Space-Based Systems Enhance Maritime Domain Awareness Say SWF Panelists

Space-Based Systems Enhance Maritime Domain Awareness Say SWF Panelists

Five experts explained the utility of space-based systems to enhance Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) at a June 16, 2014 panel discussion hosted by the Secure World Foundation (SWF).

SWF Washington Office Director Victoria Samson explained that MDA is defined as “effective understanding of anything associated with the maritime domain that could impact security, safety, economy, and environment.”  MDA relies on a layered set of terrestrial, air-borne, and space-borne systems.

The panelists focused on the role of satellites in MDA, including optical and radar imaging satellites, especially Canada’s Radarsat-2, as well as satellites that carry receivers for the Automatic Identification System (AIS) created by the International Maritime Organization (IMO).

AIS transmitters provide a ship’s identity, location, speed, direction, and other data.   IMO regulations require AIS equipment to be aboard cargo ships of certain sizes that travel in international waters and on all passenger ships. Individual countries may have additional AIS regulations governing their coastal waters.  AIS itself is a terrestrial VHF system, but as panelist Guy Thomas explained, satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO) are able to pick up AIS transmissions, leading to Satellite-AIS (S-AIS).

Thomas, co-founder of the C-SIGMA Centre, calls S-AIS the “game-changer” for its ability to “locate the good guys” and permit pattern-based analysis.   The idea is that the “good guys” allow themselves to be identified through AIS so when authorities are looking for the “bad guys,” the ships transmitting on AIS can be eliminated from the target list.  AIS was created as a collision avoidance and traffic management tool, he said, but it has expanded into many other uses including environmental protection, maritime resource protection, safety, commodities trading, and route planning.

The idea for S-AIS emanated from the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.   At the time, Thomas was the Johns Hopkins liaison to the Naval War College and tasked to assist the Navy evaluate its maritime security.   He learned the United States lacked ways to detect ships off the coast, with the exception of warships, which have a unique signature.  For all the other maritime vessels, he was convinced that the AIS signals could be picked up by appropriately equipped satellites in LEO.

“I discovered that [at that time] there was only one satellite system in the world that met my requirements — ORBCOMM,” Thomas said.  He approached ORBCOMM with the idea and in 2006 six satellites equipped with AIS receivers, one of which was funded by the U.S. Coast Guard, were launched.  S-AIS “has been used dramatically in many different ways now,” he said and is provided by ORBCOMM as a commercial service (the Coast Guard no longer funds the satellite receivers, but does buy services).  Additional AIS-equipped ORBCOMM satellites have been launched since and six more are awaiting launch at Cape Canaveral on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket.  The launch is currently scheduled for Friday (June 20).

John Mittleman, an engineer at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, pointed out, however, that despite the IMO regulations, AIS and other types of terrestrial ship-board transmissions that provide location and identification data are voluntary.   “The number of ships that may reasonably pose a threat to national security and economic security based on size, cargo-carrying capacity and ocean-going capability is well over 5 million,” and roughly “100,000 changes everyday are tracked [from] vessels based on voluntary broadcasts,” he said.

The key is separating vessels willing to identify themselves through AIS or other systems from those that do not and could pose a threat.   Boats that do not voluntarily transmit identification information and boats made of fiberglass or wood that cannot be detected by space-based radars are “dark vessels.”  Only the vantage point of space can provide a global perspective on maritime activities, Mittleman said, but it is a combination of observations from satellites, aircraft and other boats that narrow down where to investigate and when.

Maj. Charity Weeden, Royal Canadian Air Force and Assistant Attaché for Air and Space Operations at the Canadian Embassy in Washington, noted that Canada has maritime approaches from three oceans (Atlantic, Pacific, Arctic) and more than 150,000 miles of coastline.  “The existing gaps of knowing what is on the ocean approaches are starting to close,” she said, due to space-based solutions.  Among them is the launch of Canada’s Radarsat-2 in 2007, which helps provide “near real-time ship detection, tracking ice floes, detecting oil pollution, monitoring sea ice, and even determining wave direction, day or night.”  But the satellite’s average revisit rate is only 3 or 4 days. “The aim now is persistence,” she said.  The Radarsat Constellation Mission, which will consist of three satellites set to launch in 2018 that will work in tandem, will have daily access to 95% of the globe, up to four passes per day in the Arctic.  They will also have S-AIS. Weeden added that Canada and the United States share similar MDA commitments and should continue working together to maximize results.

Jon Huggins, director of the Oceans Beyond Piracy project of the One Earth Future Foundation, called MDA an essential element in addressing piracy while adding that “not everyone is in favor of more MDA.”  He cited a number of examples where ships do not want to be identified and choose, for example, to turn off their AIS systems in certain parts of the world.  “There were some reports that pirates were able to access certain types of AIS equipment, so a lot of ships were turning off their AIS systems that were transmitting in high-risk areas.”  Others prefer the freedom associated with anonymity such as when “you have an unapproved private security team, and perhaps an incident happens at sea that you may not want reported that brings liability issues as well as some reputation damage.”  Another example is ships that may briefly travel through war zones, but do not want to pay the higher insurance premiums required in those areas.

Bharath Gopalaswamy, deputy director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council, focused on MDA in South and Southeast Asia and the need for international cooperation.  No single country has the resources to do it alone, he said, but he also identified a lengthy list of challenges, including “lack of shared training or conduct in maritime operations, limited maritime intelligence collection and sharing, limited patrol capacity” as well as a perception of the dangers of “a maritime arms race in the region.”  He added there are inadequate “crisis management mechanisms” among the nations in that region and two other challenges are “U.S. behavior in the region” and “the China factor.”  He did not address satellite or other types systems necessary for MDA, but rather the need for enhanced governance and security in that region.

Other panelists also stressed the need for international cooperation.  Regarding the space-borne contribution to MDA, a number of other countries are launching optical and radar imaging satellites and ORBCOMM is no longer the only satellite system equipped with S-AIS.  Thomas’ C-SIGMA Centre – Collaboration in Space for International Global Maritime Awareness Centre — was founded specifically to “foster wider cooperation and exchange in the use of and access to satellite based maritime surveillance information” on a global level.

Weeden pointed out, however, that satellites cannot do the MDA job alone.  They are an “enhancer,” but there is no one solution — an international, multilayered approach involving terrestrial, air- and space-borne systems is needed.

User Comments has the right (but not the obligation) to monitor the comments and to remove any materials it deems inappropriate.  We do not post comments that include links to other websites since we have no control over that content nor can we verify the security of such links.