Robin Swithinbank reports on a new version of a satellite-linked watch that could save your life

IN 2003 a pair of British explorers, Steve Brooks and Quentin Smith, were forced to ditch in the Antarctic after a failed attempt to become the first pilots to fly a helicopter to the North and South Poles. After nine hours adrift in a life raft, what saved them was in fact a watch: a Breitling Emergency.

Not just a chunky timekeeper aimed at pilots, the Emergency was also the world’s smallest personal locator beacon (PLB). A PLB, as aviation experts will know, is a device that can guide search and rescue teams to your location when you find yourself stranded in a postcode without a Tesco. It linked up to the satellites of Cospas-Sarsat, an international programme that operates a distress alert and homing system favoured by the world’s most intrepid organisations and people.

The Emergency became something of a hero piece for Breitling – 40,000 sold, with 20 of them having been instrumental in rescue situations –  but in 2009 it was faced with a problem. Cospas-Sarsat announced it would be phasing out use of the 121.5MHz frequency the Emergency used, in favour of 406MHz – a digital frequency both more reliable and able to carry detailed information, including the PLB owner’s name.

DUAL FREQUENCY CHALLENGES

That left Breitling needing to update its famous watch – it decided to use both the old and new signals – and its boffins facing a number of challenges.

First was how to miniaturise a dual frequency transmitter. Previously, the smallest of these was the size of a couple of packs of cigarettes.

The second problem was to do with battery life. A power source was needed that was small enough to fit into a watch, while complying with Cospas-Sarsat specifications that a PLB should be capable of transmitting signals for 24 hours in temperatures down to -20C.

At that temperature, the best commercially available miniaturised battery dies n under 50 seconds.

After an intense period of R&D, Breitling came up with a rechargeable battery so advanced it has decided not to patent it. That would mean making the technology public, and it wants to sit on the secret a while, knowing only too well how valuable it will be to mobile phone manufacturers.

The beacon, meanwhile, is activated when two antennae are manually extended from the chamber at the base of the case – a system Breitling also developed.

Nailing all of this took five years. The result, newly launched this year, is the Emergency II: the world’s first wristwatch with a dual frequency locator beacon.

It’s a huge watch. With its tough-nut, 51mm titanium shell (most watches are around 39mm), and a fighting weight of 140 grams (before you attach a strap or bracelet), it is to watches what the Hummer is to cars.

But it could save your life. At least, so say the stats. Since its inception in 1982, Cospas-Sarsat has helped rescue more than 33,000 people in over 9,000 incidents. On average, five people a day are rescued using the system.

HEFTY CONDITIONS

Buying the watch doesn’t cover the cost of your rescue, mind. That is still your responsibility, or if you’re properly organised, that of your insurer. Purchase also comes with hefty conditions of sale – no one gets to walk away with a watch that can summon a fleet of choppers without first agreeing not to fiddle with the buttons after a few shandies.

On that note, incredibly, Breitling hasn’t recorded a single false alarm with the Emergency. That might be partly because the antenna is a one-shot and if you misuse it, you have to pay half the price of the watch to have it replaced. By contrast, if you use it to save your life, Breitling will replace it for free.

Being a Breitling, the watch is also a multi-function timepiece, complete with 1/100th of a second chronograph, a timer, a second time zone and a calendar.

It’s aimed at adventurers of all kinds. Okay, so the likelihood of being stranded in the city amounts to little more than losing your way in the tunnel network around Bank station, but if you’re the sort of chap to take on one of the world’s great challenges, this is peace of mind in wrist-mounted form.

Put it this way, I bet that fellow who cut his arm off with a penknife after being stuck under a rock for five days wishes he’d been wearing one – albeit on his other arm…

The Breitling Emergency II is £12,040. www.breitling.com

TELLING TIME BY SATELLITE

It’s not just Breitling that’s tuning in to satellites. Not surprisingly, the gadget-loving Japanese have made the biggest strides in this area, with Seiko and Citizen both launching watches that link up­­ to GPS satellites, meaning they can automatically adjust their time to their location around the world – a handy accessory for anyone whose job regularly takes them flitting between time zones. Not only that, but both watches are solar powered. Which you chose may just be down to style.

Seiko Astron GPS Solar, £2,500 seiko-astron.com

Citizen Eco-Drive Satellite Wave-Air GPS £1,795 citizenwatch.com