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  • Writer's pictureTravis Turgeon

How Space-Based Monitoring Can Help Avoid Tragedy at Sea

"Each ship displayed highly-inaccurate AIS data at the time of the incident - namely, the total length of their vessel and tow."

Surveillance is a critical component of maritime and aquatic safety in the shipping industry, and it directly dictates everything from search and rescue missions to accidents and spills involving hazardous materials. Automatic Identification Systems (AIS) are one tool that allows us to send and receive data for enhanced safety and security, but as we’ve spoken about in our other articles, these tools have their limitations and drawbacks.

In October 2020, some of the limitations of AIS were made apparent when two vessels, each of which was broadcasting highly-inaccurate AIS data, collided head-on while rounding a 90-degree bend on the Mississippi River in the US. The collision between the two towing vessels resulted in one of the vessels completely capsizing, with multiple fatalities onboard.

So, what exactly went wrong?

Each ship displayed highly-inaccurate AIS data at the time of the incident - namely, the total length of their vessel and tow.

One vessel showed a ship and tow size of 22 meters, but the actual length was closer to nearly 205 meters. The other boat showed a total length of 61 meters, yet its exact size was closer to 490 meters. Each vessel displayed a size 8-10 times smaller than they were, so when they approached a bend in the river that the captains could not see around, they faced disastrous consequences.

In response, the US Coast Guard broadcasted a warning to tugboat owners to ensure that they accurately display their ship and tow size, reminding them of how imperative it is for safe operations. However, simply reminding captains and crew of the importance of accurate AIS data is inadequate. These incidents are sure to happen time and time again until better processes are put into place.

It’s not just head-on collisions that cause concern in the shipping industry, though. There are numerous reasons why accurate tracking and observation is essential, especially for those on vessels at sea. From prop failure to man-overboard scenarios to lost cargo, we outline the importance of space-based maritime monitoring below.

Ships Unequipped with AIS or Other Tracking Technology Face Numerous Threats with Disastrous Potential

While AIS technology has severe limitations and poses certain threats to security and trade regulation, even bigger threats exist when not used at all.

Drifting During Prop Failure, Running Aground, Capsizing, and Man Overboard Scenarios

Two ships operating near British Colombia (BC) recently experienced drifting due to prop failure. While the reason for prop failure is unknown in each incident, each likely encountered an unidentified obstacle that impacted the propellers’ ability to operate. Each ship was found and towed back to shore successfully, but one of the vessels was missing from AIS tracking systems, and it took the Canadian coast guard a prolonged period to find the ship in open waters.

These ships often carry hazardous materials that can wreak havoc on coastal and marine ecosystems if spilled, which is becoming an increasingly common problem in BC waters. Further, crew members’ lives are at heightened risk when a vessel experiences harsh weather conditions and storms, which can lead to a vessel capsizing or a man-overboard scenario. If a vessel sinks or crew members go overboard and there is no AIS or distress signal at the time of the incident, it is relatively unlikely they will be found and saved.

The two incidents highlight the importance of monitoring and tracking data in the maritime sector, especially for those operating in “high-risk” areas such as the BC coastline, where severe weather and uncharted obstacles like coastal dunes exist.

Accidents Involving Non-Sea-Worthy Dark Ships

Dark shipping threatens national security, maritime trade, human rights, and marine conservation. Almost all cases of dark shipping involve ships operating without the use of Automatic Identification Systems or any other monitoring and identification technology.

Most often, dark ships are not transmitting any AIS data because they attempt to avoid detection while carrying out an illicit activity like Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing or the trade of sanctioned goods. Some cases even stretch as far as things like human and drug trafficking.

Regardless of why these ships operate in the dark, many are not in seaworthy condition when they embark on their journey. Since almost all dark ships will be taking part in some sort of illegal activity, they are not cleared by maritime organizations for their safety of use. This makes it extremely dangerous for those on board, as any incident at sea could quickly turn fatal without a direct response from coastal or rescue authorities.

In September 2022, one such incident occurred when a Chinese boat sank near the coastal town of Sihanoukville, Cambodia. The ship was carrying at least 41 Chinese nationals, and some sources reported many of them as victims of human trafficking.

One person on board said, “I floated on the open sea for about two days. We had a cooler, and two of us were just sitting on the cooler and floating around. And then we saw a fishing boat, so we called for help. So they tossed a rope to us.”

Without being luckily spotted by the Cambodian fishing vessel in open waters, those lost in the water may not have been rescued. Alternatively, if the ship had an AIS transponder, they could have radioed to coastal authorities for assistance.

Of the 41 Chinese nationals on board, 3 of them ended up dying at sea - an easily preventable loss of life.

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