Satellite AIS for Maritime Situational Awareness

A look at the formation of C-SIGMA and some of the early cases of technology use and international cooperation.

Since the conception of Satellite AIS (Automatic Identification System), or S-AIS in 2001, experts have been aware of the technology’s utility in the field of Geospatial Intelligence (GEOINT), as it provides the location and identification of all ‘legal’ ships in the world, which is a foundational requirement of GEOINT. However, to be useful in many cases, S-AIS needs to be paired with other sensors such as SAR satellites and data sources. 

The background

There were only a few Earth Observation Space systems in orbit in the early years of the 21st century. There was a dire need for international collaboration, and so, Collaboration in Space for International Global Maritime Awareness (C-SIGMA) was born, with the objective to implement Space-based maritime situational awareness (SB-MSA).

One of the first tests of the concept took place in Chile, which hosted the Western Hemisphere Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) Conference in 2008 and the Global MDA conference in 2009. C-SIGMA and SB-MSA were discussed in detail at both events, and Chile subsequently asked for a briefing on this subject for its Naval War College’s faculty and staff, and offered to conduct a live limited objective experiment to test the concept. In 2010, the US’s National Office of Global Maritime Situational Awareness, in conjunction with Naval Research Global, set up a three-month test. While ORBCOMM provided S-AIS with MDA, DLR, e-GEOS provided SAR data on a not-to-interfere with regular tasking basis.

The test

During the first month of the test, three noteworthy events took place that proved the case for SB-MSA.

  • Local fisherman reported that there were numerous foreign fishermen in Chilean waters off Eastern Island. The S-AIS and SAR systems were tasked to search that area and reported that there were no unusual number of vessels in that area. The test director thought the exercise had failed until the Chilean Admiral in-charge of that area thanked him, explaining that the SB-MSA information saved him the cost of flying a C-130 maritime patrol aircraft to search the area and sortieing a warship.
  • A Chilean open ocean fishing ship suffered significant storm damage while several hundred miles offshore and lost its satellite communications and navigation systems. Its only electronics still operating were its HF comms and AIS. One of the crewmen had a compound fracture and needed immediate attention, but the ship did not know its own location. OBRCOMM was able to provide that information from its AIS and a destroyer with a helo was able to reach the ship and rescue the crewman.
  • S-AIS reported, and the SAR sats confirmed that a large fleet of Chinese fishing vessels were approaching the Chilean coast. The Chilean Navy prepared to sortie to intercept the illegal fishers when the Foreign Ministry asked for time to see if they could do anything. They discussed the issue with the Chinese ambassador, saying they had firm proof from Space systems that these fishermen were in Chilean waters and that they were prepared to impound the illegal fishermen and their vessels. The Chinese ambassador denied all knowledge of the vessels, but shortly after, the fishing fleet turned north and went into Peruvian waters instead. OGMSA gave a message to its contacts in Peru, but by the time Peru could react, the illegal fishermen had moved on.

The outcome

The test was a complete success with the Chilean Navy and Coast Guard becoming firm believers of the utility of SB-MSA. Peru, too is now a firm believer and Brazil and Argentina have followed suit, but the real task is to get all nations of South America to form an alliance to use SB-MSA to jointly protect their marine environment and its resources, as well as to provide increased safety and security from smugglers of all types. This is already being done in Europe, with its European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) and FRONTEX. 

Lubov Orlova — collaboration matters

The MV Lyubov Orlova, a 285 Russian Arctic excursion liner had broken down in St. Johns, Newfoundland in 2010, and was sold for scrap about two years later. In January 2013, its new owner learnt that the Canadian government was considering impounding the vessel for non-payed bills and towing it to the breaking yard in the Caribbean. The owner decided to get underway, and to ensure that the ship survives, he had both the fuel and ballast tanks emptied and sealed.  Not long after the ship left St Johns, it began “hobby-horsing” — swiftly moving up and down, adding significantly to the strain on the tow cable. Soon, the tow broke.

The seas were rough, and the tug could not regain its tow and returned to the port. A second, larger tug was engaged to attempt to regain the tow.  In the meantime, the Canadian Coast Guard learned this large ship appeared to be drifting into the area of a very large offshore oil handling facility. Transport Canada, the Ministry which operates the Canadian Coast Guard, decided to dispatch a very large tug to regain control of the Lyubov Orlova. The cruise ship broke that tow, too, but not before the new tug had moved the Orlova far enough away from the oil facility. A week later, Canada informed the other countries in the North Atlantic that the Orlova was headed their way — the best estimate was it would hit the northwest coast of Ireland.

The search operation

For the first 10 days, ORBCOMM was able to correlate every SAR detection to an AIS detection. Soon, the coordinates of one of the Orlova’s EPIRB emergency beacons were received. The same thing happened for the second time a few days later.  The SARs found nothing at one location but detected an image of what may well have been a lifeboat at the other.  Shortly after that, the owner called to assure that the vessel was still afloat.

By emptying both the ballast and fuel tanks, the ship was clearly very unstable and almost certainly had rolled over and probably sank some weeks earlier.  The fact that two EPIRBs, one floating by itself, and the other probably in a lifeboat, had been located at widely separated areas, established that logic, and so the effort was called off. However, a week later, the Irish Coast Guard got a report of a sighting of a large smooth object about the size of the upturned hull of the Orlova, and the SAR and S-AIS search was resumed.  Two fishing boat sized contacts with abnormal tracks not transmitting AIS were imaged, and the Irish CG decided they might be illegal fishers. The CG launched maritime patrol aircraft to investigate. While one evaded detection, the other turned out to be an illegal fisher and was apprehended.

Footnote: This case study is extracted from the memoir of Guy Thomas, Managing Director, C-SIGMA LLC.

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