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  • Writer's pictureTravis Turgeon

The Companies and Satellites Hunting Dark Vessels at Sea

Updated: Apr 11, 2023

"The unique way the constellation orbits the earth allows for near-global coverage, including the most remote regions located in the open ocean and at the poles."

Dark shipping is becoming an increasingly difficult challenge to tackle in today's maritime landscape. However, several satellite companies are using innovative technologies to up their ability to identify, track, and monitor dark ships. From miniaturized payloads to beneficial partnerships, these companies are forging new paths to help maritime authorities mitigate sea-based threats.

One of the most beneficial ways companies track and monitor dark ships is by using a consortium of technologies and approaches in tandem, allowing for more robust datasets that provide much more accurate and timely maritime predictions and assessments. One way of doing this is by pairing radio frequency (RF) data with AIS data. This allows users to accurately assess if or when a ship may have moved away from its logged course, giving authorities more insight into suspected AIS manipulation events.

Below, we take a look at a few of the companies innovating for change and explore how their approaches are changing the way we use space-based technology to create safer, more informed, and better-managed systems around the globe. We also outline what types of space-based technologies are being employed and applied to numerous sectors within maritime industries and talk about how they will continue to expand in the fight against national and international security, sanctions avoidance, IUU fishing, marine conservation, human trafficking, and more.

Planet Federal (Planet Labs)

Planet Federal is among the most prominent players providing space-based satellite and earth intelligence data to the maritime industry. They serve a wide range of clients and end-users, including businesses, researchers, and journalists, but focus heavily on supporting US federal civilian agencies, the US Department of Defense, and the global maritime intelligence network.

Planet Federals' work allows them to monitor global challenges and act as an information vessel to support maritime and land-based management.

Currently, the company has an operational satellite network consisting of more than 200 satellites in two separate constellations - the PlanetScope Dove Constellation and the SkySat Constellation.

PlanetScope Dove Constellation

The Dove Constellation holds the bulk of Planet Federal’s satellites, consisting of around 200 satellites to date. The small, 3-meter (3m) satellites collect about 2 million square kilometers of imagery data every day from the earth's surface.

Each small satellite weighs just 5.8 kg, containing small-scale payloads with medium-resolution imagery that can reach up to 15km offshore. The satellites and data allow for a swath of applications, including:

  • Maritime Monitoring and Dark Ship Detection

  • Humanitarian Issues and Human Trafficking

  • Environmental Applications (Deforestation, Weather Monitoring, Climate Change, and Urbanization)

  • Agricultural Applications (Helping farmers increase yields and improve harvests)

The PlanetScope constellation orbits the earth in a fixed rotation but can be moved to monitor smaller, more defined areas at any given moment - including ocean territories.

The medium-resolution imagery can be collected day or night, and the satellites even have the ability to record video. This consortium of capabilities makes the constellation a highly-valuable tool for all sorts of purposes and is particularly useful in the identification and monitoring of dark vessels and dark fleets.

When used alongside technologies and data provided by other maritime intelligence companies like Spire Global, these tools help governments, private organizations, and militaries make huge strides toward deterring some of the more harmful effects of dark shipping.

Spire Global

Spire Global is another leader in the maritime industry, providing space-based data from small satellite constellations to a wide range of clients and users. The company builds customized datasets for clients in spaces that span far beyond the maritime and aviation industries, using unrivaled data collection payloads and easy-to-use APIs for customers who need to make more informed decisions within their industries and applications.

LEMUR Constellation

Spire owns one of the world's largest privately owned and operated satellite constellations. Its constellation, the Low-Earth Multi-Use Receiver (LEMUR) constellation, consists of 110 3U (or 6U) “nano-satellites” - each equipped with miniaturized payloads that send radio frequency (RF), radio occultation (RO), and weather data to receivers around the globe.

The Constellation orbits the earth quickly, making a pass every 90 minutes. The unique way the constellation orbits the earth allows for near-global coverage, including the most remote regions located in the open ocean and at the poles.

Spire Global’s LEMUR constellation provides useful and valuable data to support a range of applications, including:

  • Maritime Monitoring and Dark Ship Detection

  • Aviation Monitoring

  • Weather Modeling

  • Climate Change Monitoring

  • Natural Resource Monitoring

  • Soil Moisture

  • Ionosphere Monitoring

  • Space Services

With such a wide range of data collection capabilities, Spire’s LEMUR constellation allows public and private entities to detect and track dark shipping on a scale that almost no other data provider can give.

Spire has been at the forefront of almost every major maritime challenge and has provided viable and efficient solutions to maritime authorities time after time - becoming a trusted leader and partner to the US government, US military, and private organizations worldwide.

Moreover, Spire works directly with entities that have a stake in the maritime industry, allowing for collaboration in creating new and innovative ways to tackle challenges.

One way they do this is by building customized payloads for task-specific applications, which can be launched and operational within 12 months of the fruition of an idea. This allows companies to fuel progress faster and further than their competitors, staying ahead of industry curves that could otherwise leave them struggling to keep pace.

Unseen Labs

Unseen Labs was founded in 2015 in Brittany, France. The company specializes in radio frequency (RF) data processing using its proprietary satellite constellation.

The aim of Unseen Labs is to help those with interest in the maritime sector detect, collect, and analyze RF signals emitted from ships around the globe so that public and private maritime authorities have access to tangible and near-real-time data. This data allows them to identify and prevent dark shipping incidents and make more informed decisions on processes and management involving maritime surveillance.

The Unseen Labs Constellation

In January 2023, Unseen Labs launched its eighth satellite, the BRO-8, into orbit. The constellation provides Unseen Labs’ customers with reliable RF data for the real-time detection and monitoring of vessels at sea. Each satellite is equipped with a proprietary payload designed to collect RF data, regardless of the time of day or the near-earth conditions.

After the launch of the BRO-8, Clement Galic, CEO and co-founder of Unseen Labs, said, “The new satellites add essential capacities to the Unseen Labs Constellation. It means more solutions and deeper analysis for our customers. If you need to know what is happening in your areas of interest, Unseen Labs provides you with an efficient solution for an exhaustive view of maritime traffic through maritime surveillance.”

The Unseen Labs constellation collects data and provides insights for numerous applications, including:

  • Capsized Vessels and Rescue Operations

  • Dark Ship and Dark Fleet Detection and Collision Avoidance

  • Identifying Suspicious Activity and Potential Trafficking

  • Tanker Pollution Assessments

  • Detecting Fishing and Trawler Violations

While the list above is far from exhaustive, they are some of the more common occurrences threatening maritime industries.

Kleos Space

Kleos Space is another company focused on detecting, collecting, and providing RF data insights to the maritime industry for vessel detection and monitoring. Kleos Space operates out of three locations, the US, the UK, and Luxembourg.

Kleos uses a cluster of satellites armed with unique RF sensors to collect radio transmission data and process it using a proprietary processing, synthesis, and analytical platform. The platform delivers high-quality data insights for those with maritime and land-based interests that they can use to make more informed decisions. The company aims to combat the numerous threats to the maritime industry posed by those operating unlawfully using dark shipping and data manipulation tactics.

The Kleos Space Satellite Cluster and RF Payloads

One of the most unique parts about how Kleos Space operates and provides data is that its data collection approach is mission specific - meaning they work with customers with a specific task or goal in mind. Kleos can rapidly come up with space-based solutions that can be deployed in a relatively short period, allowing its customers access to industry solutions that may not otherwise be available.

Mission-specific applications include data collection for the following:

  • Enhanced Situational Awareness

  • Land and Sea Border Control

  • Regulatory Framework Monitoring

  • Search and Rescue

  • Resource Management

  • Fisheries Monitoring

  • Trafficking, Smuggling, and Illegal Shipments

Kleos customers can license data on a subscription basis (Data-as-a-Service (DaaS) / Mission-as-a-Service (MaaS)) and allows both public and private entities access to such arrangements.

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