Like winning lottery tickets and accurate head shots during the zombie apocalypse, visual distress signals are one of those things you just can’t have too many of. To meet safety and legal carry requirements, most sailors have handheld, pyrotechnic flares onboard, but these have some drawbacks. Pyrotechnic flares generate molten slag that can injure a user if not handled properly; they have a short burn time (less than 3 minutes for U.S. Coast Guard-approved flares); and can be used only once. Also, they have a 42-month service life, so replacing them can add up, and they are made of hard-to-dispose-of hazardous materials.
The Omni-directional-electro-optical (ODEO) flare is a laser-strobe alternative to pyrotechnic flares. Made by UK-based ODEO Flare and distributed in the U.S. by North American Laser Flares, the ODEOs battery-powered, strobing lasers solve some issues associated with traditional flares. The ODEO contains five red laser diodes within a motorized head that revolves in a variable speed, discontinuous pattern. This pulsing movement, which simulates a burning flares flickering flame, makes the ODEO more noticeable than a consistent beam and helps distinguish it from other lights like navigational aids. The diodes are rated for 10,000 hours and have a combined output of 2,400 candela, according to the maker. Each diode is independently driven, so the diodes will continue to operate even if one fails or the dome breaks.
The ODEO has an advertised range of 3 to 5 miles, which is comparable to conventional flare specs, but farther than that of any personal strobes weve tested (PS, July 1, 2001 and July 15, 2005) and significantly less than that of the laser-pointer flares that have drawn some concern over the safety of their use. The ODEO is approximately 9.75 inches long and weighs a little over 11.5 ounces. Its constructed of chemical- and saltwater-resistant plastic, is waterproof, and floats. Unlike a pyrotechnic flare, it can be stowed in its pouch and attached to a life jacket for use in a man-overboard (MOB) situation. Its powered by three included AA lithium batteries that have an advertised battery life of five hours at full illumination. (Alkaline can also be used, but battery life will be less.) By contrast, a traditional flare burns extremely bright for about 30 seconds, then diminishes until extinguishing after about 3 minutes.
The ODEO uses U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved laser light technology and meets EN 60825-1 and Class 3R regulations. This means that exposure wont damage your eyes-but you still wouldnt want to stare at the lasers. The ODEO is also safe to use during search-and-rescue operations because unlike laser-pointers, it wont blind rescue vessel or aircraft operators.
How We Tested
We observed the ODEOs daytime and night-time performance from 550 feet away. To reach temperature extremes, the ODEO was placed in a freezer at 8 degrees for eight hours and on the dashboard of a closed vehicle in direct sunlight for four hours on a 94-degree day. The unit was also dropped 6 feet onto concrete without damage.
What We Found
Testers found the ODEO to be robustly constructed and easy to operate. Because of their flickering design, the revolving lasers were surprisingly visible in the daylight and even more visible at night.
During battery life testing, we noticed the flares light intensity decreased by about 90 percent after roughly 5 minutes of continuous use. We shut the unit down and re-tested it with the same results. The unit also had reduced output after our heat-exposure test; it resumed full operation after cooling down. The distributor explained that when it gets too warm, the ODEO shifts into a reduced output mode until it cools down. No temperature ranges were provided, but the maker recommends turning the flare off for 10 seconds after every five minutes of use in warm climates. During tests, we had to shut the unit down for 2 to 3 minutes before it cooled enough to resume normal operation.
Laser-strobe flares (electronic visual distress signals, or EVDSs) have not yet received USCG approval as alternatives to pyrotechnic flares, but standards for their use are being written and approval is anticipated, according to a member of the Radio Technical Commission for Maritime Services. Its important to note that approval likely will only be for supplemental use, possibly in conjunction with an EPIRB or personal locator beacon (PLB), which would generate the distress signal and general vessel position, while the EVDS would be used to pin-point the location once rescuers arrive. There is no plan for flare carry laws to change to require EVDSs instead of pyrotechnic flares on recreational boats, the USCG told PS.
Bottom line: At $220, the ODEOs price is on par with some personal strobes and PLBs. It would be a good addition to an emergency kit. Its ability to float and lack of flame make it well suited for use in a life raft or on a life jacket.