Prof Guy Thomas
S-AIS provides the capability to look at the maritime world — from safety and security to logistics and disaster recovery, to environment and resource protection — in a whole new way
|The Automatic Identification System (AIS) is an example of a technical device that has had an impact far beyond its intended usage, that of collision avoidance and shipping control in confined waters for maritime safety. That impact extends to global security, maritime environmental and resource protection, and even logistics planning and execution. There is a growing realisation that the space-based collection of S-AIS, which was originally envisioned as an anti-terrorist device in response to 9/11, has huge applications for logistics planning, environmental protection, resource safeguarding, and in times of distress, for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, besides smuggling, piracy and other acts of terrorism. Indeed, S-AIS may have come into existence as a security system, but it is in logistics planning, environmental safeguarding, resource protection, and HA/DR, as well as counter smuggling of all sorts (human, contraband, drugs, weapons) that the real value of the system has evolved. All nations either on, or dependent on the use of, the seas have all these problems in more or lesser degrees. However, no one nation has sufficient resources to patrol or even monitor the vast oceans from which these challenges arise.
What is AIS?
All commercial and private ships engaged in commercial traffic over 300 tons, all ships carrying six or more passengers, and all tugs over 600 shaft horsepower, are now required to carry AIS. The creation of the space-based collection of that signal, now widely referred to as S-AIS, was conceived less than a month after 9/11 as a means to increase the security of the maritime assets of the United States. In the ensuing 10+ years, the employment of S-AIS, just like GPS which was conceived as a means to improve the accuracy of US submarine launched ballistic missiles, has found usage in a number of fields.
One of the major payoffs for the space industry is the fact that the use of earth observation systems such as Synthetic Aperture Radar Satellites (SARsats) and electro-optical imaging space systems (EO satellites — electro-optical cameras onboard satellites) are now being much more widely used over the world’s oceans, and their effectiveness has been increased dramatically, because S-AIS can give highly useful indications as to where to point these systems for maximum effectiveness, in strategic, operational and, as more and more well-placed terminals come into existence to upload commands to these satellites and download their collected data, in a tactically useful time frame. Indeed, the spread of the terminals is due in part to the realisation of the unique usefulness of S-AIS when coupled to SAR. As the tactical usefulness of S-AIS comes into sharp focus, the importance of the latency of the S-AIS data will also come into focus.
The recognition of these facts has given rise to the concept now called ‘Collaboration in Space for International Global Maritime Awareness’ (C-SIGMA). The concept, which calls for the banding together of all nations to form a collaboration to share their resources and unclassified data on maritime operations and conditions (not unlike the way weather and international flight data is shared globally) so that the world can be safer and more secure, is able to respond more rapidly and effectively to disasters and human needs of all sorts.
Till 2013, there were approximately 14 S-AIS receivers in space. Two companies, exactEarth from Canada, and ORBCOMM from the USA, are working in the field of collection of S-AIS data and reselling it. Additionally, several countries, Japan, Norway, and India at a minimum, have experimental S-AIS receivers in space. In all cases, more and better follow-on systems are planned. Indeed, the European Space Agency and at least three private companies are seriously considering putting up a significant number of AIS receivers in space. The two commercial companies, namely exactEarth and ORBCOMM are busy expanding their constellations as well as ground terminal networks. Both companies, after launching test/research and development satellites, have turned to the very best satellite builders for the state-of-the-art receiver technology. While ORBCOMM has chosen Sierra Nevada Corporation, ExactEarth has joined hands with Space Quest to build several of its satellites. It is anticipated that the vast majority of all AIS transmissions anywhere on the Earth will be detected and reported by these two companies.
Now that the S-AIS is well on its way to becoming a complete system, several countries with significant capabilities in building a global system, the radar and optical satellite companies, are also rapidly expanding their fleets. Canada announced it will be launching three more SARsats, calling them the Radar Constellation Mission (RCM). The European Space Agency plans to launch at least two Sentinel SARsats. India has launched two, Korea one, and Japan is planning to launch one SAR and one EO bird. All that is good news. While all these nations are looking at using these systems for ocean and terra surveillance, the real questions are:
It is the third question that really stands out as you try to understand what is happening in early 21st century in the maritime domain, but let’s lay some foundation first.
C-SIGMA can be summarised as using unclassified systems, including the number of highly capable space systems now on orbit or planned for in the near future, to build a truly global maritime awareness system. This is only possible because of S-AIS.
C-SIGMA offers opportunities for better off nations to help those who are not so fortunate, while helping themselves address known maritime problems such as smuggling (goods/drugs/people), environmental pollution, resource theft (fish/oil/minerals), safety and security.
Billions of dollars are being stolen from countries bordering the Gulf of Guinea (GoG). Additionally, they also report significant pollution in their superb fishing waters. How are these crimes enacted?
By illegal fishing and by theft, from minimally manned offshore oil well pumping stations — illegal bunkering is common here. Nigeria reports the cost is around 14 billion dollar a year in Nigeria alone. And illegal dumping of oil waste in their waters is also causing significant concern. Ghana and the Ivory Coast report crimes of similar magnitude, but they have not been able to get exact numbers as Nigeria. Several other countries of the GoG almost have the same problems.
This one case, the Gulf of Guinea maritime problem, makes the case for C-SIGMA. There are other facts that have now been demonstrated in various exercises and the fact that the concept has been tested over the past six years also needs to be considered. The tests, the first of which, in 2006 used both optical and SAR spacecraft, coupled with terrestrial AIS, to detect and track the target ships from the time they left port in Greece until they entered port in the east coast of the United States. Other tests since then, from as diverse places as Chile, the Seychelles, in most of the approaches to Europe, the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean, have clearly shown that we have the technology, including the ability to fuse the products of the various space systems and introduce information from a wide range of data bases to give us a very good idea of vessels, their history, etc. Based on this information, we will be able to identify suspects and send out our maritime patrol aircraft and interdiction vessels after them. These rare and costly systems are being made dramatically more effective with the use of space systems by providing informed cueing ing and vectoring.
Exactly how much are the cost savings from using unclassified space systems is unknown, and should be the focus of a substantial study. However, those people who have conducted these tests, now numbering nearly a dozen, have nearly unanimously come to believe that space systems could make the terrestrial systems dramatically more effective. The costs described in general terms by the commercial providers of these systems seem to be quite reasonable, and could be made more so if all the users of such systems come into a common bargaining unit, probably under the envisioned C-SIGMA Coordination Centre, and were able to provide a stable order for the space data. Many of us believe that the system could be very cost effective if all friendly nations work together to create an envisioned system of a main center which coordinaties with regional centers all over the world. The main cost would be for the purchase of the information/data from the commercial earth observation space systems and the manning and running of small headquarters. The regional centers would, most probably, be co-located with existing maritime law enforcement and security organisations such as the coast guards of the world, including Chile, Canada, Japan, India, Abu Dhabi, etc.
By having a central coordinating centre, serving as an ‘honest broker’ for the entire world, the advantages are manifold. The Center could negotiate for the best prices for data from several commercial providers, it could also be the authoritative authoritative source for the capability and status of all space systems with maritime observation capabilities. This is already being done in several regions, such as the European Maritime Safety Agency, Lisbon, Portugal and Japan. Canada and the United States also use commercial systems to help keep a watch in the maritime domain. Then why not share the information for the betterment of all mankind?
The other major task of the center would be its use as the honest broker for standardisation. Standards are a keystone for cooperation (but of course just the keystone, not the whole building). In many instances, they are still not used. For example, each SAR satellite has a different image and metadata format. When we asked the commercial providers last year for VDS (ship detections) from SAR images (KSAT, eGEOS, DLR), each gave these simple data in a different format. For Sat-AIS, the NMEA provides better standardisation, even though it is a format that was designed for RF transmission and not for internet exchange.
There are other aspects of standardisation besides data standards that need to be addressed, and a global centre could be a very useful tool for doing that — the access to space-based data, the ordering, the billing, the requests for value adding, the discovery of both facts and data. All this could and should be based on standardised M2M web functionality. Ordering spacebased data should be as simple as ordering on Amazon or eBay, and even further automated. With such standardisation, not only the end-users will benefit, but also the various providers and value adders can better work together. In fact, the latter is probably the more important point.
All of this started when it became feasible to identify and track ships from space, which only became possible with the advent of space-based AIS, which was not even created with that thought as a primary driver back in 2001. Funny how these things work.