: 7 min

Rescue in the high seas with the gyrostabilized optronic pod

Safran offers gyrostabilized electro-optical (optronic) systems for use on all types of aircraft, from airplanes and helicopters to drones and airships. These highly robust systems are qualified for use in the harshest environments, including bad weather, extreme hot & cold, etc. They are designed for surveillance, intelligence, rescue and many other missions, day or night. For example, Safran’s electro-optical systems are deployed by several French naval air stations, especially at Lanvéoc-Poulmic, not far from Brest in Brittany.

Loïc is part of the French navy’s air-sea search & rescue (SAR) team. More specifically, he’s the sensor operator, an electronics specialist in charge of the sensors on aircraft deployed by the French navy. Assigned to the navy’s dedicated SAR helicopters, he coordinates the different sensors from a central console in the cabin. He’s also in charge of hoisting operations during air-sea rescue missions. Today, it’s a real emergency: they need to rescue a ship in distress.

A storm is brewing...

Loïc is eating dinner with fellow crew members on call when his cell phone starts ringing. He jumps up as soon as he hears the special ring tone he chose for calls from his helicopter squadron 33F.

Yann, Gwendal and Adrien also jump into their car to join the squadron. Yann is the pilot, and Gwendal the co-pilot, also called the tactical coordinator. Taking the left-hand seat in the helicopter, he’s the one who chooses which sensors should be used. Adrien is the rescue swimmer for this mission.

Once he arrives at the squadron’s base, Loïc gets a quick rundown on the situation from one of the staff members at the regional monitoring and rescue center, while his fellow crew members get the helicopter ready. A distress call was received about 20 minutes ago, from the owner of a sailboat that lost its mast in the Chenal du Four, a channel off the western tip of Brittany, between Le Conquet and Béniguet Island.

But since the emergency call, they have lost radio contact! The mast falling could have caused a leak, and the ship risks running aground on the reefs along this channel. They have to act fact: the boat is in a low-pressure zone located about 70 kilometers from the coast – too far for a rescue attempt by one of the lifeboats deployed by the Le Conquet branch of the national maritime rescue organization SNSM (Société Nationale de Sauvetage en Mer).

Dark night, low ceiling, raging sea

The crew’s immediate priority is to quickly find the boat and its occupant in a vast, cold and constantly changing sea.

The waves in this sector are nearly three meters high, and the sailboat is only seven meters long. Loïc quickly asks for details about the color of the boat and the sea and wind conditions. With a Force 5 wind, it’s not going to be easy!

Furthermore, not only is the sailor’s radio not answering, but no distress beacon has been activated.

Leaving the briefing room, Loïc sees that the helicopter has been rolled out of its hangar and Yann is already at the controls. Gwendal, Adrien and two mechanics are undertaking final checks. Less then ten minutes later, the crew is ready to take off.

High-tech surveillance

They’re flying a latest-generation helicopter, the NH90 Caïman Marine model. Deployed by the French navy, the Caïman Marine not only performs combat missions, it also assumes a wide variety of support missions, including air-sea rescue, assistance for ships in distress, medical evacuation, naval logistics, commando transport, etc. Each of these machines is fitted with a state-of-the-art avionics suite, featuring Safran’s Euroflir 410 gyrostabilized electro-optical pod.

Mounted on the helicopter's nose, under the cockpit, the pod is used to observe and detect movements at sea or on the ground, under any weather conditions. For example, it can detect a shipwreck survivor at a range of several kilometers, even in the dead of night and during a storm.

Euroflir 410 in action!

The helicopter is now flying over endless waves, and the tension inside is at a peak. The last position sent by the boat’s skipper was almost an hour ago. Given the wind and the swells, he could have drifted a number of kilometers already. After about 20 minutes, with the helicopter flying at over 140 knots (161 mph), Loïc powers up the sensors and guides the pilot so they can cover the search zone most effectively. Hunched over his console, he first decides to scan the zone from where the last radio call was received. This operation is automated, thanks to the system’s gyrostabilized line-of-sight. It’s the system that automatically calculates the flight path needed to scan an entire sector. The operator mainly uses his infrared sensor to detect “hot spots” on the ocean surface.

Alive!

Just a few minutes later, the operator suddenly cries out,

I’ve got a hot spot in sector 182, range five nautical miles!

Loïc used the hot spot detection function in the system, enabling him to detect a human form. But he has to make sure that it’s the guy they’re looking for. So he activates the Spotter function in the gyrostabilized pod, a continuous zoom in the infrared band, used to magnify a specific point.

Given the weather conditions, the infrared waveband is the best choice. And this “close-up” removes any doubt. Although the helicopter is still several kilometers away from the target, he can clearly see a person holding onto the boat’s overturned hull. He quickly takes a geo-referenced photo of the shipwreck and its survivor. Once its skipper has been saved, Loïc will send the exact coordinates to the French navy, which will deploy a ship to recover the wreck and lower the likelihood of any future collisions at sea.

A quick, effective rescue

Despite the gusting wind, the Caïman Marine hovers over the hull. The rescue swimmer is winched down, and quickly buckles the shipwrecked sailor into a harness, then both are hoisted back aboard. Less than an hour later, the NH90 sets down on the heliport at the Brest hospital. Onboard is an extra passenger, safe and sound! But he still undergoes a complete medical exam, according to long-established procedure. Once again, the gyrostabilized electro-optical pod has proven its effectiveness under weather conditions that, in the past, would have made such a happy ending much less likely!

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