Close Encounters of the Pirate Kind


This article first appeared in Aviation Week & Space Technology.

The U.S. is exploring the use of commercial satellites to enhance ship identification and communication for the battle against piracy.

Long before the U.S.-flagged container ship Maersk Alabama was attacked by Somali pirates this month, a sister vessel, the Maersk Iowa, was plying the sea lanes between the U.S. East Coast and the Indian Ocean, testing a device that combines the information obtained from shipboard radar and identification transponders to give authorities a better overview of who is on the water and what they are up to.

Now, the U.S. Office of Global Maritime Situational Awareness wants to leverage that data fusion technology to create a spaced-based collaboration for International Global Maritime Awareness. Guy Thomas, the office's science and technology adviser, envisions a networked information system using commercial satellites to transmit a common operating picture to authorities, allowing them to monitor large ocean areas.

Thomas, a former Navy signals intelligence officer working for the interagency maritime situational awareness office, thinks navigational radar and other sensor data from thousands of merchant ships -- enhanced by commercial satellites rapidly relaying the information to authorities -- could help overcome the challenge of monitoring the vast maritime domain.

Using existing commercial satellite technology, such as synthetic aperture radar (SAR) and electro-optical and infrared imaging, could provide all-weather night-and-day surveillance, even in heavy cloud cover. The satellites and shipboard sensors would complement each other, either calling attention to anomalies or checking and verifying them. The time it takes to download information from a satellite could be as little as 5 min., says Thomas. The information would be made available to authorities in an unclassified format. L-band radar, less detailed but also less expensive, would be adequate to detect the wake of ships at sea from space, he asserts.

Probably the greatest obstacle facing the warships from more than a dozen nations patrolling the pirate-infested waters between the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea is that the area "is just vast, more than a million square miles," says Gordan Van Hook, the director of innovation and concept development for the U.S.-based Maersk Line Ltd. According to U.S. Central Command, 33,000 ships passed through the Gulf of Aden in 2008. The same year, 122 piracy events occurred, with 42 successful and 80 unsuccessful.

International maritime regulations require commercial ships weighing more than 300 tons to carry an Automated Information System. Initially intended as an anti-collision device, the AIS is similar to the transponders that FAA regulations require on civil aircraft. Broadcasting on VHF radio, it divulges a ship's identification number, navigation status, speed and course heading every 2-10 sec. Name, cargo, size, destination and estimated time of arrival are broadcast about every 6 min. Other vessels with AIS in range constantly receive those data. However, each vessel is its own information bubble, says Van Hook, and cannot share data about other ships it encounters with authorities when more than 50 mi. from shore.

In a test project funded by the Transportation Dept., Lockheed Martin put a prototype data fusion system, known as Neptune, on Maersk cargo vessels, starting with the Maersk Iowa in 2006. Neptune took the information obtained by the ship's radar, which has a radius of about 20 mi., and combined it with data from passing ships received through its AIS. The information was sent via an Inmarsat satellite to a Lockheed Martin fusion center in Eagan, Minn., says Van Hook.

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-- Christian

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