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Network connects with lost trampers

NZ Newswire logoNZ Newswire 13/05/2017

Crew on rescue helicopters searching for lost trampers in areas with no cell phone coverage may soon be able to talk to them.

Vodafone and police search and rescue (SAR) say they have successfully tested a "search and rescue network" which creates an area of mobile phone coverage beneath an airborne search chopper.

This gives rescuers the ability to communicate with cell phones below, potentially saving lives.

The helicopter's altitude determines the size of the mobile coverage area. At 300m up it can be up to 4.5sq km, while at 100m it would cover about 1.5sq km.

"There have been a number of cases in the past where technology could have saved us time, money and potentially lives," says Auckland SAR co-ordinator for Police, Sargent Dene Duthie.

"We are looking forward to this going further."

More testing is needed before the technology is used in real-life situations and it doesn't change advice that trampers tell people where they're going and carry an EPIRB.

The idea to develop the network came after American tourists Rachel and Carolyn Lloyd were rescued in the Tararua Ranges in May 2016.

The mother and daughter were missing for several days before a chopper spotted their help sign laid out in rocks on the ground.

Vodafone technology director Tony Baird said after watching the Lloyd's story the company thought there must be a better way.

"With this innovation, it's like we're creating a searchlight across the bush using a mobile signal. We're really keen to keep working with SAR to get this technology to a stage where it could be used in real life search and rescue operations," he said.

The network detects a cell phone ping, giving SAR teams a narrowed search area to locate a missing person.

When they hear the helicopter overhead, the missing person on the ground can check for signal bars on their cell phone and make a 111 emergency call, which is answered by rescue crew inside the helicopter.

The information the missing person provides is passed on to SAR rescue crews on the ground to help direct their search efforts.

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