How Iridium is developing its GMDSS and security services

Iridium is developing its GMDSS and security services for shipping with two way calls in a distress situation rather than a text message, and better communications to the citadel, if crew ever need to use it.

Iridium is developing its Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) tools, encompassing two-way communication capabilities during distress situations, as well as enhanced communication services for the ‘Citadel’ where crew members retreat in the event of a piracy attack.

Kyle Hurst, Director of maritime safety and security services at Iridium explained more at a Digital Ship webinar, in October.

In 2018, Iridium gained approval from the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to provide recognised mobile satellite services for GMDSS and became operational in 2020.

Hurst views Iridium as a viable and game-changing alternative to Inmarsat C. Hurst stated how ‘calling back to shore, getting as much clear concise information as possible is key’ in ensuring the safety of vessels.

How it works

Iridium currently has three key features in its distress alert system. Those are identification, status, and position of the vessel in distress.

Hurst identified how the information provided by the current system offers effective initial key information to Rescue Coordination Centre (RCC) but lacks the ability to facilitate two-way voice calls.

Hurst claims Iridium is the only company which currently offers two-way voice calls. He explains how when the red alarm on a vessel is pressed for three seconds a priority one call is made to the rescue coordination team.

The vessel then enters distress mode. At which point basic information is sent to the Iridium ground station and the vessel is notified of the arrival of its distress message through an acknowledgement message from the ground team. The ground team then has ten seconds before a phone call is initiated between the ground team and vessel.

Hurt highlighted the value of two-way voice calls on vessels, stating how understanding ‘the nature of distress how many people on board what the crew are doing about the distress, all of these things allow the guys on Shore the RCC to know more about what's going on and then design appropriate response’.

Hurts claimed the feedback from RCC to be overwhelmingly positive, stating ‘in their minds it makes a big difference to how they can respond because they get a lot of very clear and concise information quickly’.

Iridium’s three C’s

Hurst simplified Iridium’s GMDSS strengths into three areas, what he called the three C's. These are, cost, coverage, and capability. He emphasised how Iridium offers ‘improved technology at a lower cost’, making it ‘more accessible’ and thereby elevating maritime safety standards worldwide.

The ‘Iridium system [is capable of] covering everything from the North Pole to the South Pole and everything in between’. This outlines how Iridium technology boasts some of the broadest communication coverage available in the maritime sector, coupled with some of the most budget friendly costs.

Currently, Iridium operates 14 operational rescue coordination centres, with Argentina and Morocco recently joining as the latest additions. Hurst contends that for the Iridium system, ‘there's no real limit to the amount of RCC's we can connect to the system we could connect every single RCC in the world to the Iridium system but obviously there's operational considerations there and Imo requirements in there as well’.

Pre-emptive tools

Hurst discussed Iridium SafetyCast, a defence tool designed to prevent stress for vessels. He detailed the tool's primary offerings, which can be categorised into the ‘two main flavours’ of information the feature provides.
The first concerns navigational information. Alerting vessels to potential unseen hazards such as, decommissioned lighthouses or partially submerged containers within shipping channels.

The second aspect involves regular weather updates delivered twice daily, along as ‘urgent messages of a higher priority with alarms on the terminal to let you know if there's any dangerous weather coming’. These priority alerts trigger alarms on the terminal, notifying vessels of imminent adverse weather conditions.


Citadel communications

Traditionally, citadel communication relied on a simple phone line within a safe room. This phone enabled crew members to alert authorities of ongoing attacks to vessels. This system, whilst often effective, proved inadequate during a recent incident, as not all crew members reached the Citadel. The assailants exploited this situation, leveraging crew members left outside the Citadel as bargaining chips.

The incident prompted a revaluation of the traditional Citadel communication model. Hurst explained how ‘unfortunately in the incident we were dealing with, most of the crew made it to the Citadel but unfortunately not all of the crew did and then the bad guys basically used the crew that didn't make it in as leverage to breach the Citadel’. The crew in the citadel left to protect their crewmates.

Hurst explained how in response to this critical issue, Iridium has developed a more robust communication model by fortifying the citadel and anti-piracy communications. There has been a move to ensure that even if ‘they don't make it to the citadel or the citadel is breached there are still systems to provide information to shore’.

This new approach makes use not only traditional voice communication but also incorporates systems which relay information to shore. This ensures that in scenarios where the citadel is compromised or crew members are unable to reach safety, authorities can still receive important data to enable a swift and effective intervention.

These new systems include, ‘multiple senses that we have on board the vessel pushing information from the vessel back to shore so that the good guys can see what's going on or have a very good idea of what's going on and they can decisively’ Iridium believes having ’information to be able to make the decisions and take action is key’. Hence why there has been a real effort made by Iridium to improve safety measures outside the citadel in the wake of this incident.

The team at Iridium have developed the LT 4100s terminal. This equipment, designed for citadel communication, consist of a range of features including concealed antennas, ensuring enhanced security by keeping critical components hidden from potential threats.
Iridium hopes its focus on citadel and anti-piracy communications will result in strides towards bolstering maritime security. With systems such as the LT 4100s terminal, Hurst believes the maritime industry is better equipped to navigate potential threats and protect the lives of crew members.
RCC communication
Hurst identified one key area of improvement Iridium provides regarding RCC’s. He explained how under typical circumstances, when a RCC receives a distress call, it sends out a broadcast containing the coordinates of the distressed vessel, in the hope of drawing responses from ships in the vicinity.

In contrast, Iridium’s technology can determine the position of other vessels in relation to the vessel in distress. With its calling capabilities, Iridium can make a direct call to nearby ships with exact locations being provided without having to wait for a response.

Iridium systems possess the capability to automatically regionalise emergency responses. The concept being that the effectiveness of an emergency response is enhanced when the system can pre-determine the specific area where an issue occurs. The RCC region an emergency occurs in will be notified meaning they’ll be able to ‘coordinate the search and rescue response because you're inside their search and rescue region’.

As of now, these systems are only operational in the waters of New Zealand and Fiji. However, there are plans to expand and implement these systems in regions across the globe.

Issue areas
Hurt spoke of some of the concerns and feedback expressed regarding the Iridium systems. Some partners were ‘were concerned about the situation in India because some of the rulings that the Indian government have made historically’, ‘in particular they were concerned that using Iridium GMDSS’.

Iridium ‘worked with our regulator, the IMO, the international mobile satellite organization, and they were great in helping us talk to the Indian government and get this new directive or new DGS order, Director General Shipping order, number as of 2023’. Ds




  LMB-BML 2007 Webmaster & designer: Cmdt. André Jehaes - email