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In this paper, we describe a method for fast determination of distortion-based optimal unequal error protection (UEP) of bitstreams generated by embedded image coders and transmitted over memoryless noisy channels. The UEP problem is reduced to the more general problem of finding a path in a graph, where each path of the graph represents a possible protection policy, with the objective of selecting the best path being that one inducing minimal distortion. The problem is combinatorially complex and excludes a brute force approach. The solution is provided by applying heuristic information from the problem domain to reduce search complexity. In particular, we use graph search procedure suggested by Hart , well known in the field of artificial intelligence, to avoid exhaustive search. Numerical results show that this technique outperforms the method presented by Hamzaoui , in terms of mean square error (MSE) distortion and computational complexity. After testing our solution using analytical models of the operational distortion curves proposed by Charfi , we implement a transmission architecture that, using the actual distortion values generated by a real embedded coder, computes the optimal protection policy for the considered image, protects the packets, and transmits them over a channel.