Electronic visual distress signals

Electronic visual distress signals are not a substitute for conventional pyrotechnic flares.

We have gathered input regarding the topical issue of laser flares. We are not currently in favour of allowing the carriage of electronic visual distress signals (EVDS) in lieu of standard pyrotechnic distress signals.

Although there are many benefits, particularly associated with the ease of carriage, operating life and disposal of EVDS over standard pyrotechnic flares there are a number of issues associated with their use. 

Known issues

  • As lights of this characteristic are not internationally approved distress signals there is a realistic chance that they may not be recognised as such and could therefore fail to effect an appropriate response in the event of a distress situation.
  • There are also issues with some of these devices around the dispersion (directional beams) characteristics, range of the lights, and also the ability to differentiate the lights from a lit background (e.g. street lighting).
  • There are issues still under experimentation to determining the best ergonomic qualities/capabilities.
  • All of these issues require substantial testing prior to approval.
  • For these devices to be effective distress signals they must be internationally recognised, which would require a change to Annex IV of the COLREGS.

Other Considerations

The SOLAS Convention prescribes the standards that distress equipment must meet and although it is not mandatory for small craft to comply with the Convention, adoption of similar Australian standards is consistent with the intent to align standards internationally. A variance from this practice in the eventual development of the respective Australian Standard may cause confusion in a distress situation. We are aware that the United States Coast Guard (USCG) has commissioned a research project titled Alternatives to Pyrotechnic Distress Signals on the development of standards for EVDS with the Radio Technical Commission for Maritime Services (RTCM). This research is investigating the effectiveness of EVDS with a view to supporting the development of international standards should these devices prove fit for use as a distress signalling means. This would result in subsequent international approval and inclusion in Annex IV of the COLREGS. 

The USCG Project are also reviewing and analysing laboratory testing results to help identify what might be colour and patterns that provide the greatest conspicuousness. They are hoping to conduct field-testing to either confirm or improve-on the laboratory results in the July-August time frame. As well as the actual signal characteristic, USCG are also looking at the ergonomic qualities/ capabilities of whatever the device will look like. AMSA supports these two initiatives and keenly awaits its recommendations.


Where the carriage of flares is mandatory, hand-held distress flares should meet the requirements within the Australian Standard AS 2092-2004 and IMO requirements. We are not aware of any EVDS equipment currently available that meets the light intensity requirements by the IMO Life Saving Appliance Code or AS 2092-2004. Therefore, they cannot be carried in substitute of pyrotechnic flares on vessels where mandatory carriage applies. On vessels where there is no requirement for the carriage of flares and due to the possibility that EVDS may not be recognised internationally as a distress signal, AMSA recommends that EVDS should not be carried as a substitute for conventional pyrotechnic flares.

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. We will be in the position to provide further updates and information once outcomes of further research become available.

Last updated: 27 October 2020