Ships that switch off their locator beacons in order to smuggle drugs and other illegal cargo will soon be tracked anywhere in the world by a new British military satellite system.
Scientists at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) in Wiltshire are preparing to launch a network of mini-spacecraft that will be able to spot the wakes they leave behind in all weathers.
The automatic identification system (AIS) is an automatic tracking system that uses transceivers on ships to broadcast their position in real time 24 hours a day. Since 2000 the system has been mandatory on merchant ships with 300 or more gross tonnage, and all passenger craft.
For obvious reasons, warships will switch their AIS off in combat zones but any other large craft with an inactive or hacked transponder is likely to be breaking the law.
Reasons why a ships’ captains attempt to hide its location of their vessels range from illegal fishing, drug smuggling, through to terrorism and illegal arms shipments.
Ships that try to spoof their AIS location are referred to as “Ghost Ships”, whilst those that turn off their transceiver for any reason are often called “Dark Ships”.
Dstl’s Dr Mike O’Callaghan told The Times: “If a ship has turned off that signal it probably is the case they may be up to no good so generally that is something we might be interested in taking a look at.”
For example, in 2019 a ship initially identified as the Panamanian-flagged “Grace 1”, but hastily renamed Adrian Darya-1 while sailing off Gibraltar with its AIS transponder disabled, was seized by a detachment of Royal Marines on suspicion of being involved in the funding of terrorism.
An international incident blew up over the ship, suspected of carrying a sanction-busting shipment of Iranian oil to Syria, and it was held for several weeks while politicians wrangled over whether it should be allowed to carry on with its journey.
A Ministry of Defence spokesman said that AIS is “the International Maritime Organisation’s commercial global safety system for all marine traffic. Any manipulation could result in a serious incident.”
But sometimes AIS data can be hacked by an outside force.
Late last month, British destroyer HMS Defender passed through the Black Sea “innocently,” according to the Admiralty in accordance with international law.
But Russia’s defence ministry claimed its aircraft had fired warning shots at the Defender because it had strayed into Russian territorial waters, and used her AIS signal as proof.
The British government replied that the ship’s AIS had been hacked, although it did took care not to accuse any specific country or organisation of responsibility.
The new satellite system, dubbed Project Oberon, will allow Royal Navy commanders to pinpoint any ship anywhere on earth no matter what its AIS beacon is reporting – or even if it’s switched off altogether.
The system should be online in the next few years, although Dstl declined to comment on specific timescales at this stage.
Oberon will use a technology called synthetic aperture radar. If the satellite were stationary in space, it would need to be have a huge antenna – maybe up to two or three miles across – to be able to spot something as small as a boat amid the vastness of the world’s oceans.
But by using very raid pings from a number of small satellites moving at high speeds – up to 16,000 mph – it’s possible to use high-tech processing to create the effect of a much bigger antenna.
The data Oberon sends back will require specialist analysis to interpret, but unlike photographic images will be effective through thick cloud and at night.
The satellites will also have sensors to pin-point the sources of radio transmissions.
The development of Oberon is said to be progressing well, with Dstl already working alongside Airbus Defence and Space, and Oxford Space Systems to design the craft and its pioneering antenna.
Colin Paynter, the managing director of Airbus Defence and Space UK predicts the system will provide “a new world-class surveillance capability for the Ministry of Defence, helping to protect our armed forces across the world."
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