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Fusing AIS Data and SAR to Enable Global Monitoring of Dark Vessels

While AIS provides a relatively dependable avenue for vessel tracking, manipulation events are becoming more and more common. By pairing AIS location data with SAR imagery, we solve some of the most pressing vessel monitoring challenges.

A New Era of Dark Vessel Detection

AIS-dark vessels create numerous challenges for maritime monitoring authorities, and the strategies used by those with interest in hiding their activity are getting more complex every day. While AIS provides a relatively dependable avenue for vessel tracking, manipulation events are becoming more and more common. By pairing AIS location data with SAR imagery, we solve some of the most pressing vessel monitoring challenges to date.

SAR imagery can locate AIS dark vessels through clouds, inclement weather, and almost any other obstacle present in maritime environments, making it a crucial tool in accurate and timely vessel monitoring - especially in high-risk/high-stake environments when inclement weather conditions are present.

What is AIS?

AIS, or Automatic Identification Systems, are used for maritime monitoring and intelligence purposes - first created as a collision avoidance measure for ships at sea. When turned on, AIS transponder systems ping a ship's location, speed, heading, and other identification data that can be employed to trace and track a ship's past and current activity.

Today, almost all maritime vessels are equipped with AIS transponders. AIS systems help ensure sanctions compliance, legal and sustainable fishing operations, and a multitude of other things related to maritime activity.

Although most operable vessels use AIS, the tracking systems can easily be turned off or manipulated - creating an opportunity for nefarious individuals to achieve unlawful goals by altering or hiding their AIS position and operating undetected.

While some AIS circumvention methods are complex and require detailed planning, turning off an AIS transponder (Dark Shipping) is extremely simple and easy to execute.

How Does Spire Use AIS Data for Dark Vessel Detection?

For an overview and understanding of how Spire uses AIS data to detect illicit activity, let's take a look at Spire's proposed detection workflow.

As you can see from the image, certain parameters indicate potential or likely AIS manipulation events, which are then passed along to ICEYE for further analysis.

How ICEYE Uses AIS Data Collected by Spire to Enable Global Dark Vessel Monitoring

The main challenge with using AIS for vessel monitoring is that it is relatively easy to manipulate. ICEYE solves a significant portion of AIS monitoring shortfalls by using Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) data from their satellite constellation in space - which is the world's largest and fastest radar constellation to date.

The ICEYE constellation consists of more than 18 small satellites, orbiting the earth approximately 15 times per day at a speed of 7.5 km per second. These satellites can see through clouds, darkness, and other variable weather events - giving full coverage visibility for a targeted area.

Now, rather than simply making assumptions about an AIS darkness event, authorities can use ICEYE's monitoring technology to confirm or refute a ship's position. Upon confirmation, it makes it easier for the appropriate maritime authorities to take swift and confident action.

Below, we outline the four tactical approaches ICEYE uses to detect, track, monitor, and deploy vessel monitoring for their customers.

  1. Persistent Monitoring

  2. Validate Intelligence

  3. Track Suspicious Vessels

  4. Search and Rescue

Persistent Monitoring

One example of persistent monitoring would be identifying a particular EEZ that suspected IUU fishing was taking place. ICEYE would then use that information and monitor the location day in and day out to gain intelligence about operations within a target area.

Validate Intelligence

Another useful application for SAR imagery is to validate intelligence gained through different sources and routes - be it for IUU fishing, sanctioned trade, or others. If ICEYE is notified of a potential threat, they will image the target area and send it to their customer for further review and analysis.

Track Suspicious Vessels

If a vessel goes dark and an organization wants to know where it's going, ICEYE would set up a scheme to track that information - which would then be used to intercept the vessel at a point of interest.

Search and Rescue

From time to time, vessels capsize or lose their cargo in open waters - making search and rescue operations a critical component of saving lives or mitigating environmental damage from hazardous goods and materials.

The Spire Constellation

Spire Global owns one of the largest private-run satellite constellations in the world. The Low-Earth Multi-Use Receiver (LEMUR) 3U (or 6U) constellation is comprised of over 110 satellites that send radio frequency (RF), radio occultation (RO), and space-based weather data to more than 30 ground stations on the earth's surface. The LEMUR constellation orbits the earth every 90 minutes and offers near-global coverage across even the most remote regions - including the oceans and poles.

The data provided by Spire supports nearly every type of activity, with a strong focus on providing data for the following applications:

  • Maritime

  • Aviation

  • Weather Modeling

  • Climate Monitoring

  • Soil Moisture

  • Ionosphere

  • Space Services

With Spire's dynamic satellite capabilities, they turn ideas into live-feed fruition from space in as little as six to twelve months. While the LEMUR constellation currently uses three primary payloads for its core applications, Spire Global has the capability to build and launch cube satellites with custom payloads for customers in nearly every industry.

Want to learn more about how space-based data from Spire Global and ICEYE can support your applications? Check out this comprehensive video overview of their services HERE.

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