Earth Imaging Journal: Remote Sensing, Satellite Images, Satellite Imagery
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April 5, 2011
Searching for Seafaring Needles in a Huge Haystack

The most critical part of an ocean or sea in terms of a country’s economic prosperity is its exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which basically is the area of water extending 200 nautical miles outward from a nation’s coastline. A host of economic activities, including fishing, oil production, shipping and tourism take place in an EEZ. But such activities are subject to threats such as illegal fishing, pollution, piracy, smuggling and terrorist activities, making effective maritime surveillance a critical component of homeland security.

Routine security breaches within an EEZ are costly. The worldwide cost of illegal fishing is estimated at a staggering $23.5 billion annually. Additionally, pollution in the form of illegal discharges from vessels can dramatically affect the health of a nation’s EEZ. The Helsinki Commission (HELCOM) detected 178 deliberate, illegal oil spills from ships in the Baltic Sea in 2009. Although this was down 60 percent from 1999, thanks in part to the use of satellite surveillance, the organization admits that in the vast majority of such cases, the culprits go unpunished—only eight of last year’s offenders actually were identified.

HELCOM works to protect the marine environment of the Baltic Sea from all sources of pollution through intergovernmental cooperation with Denmark, Estonia, the European Commission, Finland, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Russia and Sweden. Despite the organization’s tireless efforts, the Baltic remains so polluted that Greenpeace advises pregnant women not to eat its fish.

A Massive Geographic Challenge
The first problem facing nearly every country with a substantial EEZ is the vast expanse of water that must be monitored for illegal activity. For instance, the U.S. EEZ, which is the world’s largest, comprises more than 11 million square kilometers of ocean. France, Australia, Russia and the United Kingdom also have massive EEZs to monitor.

The second problem is that the bad guys don’t just hang out in one place waiting to get caught. Pirates, smugglers, terrorists and illegal fishing vessels constantly are on the move, making effective maritime surveillance incredibly difficult. Massive areas, remote locations and literally thousands of active targets make finding and identifying offenders much like searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack.

There are only two ways out: reduce the size of the haystack, or improve the process for addressing the problem. The haystack—or in this case an EEZ—is what it is. Therefore, the only solution is to improve the process.

A Cost-Effective Solution
Traditionally, EEZs have been monitored with conventional mobile assets, such as aircraft and surface vessels, along with shore-based technology, such as radar, cameras and Automated Identification System (AIS) sensors. Because of their limited range, shore-based sensors typically are located only in key strategic locations, leaving huge portions of an EEZ uncovered and creating significant gaps in maritime situational awareness.

Mobile assets, on the other hand, can cover more area, but they’re much more expensive. It costs the U.S. Coast Guard around $13,000 an hour to operate an HH60J helicopter, $15,000 an hour to operate an HC130H/J airplane and $19,000 an hour to operate a 282 WHEC patrol ship. Add up the daily costs of routine coastal monitoring, and the price tag for these assets increases quickly.

Clearly, space-based Earth observation platforms are positioned to make a significant contribution to maritime surveillance efforts. With more Earth observation platforms coming online each year, better coverage becomes available while the cost of imagery continues to decline.

High-resolution optical imagery may be appropriate for areas closer to key population areas and strategic military locations, while coarser resolution may suffice for the outermost portions of an EEZ. Radar solutions are particularly valuable because they can detect illegal activity in bad weather, night or day. Of course, satellite imagery isn’t the lone solution. But when such imagery is integrated with traditional resources, along with the coming generation of unmanned aerial systems, international maritime security can make huge strides in a positive direction.

— Jeff Specht, publisher, Earth Imaging Journal

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