) (GPS coordinates if you have them). Also please give the details of the mounting, i.e. on the outside of the building, in the ground floor entrance hall, on a plinth on the grounds, etc. If visitors to the plaque site will need to go through security, or make an appointment, please give the contact information visitors will need. The Canada Aviation and Space Museum (CASM) is attended by large numbers of visitors to the nation's capital. It houses a large collection of historic aircraft and has recently received a mandate to expand and portray Canada's history in space and satellites.

Are the original buildings extant?

Yes but they are in secure facilities and inaccessible to the public.

Details of the plaque mounting:

The plaque will be accommodated in the grounds of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum on a plinth or similar structure. Additionally, CASM intend to develop a large digital (possibly interactive) display which will illustrate Canada's history and achievements in space and an image of the plaque may be incorporated into this display..

How is the site protected/secured, and in what ways is it accessible to the public?

The grounds of the CASM are open to the public who will be able to see the plaque as they enjoy the park-like setting.The whole site is protected by the custodians of the CASM. It will not be necessary for the public to go through any security procedures to see the plaque.

Who is the present owner of the site(s)?

Canada Aviation and Space Museum, Government of Canada

What is the historical significance of the work (its technological, scientific, or social importance)? If personal names are included in citation, include justification here. (see section 6 of Milestone Guidelines)

The development was motivated by the perils to aviation in the remote areas of the Canadian and US wilderness. For some years starting in the 1970s all aircraft were required to carry an Emergency Locator Transmitter (ELT) which would activate in a crash and would enable search and rescue crews to home in on a downed aircraft. However due to the need for a line of sight path between the crash site and a search aircraft the detection radius was quite limited. This resulted in lengthy and often unsuccessful searches and the consequent deaths of crash survivors. Speedy rescue is crucial to saving the lives of survivors. In the 1970s an International collaboration was established between Canada, US, the Soviet Union and later, France. This collaboration was to develop and deploy a satellite-based system which would vastly increase the detection radius for ELTs and provide a position estimate for the crash site. This would enable speedy response and rescue and thereby greatly increase the chances of survival. Canada produced a special transponder (made by SPAR Aerospace) which was fitted to an existing US TIROS weather satellite thereafter known as the SARSAT satellite. The USSR produced a similar and compatible package which was known as the COSPAS satellite. Canada also produced the ground stations (made by Canadian Astronautics Limited (CAL Corp) which detected and located the ELT. The event being commemorated was the first 'live' detection/search/rescue made using the system. The first COSPAS satellite had just been launched and the ground station located at CRC in Ottawa detected a crash in the remote mountain areas of British Columbia. The crash site was at the limit of detection distance, approximately 3000 miles. An accurate position was obtained and the crew were successfully saved. Since the first incident many tens of thousands of lives have been saved around the world using this technology.

What obstacles (technical, political, geographic) needed to be overcome?

The satellite-based system design utilised a measurement of the frequency of the ELT signal as the satellite passed over. The frequency measurements followed a Doppler shift trajectory, the analysis of which could determine the ELT location. The primary obstacles to success related to the ELTs in use at the time. These units were never designed or intended for the satellite technology and suffered from a number of major problems: 1 The ELTs were designed only to make a distinctive 'warble' tone in an AM aircraft receiver. They were manufactured by many suppliers. Many were not only unstable in frequency, they were also non-coherent. These factors made the accurate measurement of frequency extremely challenging. 2 The ELT signals were 'unsignatured' meaning there was no definitive way to distinguish between one ELT signal and another. This presented extreme challenges when, due to the extremely wide visibility radius, there could be many ELTs active at once. 3 The ELT signals were very weak, especially in the event of damage caused by a crash. The frequency used was the aviation distress frequency of 121.5MHz which was also populated with stronger voice signals as well as spurious emissions from powerful broadcast transmitters. The ground signal processing system had to consistently deal with all these issues and still produce a reliable detection and position estimate on an operational basis. It represents a very early application of the techniques of digital signal processing which are commonplace nowadays.

At the time of initiation of the SARSAT/COSPAS program the 'Cold War' was extant which posed considerable obstacles to co-operation between the nations involved. (More material needed-MAS)

The system by its nature is global. While the initial focus was North America and the Soviet Union the system rapidly expanded to include more nations and become essentially global.

What features set this work apart from similar achievements?

The technological obstacles to be overcome to permit the use of legacy analog ELT beacons. Early use of real-time Digital Signal Processing. The international cooperation involving the Western Powers (Canada, USA, France) and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

This event is considered to be the first operational save using satellite position-locating data. The COSPAS and SARSAT satellites were the first to be equipped with transponders for 121.5MHz, 243MHz which are the ELT frequencies for aviation use. The COSPAS satellite had only been activated for a few days before the event and the system was still officially in its research/checkout phase, The incident in the citation was the first recorded real incident. The supporting documents confirm the event as a 'first'. The first maritime save/rescue occurred one month later involving a capsized yacht in the Atlantic ocean.

Supporting texts and citations to establish the dates, location, and importance of the achievement: Minimum of five (5), but as many as needed to support the milestone, such as patents, contemporary newspaper articles, journal articles, or chapters in scholarly books. 'Scholarly' is defined as peer-reviewed, with references, and published. You must supply the texts or excerpts themselves, not just the references. At least one of the references must be from a scholarly book or journal article. All supporting materials must be in English, or accompanied by an English translation.

Ottawa system located BC plane crash.jpg File:SARSAT Aerospace Canada Reduced All.pdf File:Canadian Astronautics SARSAT Ground Station Paper.pdf File:The COSPAS SARSAT System Paper.pdf File:COSPAS SARSAT Demonstration Evaluation Results.pdf File:COSPAS.flv

Supporting materials (supported formats: GIF, JPEG, PNG, PDF, DOC): All supporting materials must be in English, or if not in English, accompanied by an English translation. You must supply the texts or excerpts themselves, not just the references. For documents that are copyright-encumbered, or which you do not have rights to post, email the documents themselves to Please see the Milestone Program Guidelines for more information.

Ottawa system located BC plane crash.jpg File:SARSAT Aerospace Canada Reduced All.pdf

Please email a jpeg or PDF a letter in English, or with English translation, from the site owner(s) giving permission to place IEEE milestone plaque on the property, and a letter (or forwarded email) from the appropriate Section Chair supporting the Milestone application to with the subject line "Attention: Milestone Administrator." Note that there are multiple texts of the letter depending on whether an IEEE organizational unit other than the section will be paying for the plaque(s).

Please recommend reviewers by emailing their names and email addresses to Please include the docket number and brief title of your proposal in the subject line of all emails.