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UK’s SAR Helos Face Legal Hurdles

By Staff Writer | November 4, 2015
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Bristow Group's search and rescue helicopters currently are handicapped by a U.K. law preventing transmission of critical patient data. Iridium OpenPort, the satellite communications system installed on Bristow helicopters set to perform SAR missions in the North Sea region, gives helicopter crews three separate voice channels and one Wi-Fi/data channel uninterrupted by weather or main rotor disc interference. One of that system's most anticipated applications was the inflight transmission of biometric data (the vital signs of a patient) directly to a hospital. But that functionality is illegal under the U.K.'s centralized healthcare system, according to Brian Pemberton, Iridium's VP and GM of aviation and maritime business. Though OpenPort was installed on at least one Sikorsky S-92 as early as January 2015, Pemberton said that Iridium only recently found out about the restriction. "I believe that some time after the first aircraft was equipped and the functionality was demonstrated, someone raised the red flag," Pemberton said. He added that Bristow and Thales—which provides the hardware capable of accessing the Iridium network—may be looking for ways to get around the restriction, such as relaying data through a trusted third-party ground station to meet requirements for patient confidentiality. "I think this caught a lot of people by surprise," said Pemberton. "But they are not giving up." The UK SAR contract, worth roughly $2.4 billion, was awarded to Bristow Group in 2013.

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