Posted: June 26, 2017 5:35 PM

New Satellite Payload Enables Real-Time AIS Ship Tracking

By RICHARD R. BURGESS, Managing Editor

ARLINGTON, Va. — New payloads on satellites are enabling the persistent, real-time tracking of ship movements, leveraging the existing Automatic Information System (AIS) to provide more actionable information to government and commercial consumers of ship-racking data, especially for maritime domain awareness.

Harris Corp. has partnered with ExactEarth, a Canadian company, to deploy a network of software-controlled radios (SDRs) on space satellites to provide global coverage of the world’s oceans with persistent ship tracking though improved vessel detection and downlinking of AIS tracks at a speed of less than one minute. Under the older download system, a latency of 45 minutes is typical for download of AIS data to a ground station.

“The use of AIS helps ships identify potentially dangerous situations,” Harris Corp. said in an e-mail. “The up-to-date global data that enables the location and investigation of suspicious movements at sea to help identify potential pirates, especially in high-risk areas. Data anomalies, such as a change in a vessel’s velocity or disparities between course over ground and the ship’s heading, can be detected instantly. These may also be indicative of a vessel that is drifting or pirated. By observing these changes in real-time, mariners can alter course when required and marine authorities can dispatch the appropriate patrols quickly.

The payload is hosted on the new Iridium Next constellation of polar-orbit satellites, said David Mottarella, senior manager, Maritime Geospatial Solutions, Space and intelligence Systems, Harris Corp, in a June 26 interview with Seapower. The Iridium Next constellation will comprise of 75 satellites, of which 66 will be operational and nine will be orbiting spares. Of the 66, 59 fitted with the Harris payload will be operational, with six as orbiting spares. Of 20 Iridium Next satellites launched so far, 13 included the Harris payload. The entire constellation is expected to be aloft in space by December 2018.

The AIS data is streamed using open standards developed by the International Maritime Organization. The data can be streamed to “monitor the entire ocean or to manage their fleets,” Mottarella said of its customers.

The subscription of data can be user-defined. For example, Mottarella said, a Coast Guard district can choose to download AIS tracks only of those ships within its district. Being able to track ships in its district in real time would enable it to identify ships to request to rescue mariners at sea.

An additional advantage of the new system is the data base built up through the collection of AIS tracks, that can “give you the voyage life of that vessel,” Mottarella said.

The system can alert agencies such as the Coast Guard and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration when ships violate a maritime protected area, for example. The system also can be used to detect when a ship crew turns the AIS on and off, a possible indication of a ship “going dark” for nefarious purposes, such as piracy, smuggling or terrorism.

Harris also is working on data fusion of 13 digital imagery sources to overlay on the display of AIS tracks. By correlating time with the imagery and a given AIS track, the AIS information and the imagery of a ship can be fused to provide more complete information and provide positive identification of a ship in an image.

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