Coast Guard innovates with rugged TDS Recon handhelds

In rough seas, Coast Guard rescuers can use TDS Recon rugged handhelds to follow a search pattern without plotting on paper charts.

Robin Ressler

Station Oregon Inlet Unit near Cape Hatteras, N.C., has won the Coast Guard's innovation award for pioneering a search-and-rescue application on rugged handheld computers.

Petty Officer Justin Schnute, who started the effort as a 'break-in coxswain,' or small-boat commander, applied his computer science knowledge to speed searches for commercial fishing boats, pleasure craft or charters in trouble.

'When we get an alert, a Cape Hatteras command-and-control program takes the last known position and the weather and tide information and calculates a search pattern,' Schnute said.

Room for mistakes

Rescuers receive the way points for the search by e-mail or fax, 'and then we would have to write them down to plug into a Global Positioning System receiver,' he said. 'There was lots of room for error.'

The risk of error worsened if the way points came by VHF radio to rescuers already out in their 47-foot motor lifeboats. 'We would have to plot things on a paper chart,' he said. 'I knew there had to be an easier way.'

He began looking for digital chart-makers and found MapTech Inc. of Amesbury, Mass., and British partner, which makes navigation software for personal digital assistants with GPS links.

'I talked with the software engineers to make the software more compatible' with the Cape Hatteras C2 program, he said. 'I gave the software to the qualified coxswain and also tested and suggested tweaks myself. Eventually we got far enough along for a commercial product,' which will be known as Memory-Map Professional.

At first the Coast Guard rescue crews ran the software on the Hewlett-Packard iPaq handheld, 'and it worked very well except in rough weather,' Schnute said. 'We're a surf station throughout the year. We get storms and hurricanes and large waves. Everything we have gets wet' on the almost daily rescue missions, in spite of immersion suits.

So Schnute began looking for a more rugged handheld. He settled on the TDS Recon from Tripod Data Systems Inc. of Corvallis, Ore.

'It's light, small and relatively inexpensive,' he said. 'A GPS receiver plugs in, and you can use a satellite phone for e-mail.'

The TDS Recon displays a chart of the ocean around a distressed vessel's last known position and overlays the search pattern on it, saving '20 to 30 minutes of preparation each time,' Schnute said. 'We still do all the standard processes'the radio and the paper chart plotting'but it makes the job easier for the coxswain.'

Formerly, one of the four-person lifeboat crew had to concentrate exclusively on a stopwatch to measure the legs of the search pattern. Now, three people can look out for the distressed vessel while all the navigation is done by the fourth holding the TDS Recon.

'We save lives, and you can't miss having fun doing that,' Schnute said.

The Station Oregon Inlet Unit won the Coast Guard's Capt. Niels P. Thomsen Award for the effort.


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