Vessels can be tracked through radio and radar transmissions even when AIS is switched off
Vessel tracking is becoming increasingly sophisticated, with technology used for a variety of applications. Primarily, vessels can be tracked through the automatic identification system (AIS), which was originally developed for safer navigation and greater security.
AIS has become the base source of intelligence in maritime ecosystems, whether to track vessels, trades or improve port operations and create business opportunities through data analytics. And if ships switch AIS off, they can still be tracked through their radar signatures and radio frequency use.
Experts in vessel tracking, port operations and maritime informatics discussed AIS applications during Riviera Maritime Media’s Vessel optimisation: how AIS optimises decision making webinar. This event, sponsored by exactEarth, was held 26 May during Riviera’s Vessel Optimisation Webinar Week.
On the panel were Chalmers University of Technology senior strategic research advisor and Research Institutes of Sweden (RISE) adjunct professor in maritime informatics Mikael Lind, exactEarth president, chief executive and director Peter Mabson, HawkEye 360 director of strategy Kevin Moyer and Unikie business development and ecosystems director Jouni Salo.
Mr Mabson explained how AIS data is sourced through coastal stations and satellites, including 65 in low Earth orbit operated by Iridium and more than six operated by exactEarth. These provide global coverage through a mesh network for real-time vessel detection.
More than 600,000 vessels send out AIS signals a month and exactEarth detects AIS from approximately 250,000 vessels per day. “AIS is powerful crowd-sourced data at sea, it is a rich data set,” said Mr Mabson. He expects AIS data to be available from more than 1M vessels by 2025.
AIS data includes identification, location, voyage direction and intended destination of vessels. All this is automatically transmitted several times per minute.
“There are huge amounts of underlying data,” said Mr Mabson. “There is no better data set for maritime decision making – the sky is the limit for the applications.”
AIS data enables tracking of vessels and trade through applications when fused with other data sources, including historic information. exactEarth has 40Bn historic vessel records dating from 2010. This requires big-data analytics and multi-sensor fusion. AIS applications include surveillance and security, vessel operations and safety, fisheries and ocean environment management and vessel performance monitoring.
“We are entering a golden age for data analytics in maritime,” said Mr Mabson. “AIS will be the source of other capabilities and other tool sets. These tools are getting faster, and people will find more things to do with the data.”
Mr Moyer explained how vessels can continue to be tracked even when they switch off their AIS. HawkEye 360 detects ships through its radio frequencies (RF) transmissions.
“We complement AIS with detection of non-co-operative vessels that are still emitting radar and radio,” said Mr Moyer. “We can geolocate these vessels, analyse these signals and extract intelligence from this.”
For example, HawkEye 360 detected Chinese fishing vessels that had switched off AIS and were heading into protected waters around the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific Ocean.
Mr Moyer said detecting these dark vessels will reduce illegal maritime activity. “Through data analytics and risk analysis we will solve more issues, resulting in less pollution and less malicious and unwanted actions – we are making it harder for bad actors to get away with it,” Mr Moyer said.
HawkEye 360 is preparing to launch and commission its third cluster of satellites for identifying vessels using RF transmissions. These second-generation satellites will join HawkEye 360’s two other clusters of Pathfinder satellites already in orbit.
Seven additional next-generation clusters are under construction and scheduled for launch in 2021 and 2022. These will complete the baseline constellation, enabling revisit rates as rapid as 20 minutes to support time-sensitive defence, security and commercial applications.
HawkEye 360’s constellation detects, characterises and precisely geolocates a broad set of RF signals from emitters such as VHF marine radios, UHF push-to-talk radios, maritime and land-based radar systems, L-band satellite devices and emergency beacons.
Dr Lind introduced maritime informatics for processing AIS using digital collaboration, data sharing and analytics. An example was using AIS when the Suez Canal was blocked by 20,000-TEU container ship Ever Given in March 2021, resulting in hundreds of vessels waiting to use this maritime shortcut across Egypt.
“We can try to understand the maritime operations and how the blockage led to a build-up [of vessels],” said Dr Lind. “We need better predictability as we have choke points and congestion zones worldwide.”
He said AIS can be used to implement just-in-time arrival of ships at ports. “AIS is the foundation for decision making in the maritime ecosystem,” he added.
Mr Salo took this idea further, as AIS information can be shared with port service providers and vessel traffic services (VTS) for port flow optimisation (Unikie’s Polo), to streamline operations through one interface between vessels and all port actors.
“We are working with VTS for a port ecosystem, for a view on the situation and status of ships and operations,” said Mr Salo. “These are virtual operations rooms open to each player through a community application, for sharing information between entities.”
This application will be available through any digital media device for use by terminal and port operators, vessel owners, ship agents, pilots, tug owners, VTS and linesman services.
“The virtual operation room for port operations replaces complicated and manual port flow processes with automated and digitalised processes that utilise internet of things, machine-to-machine communications, modern integration and artificial intelligence technologies,” said Mr Salo.
“It creates one centralised place for up-to-date situational awareness data, offering full visibility over the whole port operation process and schedules.”
Unikie’s Polo integrates existing systems and data sources, both public and private, for a port community application.
Orbcomm has started working with UnseenLabs to develop methods of tracking illegal maritime activities using RF detection. Unseenlabs uses a dedicated nanosatellite constellation for surveillance of vessels that have turned off AIS to engage in illegal activities or evade authorities.
Its RF sensors detect and identify electromagnetic waves emitted by ships to geolocate any vessel at sea from space, in near-real time and regardless of weather conditions, to within 1 km. Unseenlabs provides data on vessel positions using electromagnetic fingerprinting, to enable unfalsifiable identification of the emitter and provide significantly enhanced tracking of activities at sea.
This will supplement Orbcomm’s AIS data from its satellite constellation, said Orbcomm senior vice president and general manager Greg Flessate. “We are working with Unseenlabs to pursue new opportunities for their space-based maritime surveillance services through our partnerships with maritime information providers and key government customers,” he said.
“Unseenlabs’ RF emissions detection technology is a critical tool to identify and report bad actors turning off their AIS devices while engaged in illegal activities at sea such as unregulated fishing, violating trade sanctions, environmental pollution, drug and human trafficking.”
Orbcomm will continue investing in its AIS business to expand coverage with two new AIS CubeSats satellites, which feature advanced software-defined radio receivers and multi-antenna implementation. These will increase visibility to smaller Class B vessels and extend Orbcomm’s polar footprint when launched in 2022.
Riviera Maritime Media will provide free technical and operational webinars in 2021. Sign up to attend on our events page