AIS + SATELLITE = global picture

Space-based ship-tracking technology is adding a new dimension to global vessel tracking and monitoring and maritime safety and security.

During the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, the Canadian Forces were able to identify 95 per cent of the vessels in their area of responsibility, which covered 1.7 million square kilometres off Canada’s west coast north to Alaska, by combining satellite AIS (Automatic Identification System) data with information from other surveillance systems.
Cambridge, Ont.-based exactEarth supplied the satellite AIS (S-AIS) data. It and Orbcomm., of Fort Lee, N.J., are among the driving forces behind S-AIS technology.

On its own, AIS is a shipboard transponder system that makes it possible to monitor ships from other ships and from shore-based stations. The system transmits a vessel’s identification, position, course, speed and other critical data that can be used to assist in navigation and improve maritime safety. The International Maritime Organization’s International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea requires that all ships over 300 gross registered tons sailing internationally, cargo ships over 500 gross registered tons not sailing internationally, and all passenger ships must be equipped with AIS transponders.

ExactEarth launched its latest AIS satellite, EV-1, into orbit in July. Photo : Courtesy exactEarth

The limitation of AIS is that communication with coastal receiving stations is line of sight, which means it’s not possible to track vessels once they’ve gone out into the open ocean. Typically, a coastal system will provide coverage to 50 nautical miles.

S-AIS adds into the mix low Earth orbit satellites specially equipped with the capability to collect AIS data from below. S-AIS provides vessel monitoring that extends far beyond the normal horizons, which is important considering that 70 per cent of the world’s surface is ocean and 90 per cent of global trade takes place on the ocean.

ExactEarth launched its latest AIS satellite, exactView-1 (EV-1), into orbit in July and successfully completed its payload performance testing in October. After completing the remaining satellite commissioning activities, the company was expected to bring the satellite into full commercial operation in November.

“EV-1 was designed to be the most advanced AIS satellite built to date and during the testing phase it has lived up to that billing as we have witnessed a doubling of detection rates compared to any of our previous satellite AIS sensors,” said exactEarth president Peter Mabson. “We are excited with the prospect of making these data available to our customers in the very near future and providing a big step forward in maritime vessel detections from space.”

Proponents of S-AIS say the data can be used to:

  • extend the range of vessel traffic management;
  • optimize logistic planning and port-to-port tracking;
  • provide information to port authorities that allows them to better plan for a ship’s arrival and reduce waiting times;
  • provide coverage of remote coastal and offshore areas as well as the vast Arctic region;
  • estimate carbon footprint by having precise information on a vessel’s trip and speed;
  • identify and analyze traffic patterns in highly pirated waters to help authorities determine safer shipping routes; and
  • assist with search-and-rescue operations.

Transportation gateways could use S-AIS to compare marine transit times with competing gateways to monitor the competiveness of ports.

Jillian Carson-Jackson, assistant general manager, navigation safety and international division, for the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, told PortInfo that Australia uses satellite AIS, combined with terrestrial AIS, for a range of activities.

The Government of Australia signed a contract with exactEarth in December 2011 to provide S-AIS data to its maritime operations. The data will be used in a variety of areas including search and rescue, environmental implication analysis and ship routing.

The South African Maritime Safety Authority (SAMSA) has been a pioneer in the use of space-based AIS data and it has just signed an agreement with exactEarth to renew the company’s exact AIS data service through October 2014.

“The detection level, coverage and reliability afforded by the exactAIS service gives us an invaluable resource in helping to manage the maritime environment around Southern Africa,” said Capt. Karl Otto, executive head of the Centre for Sea Watch and Response at SAMSA. “It gives us visibility into sea areas that we cannot achieve with any other sensor or data source.”

Transport Canada initiatives benefiting from satellite AIS

Transport Canada’s Economic Research and Analysis Branch says two of its initiatives are benefiting from satellite AIS (Automatic Identification System) data.

satellite eV-1. photo : courtesy exactEarth Satellite AIS (S-AIS) is assisting in the calculation of ocean transit times under the branch’s Fluidity Project, said Louis-Paul Tardif, director of economic research and analysis at Transport Canada.

For this project, the Port of Montreal is providing: the calculation of ocean transit time applied to two of its main routes, the corridors between the Port of Montreal and the ports of Valencia and Antwerp. The fluidity figure obtained through the combined Satellite and AIS systems is part of the transit-time calculation factors for containers headed to the large inland markets of Toronto, Chicago and Detroit.

Moreover, Arctic marine transportation corridors initiatives and marine preparedness and response measures will both require the use of AIS information to evaluate risks and the needs for infrastructure improvement or additional navigation aids services, Mr. Tardif said.

The Government of Canada, through the Marine Security Organization Centre project, has acquired S-AIS data from the Cambridge, Ont.-based company exactEarth. This data allows for the tracking of vessels anywhere on the sea, and this information can be aligned with Transport Canada mandates involving security, safety, efficiency and the environment.

The government is spending $4,7 million per year to get the S-AIS world coverage data for all departments and agencies.

The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) has the mandate to manage for the Government of Canada the agreement with exactEarth. Transport Canada has received through the CSA historical AIS data dating back to July 2010. Since June 1 of this year, Transport Canada has been receiving AIS data directly from exactEarth under the CSA’s contract with the company. ExactEarth provides up-to-date information data with only a one-day lag.

Transport Canada is continuing to use Lloyd’s Seasearcher vessel registry data to complement the data that exactEarth now provides.

Transport Canada is also using S-AIS data from exactEarth as a source – but not the only source – of data to calculate port competitiveness. “That’s mainly because S-AIS data could not provide the accuracy needed to calculate the exact transit time between ports – an international port to a Canadian port,” Mr. Tardif said. “Simply, S-AIS data could not give Transport Canada the exact vessel departure and arrival times.”

Transport Canada is estimating these times by combining different data sources. The next step in the process would be to improve, through other data, sources to get accurate vessel departure and arrival times in an efficient manner.

ExactEarth is now offering a new ‘Premium’ service in which S-AIS data is combined with about 800 AIS coastal antennas. “But, unfortunately, this feature is not included in the Government of Canada’s contract with exactEarth,” Mr. Tardif said.