Dutchman Jason Schot created the PanPan Beacon and App in January 2016. Soon after, it received the 2017 Pittman Innovation Award and can be found on NauticExpo website. This smart, inexpensive crew monitor consists of a beacon and a simple phone app to constantly check everyone’s presence on board. Jason told us more.
NE e-mag: How does the system work?
Jason Schot: The two parts are a small beacon and the app. The two connect via low-energy Bluetooth. At first, I was concerned that Bluetooth’s range would be inadequate. But we made it work by inverting the principle—monitoring for a loss of signal instead of for an emergency signal.
“The beacon is constantly sending and verifying a signal.”
There are two ways the MOB alarm can be triggered: through the water sensor or by a loss of signal. The beacon constantly sends an “I’m okay” signal to the phone. Bluetooth transmission is very poor in the water, so going overboard will either break the signal or trigger the water sensor.
Both events automatically activate the alarm after three seconds. The water sensor is especially useful if you go overboard while attached to a lifeline. You would still be in signal range, but the beacon would get wet and alarm your crew.
If it’s really a man overboard, you see the MOB compass. Concretely, your boat is shown at the center of the compass and a MOB icon indicates the direction to the point of loss. You change course until the icon is dead ahead. The icon then turns green and gets bigger as you approach. There’s no map reading involved; it’s really simple and intuitive.
Once you get to the loss point, the system initiates a homing feature, which is also what rescue helicopters use. A search perimeter is drawn around the point of loss, based on the time passed to account for drift due to current and wind. The beacon will rapidly emit a signal saying, “I’m here, I’m here, I’m here.” Because Bluetooth performs poorly in water, the phone will receive this signal only when it is in close proximity. The app then notifies you and tells you to try to establish vocal and visual contact with the MOB.
NE e-mag: How is a false alarm possible?
Jason Schot: There are two things that can happen. First, we recommend wearing the beacon inside your life jacket. Placing it high on the body will maximize its range. It will also keep the sensor dry while on board, preventing false alarms. If worn elsewhere, the water sensor usually can distinguish rain or waves from a man overboard. However, continued exposure to water can trigger the alarm.
Second, on a very large boat, let’s say over 60 feet, you might be in the engine room. Bluetooth has a hard time with solid metal objects, which could cause a false alarm by a loss of signal. To increase range, we are using the very best Bluetooth antennas commercially available. We also built a unique meshing system to prevent unwanted signal loss. If you’re in the engine room and there’s a second beacon on board, the signal will be sent to the phone through the second beacon, which automatically becomes a repeater when necessary.
“With our system, you have the alarm, the vibrating phone and the strobe light.”
NE e-mag: What are the differences between PanPan and traditional AIS systems?
Jason Schot: We wanted this product to be accessible to everyone. AIS beacons are often too expensive for an entire crew. They usually start at around 350 euros. Ours is 95 euros, with a quantity discount.
Another thing is that almost no AIS beacons play an audio alarm. You usually get something like a dot on the AIS chart. You have to look down and notice it. With our system, you have the alarm, the vibrating phone and the strobe light.
We also have a very fast response time. Our active system means the beacon is constantly sending and verifying a signal. As soon as it’s lost, it sounds the alarm. Most AIS or EPIRB beacons do nothing when you’re aboard. Once in the water, they must be manually activated or they turn on automatically, but all must get a GPS fix. It can take up to 15 minutes for a traditional AIS beacon to get that fix and start sending its emergency signal. This is a long time to spend in cold waters, a danger in itself.
NE e-mag: Does your app work on both iPhone and Android?
Jason Schot: Yes. The only requirements are that you have GPS and low-energy Bluetooth on your phone. That includes almost all phones since 2014-2015. If you don’t have GPS, it will still send the alarm, but won’t be able to guide you back to the man overboard.
Read more about Personal locator beacons (PLBs) on NauticExpo website.