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Pyrotechnic flares are commonly used by mariners to signal distress. Flares have drawbacks and present significant storage and disposal problems. The RDC was sought to determine appropriate criteria to evaluate light emitting diode (LED) or other light signals as potential maritime distress signals.


The project team selected a group of LED, flashtube (strobe) and incandescent-based devices to obtain photometric data. An understanding of the physical and perceptual aspects of these devices allowed the project team to select a subset of devices for further evaluation.

Following the lab tests, the project team designed and conducted two field demonstrations. The first demonstration assessed individual devices to determine the most effective signal characteristics based on detectable range, ability to attract attention and ability to distinguish the signal against background lighting. A second demonstration used a subset of the devices to compare the most effective characteristics, head-to-head. Finally, a separate evaluation looked at device ergonomics to help understand the physical aspects of the devices that would make them easier to use.

This project will determine suitability of potential alternatives to pyrotechnic visual distress signals by:

  • Evaluating the effectiveness of presently available LED (and other) devices as visual distress signal devices.
  • Reviewing functional requirements for visual distress signals.
  • Investigating and reporting on device characteristics and evaluating them against existing pyrotechnic standards.
  • Investigating and reporting on “experimental” or “developmental” technologies and evaluating them against pyrotechnic standards.
  • Determining the most effective light-signal characteristics for alternative visual distress signal devices.

Additionally, this project will produce recommendations for future non-pyrotechnic requirements and applications. Recommendations will address the feasibility of whether non-pyrotechnic devices could replace pyrotechnics as alert, locate and/or marker devices.