What about electric laser "flares"?

Handheld flare for night time location signalling. 

We've been very interested in electric flares as an alternative to pyrotechnics since we staged a demonstration of flare use at our yacht club more than a decade ago. That demo showed us how dangerous it can be to have flaming magnesium dripping out of a flare that is held from an inflatable life raft. Pyrotechnic flares were invented in the mid-1800s.* A technological alternative that won't melt your vessel around you seems like a good idea.

Flares have two applications: the first is to attract attention and alert others to an emergency situation, the second is help locate the person or vessel in distress. So two types of flares are needed for day and night: those that shoot high up into the sky and those that are held close by after the alert has been spotted. The convention of Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) has standardized the signalling device recommendations to increase the chances of rescue anywhere in the world.

No handheld signal has a longer range in clear weather or is more efficient at drawing attention than a laser. In 2012, US federal laws were changed (via HR 658) to legalize the use of lasers as distress signals to summon aviators or passing ships.

In 2013, the British Maritime and Coastguard Agency issued a warning about the use of EVDS (Electronic Visual Distress Signals). They explained about the complicated nature of regulations and that EVDS would not be substitutable for pyrotechnics. www.dft.gov.uk/mca On the 11th of April 2017, they released an updated warning.
Rocket flare for alert signalling.
"Not all EVDS provide a distress signal listed in COLREGS Annex IV (such as SOS), and the MCA knows of no EVDS device which is compliant with the SOLAS technical performance standards for distress flares. Consequently, the international carriage requirements do not recognise EVDS and the UK national carriage requirements have not been amended to formally recognise them either.
Where carriage of flares is not mandatory, the MCA nevertheless advises that EVDS should not currently be carried as a substitute for conventional pyrotechnic flares. This is because of the risk that EVDS may not be recognised internationally as a distress signal. However, for pleasure vessels, seagoing commercial vessels, and most non–seagoing commercial vessels, EVDS may be carried in addition to the required distress signalling equipment and used to identify location or transmit the S-O-S distress signal through a switch mechanism (just as a torch or other light-emitting device could be used). However, the limitations of EVDS devices should be recognised and anyone using them should be made aware of the type and quality of signal being generated."

The MCA do state that the US is studying the new devices to see how they might fit into the SOLAS kit.1 The RYA reportedly has been lobbying the MCA to change the statutes to permit substitution of the devices for yachting.

Similarly the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) in May of 2014 issued a Guidance Notice that EVDS are not a substitute for conventional pyrotechnic flares. They go on to state, "However, although it may be appropriate that EVDS be carried and used as a supplementary device to assist in the final stages of locating a vessel or person in distress; it is suggested that further testing is still required to understand their potential benefits and limitations in this context."
The USCG has issued the following guidance on electric signalling devices:
APPROVAL GUIDANCE & INFORMATION: This is an alternative to flares for recreational boats. It is required to automatically flash S-O-S. Light intensity and duration requirements apply. Electric S-O-S distress lights are self-certified by the manufacturer. The Coast Guard does not issue approvals or keep an authenticated list of manufacturers. Approval standards for these lights are found in Title 46 of the Code of Federal Regulations, Subpart 161.013."
Sirius electronic flare by Weems & Plath
Collision Regulations specify S-O-S transmitted by any means is a distress signal (normally as Morse code). Thus, the electronic flare is required to transmit S-O-S via light to distinguish it from other light sources. The Sirius claims to satisfy all USCG requirements.

Due to a highly successful marketing effort in the US, the Canadian maritime service estimates that US boats carrying electronic flares in Canada may number in the thousands already in 2017. The Canadian enforcement agencies had to recognize that "electronic flares" are permitted in the US and are acceptable on US vessels in Canada, where the requirements have not been adjusted yet. The same would presumably apply to US vessels in other territorial waters.

Several articles have compared the performance of the various laser and LED flares that have hit the market in the past few years. Practical Boat Owner did a test of the new devices available in the UK in 2016. Their conclusion was that although LEDs are not as powerful as lasers, they are more visible due to their omni-directional signalling. But compared with traditional flares, LEDs and lasers didn't even come close to the signalling capacity of a pyrotechnic flare.

Sail Magazine in 2016 concluded that laser flares are a good addition but should not yet replace traditional pyrotechnics. West Marine has issued an analysis, which includes the current US regulations. An article in Cruising World in 2014 suggested that lasers have another potential use: helping to spot a MOB in the dark: shining them onto the water can illuminate a reflective strip on a lifejacket or coat from a long distance. They pointed out that there are no regulations to stop a boater from having these on board.

Boating Magazine tested a number of electronic flares and posted a video. You can clearly see the differences between the various devices. They mentioned that only the Sirius device (Weems and Plath SOS) has USCG approval for use as a signalling device.

Pistol for alert signalling. 

Smoke for daytime location signalling.
The bottom line is that to cruise legally, one must have the specified pyrotechnic devices for your jurisdiction; if you are heading offshore, getting the best SOLAS approved alert and locate devices for daytime and night time signalling makes sense. But having lasers and/or LEDs as backups, just to be sure to be sure, makes sense, too.

One more thought. Although flares have expiration dates, there is nothing that says one can't keep them beyond those dates. After a time, some of the units may cease functioning, yet expired backups that might still work can be potentially lifesaving.

It also pays to read the instructions before you need to use the flares. Our friend who was racing in the Bermuda 1-2 had to be rescued when the keel separated from the hull. Naturally, it was the middle of the night when a cruise ship came within view. They couldn't read the red on yellow instructions in the dark. Fortunately, they managed to set off a flare and were quickly rescued.

An LED strobe or a laser flare and a PLB/AIS** would be very comforting indeed to have attached to a life jacket under emergency circumstances. Flick a switch and concentrate on survival, whether your ship is going down or you've gone overboard. The object is to take the search out of search and rescue.


*In 1859, American Martha Coston patented the Coston flare based on her husband's early prototype which she refined and completed over a course of ten years after his death. It was used extensively by the U.S. Navy during the Civil War and by the United States Life-Saving Service as a signalling device between ships and ship-to-shore. Martha Coston was inducted into the National Inventors' Hall of Fame in 2006. Her invention has saved many lives over the years. 
**We'll cover PLB/AIS in another post. 

Anita M. RothblumVincent A. ReubeltM. J. Lewandowski,

Pyrotechnic flares are the traditional maritime distress signals. But flares can injure users, and they contain environmentally-hazardous materials. The U.S. Coast Guard is looking for an alternative to flares. This paper summarizes a series of experiments to determine the characteristics of conspicuous distress signals. It provides four take-aways to improve visual distress signal design.


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