Lifesaving app lets users share their location even if there’s no cell signal

Due to the hyper-connected world we live in, there are very few times that we’re not contactable. One of the occasions we may not be, though, is when we potentially need it the most: If we’re ever in a life-threatening scenario, such as being lost in the wilderness where there is no cellular coverage. That’s where researchers from Spain’s Universidad de Alicante (UA) want to help. They developed a smart receiving device and an associated app that is capable of transmitting a person’s GPS coordinates and an SOS message — even if they don’t have cellular signal to send it.

“In many mountain areas there is no mobile phone coverage, and it is not possible to contact emergency services,” José Ángel Berná Galiano, a mountaineering enthusiast and professor in UA’s Department of Physics and Systems Engineering and Signal Theory, told Digital Trends. “In this situation, the injured person can only wait for the rescue teams to find him after the disappearance is reported by friends or family. The technology that I have developed allows the conversion of a smartphone without mobile phone coverage into a distress beacon, emitting the coordinates of the place where it is located and a text message using the Wi-Fi interface. The rescue teams can detect this distress signal with a specifically designed device, weighing just 500 grams, and at distances of at least three kilometers in open areas. Thus, the search operations of a person are faster, allowing saving the life of a person.”

As Galiano points out, even when a smartphone does not have mobile phone coverage, it still emits a series of mobile phone signals which can be detected. Some rescue teams around the world (although not in Spain) have a device they carry onboard rescue helicopters which can determine the location of a smartphone using a complex signal triangulation process. Unfortunately, this technology is prohibitively expensive — costing upward of $80,000. The prototype of Galiano’s receiving device, on the other hand, costs only $700.

The new system has already been tested by mountain rescue teams in Spain, and has the support of the Spanish Mountain Federation (FEDME) to put it into operation. Since the technology could also be applied to a range of situations — such as earthquakes, large forest fires or other scenarios where regular mobile telephone services fail — hopefully it will be adopted more widely around the world.