Lost at sea and rescued by modern technology

System uses data on wind, currents, tides to find man

April 06, 2007|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Sun reporter

For someone who suddenly found himself treading water - in his shorts, after midnight, 30 miles at sea as his cruise ship chugged on without him - Mike Mankamyer was one lucky guy.

First, somebody saw him fall over his cabin's balcony railing and drop 60 feet to the water below.

Second, they alerted the crew of the Carnival Glory, who quickly noted the ship's position, slowed to a stop and lowered boats for a search.

And third, the Coast Guard was operating a new search-and-rescue planning system called SAROPS. It quickly assembled real-time data on winds, tides and currents off Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Then it calculated Mankamyer's drop point and possible drift trajectories, and plotted his rescue.

After sunrise March 16, eight hours and 15 miles from where he fell in, Mankamyer was spotted, splashing and waving, by a lookout aboard the 110-foot Coast Guard cutter Chandeleur as it followed the search pattern SAROPS assigned.

A helicopter crew soon plucked him from the water. Mankamyer had a collapsed lung and was very cold, but he had survived.

Rescuers credited SAROPS (Search and Rescue Optimal Planning System) with providing the precise drift data that led rescuers to Mankamyer before swift Gulf Stream currents could carry him away, or hypothermia and exhaustion could take his life.

Coast Guard officials can't give statistics for the new system, but they're confident it will save more lives.

"The future is hard to quantify because we don't perform controlled tests," said Art Allen, an oceanographer with the Coast Guard's search-and-rescue office in Groton, Conn., who helped develop the technology. "I think, as we continue to make ... improvements and refinements and additions, it's only going to get better."

In 2006, Coast Guard crews responded to more than 26,000 search-and-rescue calls. They saved more than 5,200 lives, but another 786 were lost - more than 300 of them after the Coast Guard was called.

Until this year, those searches were planned using technology that had fallen behind the times, according to Richard A. Schaefer, chief of policy and programs in the Coast Guard's Office of Search and Rescue in Washington.

It included drift simulation software that took the uncertainties about how a floating object might drift and generated a small selection of places where it might be found after six or 12 hours.

It worked after a fashion, Schaefer said, but didn't draw a very detailed picture of the best places for rescuers to look first. Constrained by 1970s-era computer language and technology, it could use only limited environmental data, and none of the newest science for calculating drift.

The other piece of the system was called JAWS (for Joint Automated Work Sheets). "It was like taking the old paper-and-pencil-with-charts, and putting it on a computer," he said. "But it produced no better solutions than paper and pencil."

SAROPS was designed to improve on all that, and to pack everything into one user-friendly computer terminal.

The system was developed over three years, at a cost of $3.9 million, by Applied Science Associates of Narragansett, R.I., in collaboration with Northrup Grumman, Metron Inc. and the Coast Guard.

Training for search-and-rescue controllers was completed in February. By March 1, the SAROPS system was operational at 48 command centers coast to coast, and offshore from Puerto Rico to Guam.

The new system incorporates ASA's Environmental Data System. Using the Internet, it gathers real-time data and forecasts of wind, tides, wave action and currents from the Navy and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The information flows into a Coast Guard data center in Martinsburg, W. Va., where it is processed and passed on to SAROPS terminals at Coast Guard search-and-rescue offices across the country.

There, SAROPS operators enter the best coordinates and descriptions they have for who or what is missing - including lost cruise-ship passengers, disabled pleasure craft, drifting life rafts or lost cargo containers.

The operators call up the appropriate environmental data, and SAROPS calculates where the target is most likely to be found as the hours tick by.

Built into the system's mathematical formulas are decades of Coast Guard experience and experimentation with different kinds of drifting objects.

"Each ... has different drift characteristics," said ASA marketing director Lee Dooley.

A man who falls overboard in his shorts, such as Mankamyer, will move differently with the wind and currents than a drifting sailboat. Likewise, a drifting sailboat with sails up will move differently than with furled sails, or one that's sinking.

Calculating a multitude of possible drift scenarios in seconds, the SAROPS computer displays a detailed "probability grid" - thousands of colored specks superimposed across a map or ocean chart.

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