Space Based Maritime Domain Awareness

This page summarises research work conducted at Leicester, suggested by and funded through the US Navy Office of Naval Research - Global.

Any use or reuse of the material herein or distribution of such must attribute the study to the US Navy Office of Naval Research - Global and the University of Leicester, UK.

USN ONR Global Logo The work described in these pages was motivated and funded by the US Navy Office of Naval Research - Global, and is a collaboration between USN ONR-G, the University of Leicester, and other parties listed in the material available here.

Project Motivation

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) Safety Of Life At Sea (SOLAS) convention requires that Automatic Identification Systems (AIS) be fitted to all ships of 300 tonnes gross or above engaged on international voyages, cargo ships in excess of 500 tonnes on any route, and passenger ships of any size built after 2002. AIS transponders are VHF systems which transmit the identity, position, course and speed of the vessel along with a number of other parameters. The AIS signal can be transmitted directly from ship to a base station on land, or via a relay (using transponders on other vessels nearby as repeater stations until a shore-based station can be reached). Space-based AIS signal detection is also possible.

However, AIS is not a perfect solution to maritime domain awareness. Whether the AIS receiver is in space, on the ground or at sea, the signal from a vessel can be turned off, or “spoofed” to generate deliberately incorrect information. And while tens of thousands of ships fall into the categories required to carry AIS, this is a small fraction of the many millions of vessels at sea; The majority of these craft are responsibly owned and operated, but even small boats are capable of delivering powerful weapons, drugs, or dangerous individuals, so AIS alone is inadequate for achieving comprehensive maritime domain awareness.

In addition, large numbers of smaller vessels (including sailing yachts and intermediate sized privately owned pleasure craft) ply open waters without the benefit of automatic tracking and transponder equipment. If a vessel encounters difficulties far from land and is unable to transmit location information before the crew need to abandon the vessel. In these situations, the area covered by search and rescue teams can be very large. A method of constraining that search area could lead to significant improvements in the prospect of rescue in the "golden hours" following the loss of the vessel.

Commercial satellites carrying high resolution imagers offer a potential solution to the challenge of tracking vessels that have no active AIS or are broadcasting incorrect AIS data.  The majority of these spacecraft are tasked with imaging targets on, or areas of, land, and hence the amount of time during an orbit in which a spacecraft is able to acquire revenue-generating data may currently be a small fraction of its total orbital period. The collective observations of commercial EO spacecraft may provide a method of providing considerably enhanced Maritime Domain Awareness and improving the safety of lives at sea.

Study Objectives

The objective of this USN-ONR-Global project is to use detailed modeling of space-based assets to determine the temporal and spatial coverage of maritime environments, that would be offered by currently available EO satellites. The results of this study will provide data that can be used to determine the basic feasibility of using commercial spacecraft as the basis of an effective SBMDA system, and to inform the development of the image analysis algorithms that will be required in order to correlate a set of non-contiguous images from a variety of spacecraft in order to achieve reliable target tracking with this system. The University of Leicester study is being used to establish the basic performance capability of the SBMDA system, assess its feasibility and computational requirements, and is the precursor to a practical "field trial" of the concept planned for the near future.

We are grateful for the comments, advice and assistance received from a number of individuals including members of the New Zealand Defence Technology Agency and the US Naval Research Laboratory during the course of this work.

A briefing on the project and some preliminary results, reflecting the status of the work in October 2013, is available here in .PDF format. Powerpoint versions of the presentation with animations will be posted shortly, and can be obtained at any time from the project team (contact details are provided in the PDF briefing document).

PDF Briefing (5.5 MB)

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