Eyes on every ship

With the NORAIS-2 instrument on the International Space Station (ISS), and its AIS payload on the AISSat surveillance satellites, KONGSBERG gives the world a way to track virtually every ship sailing the globe.

  • Text:KONGSBERG MARITIME

  • Ove Ronny Haraldsen
    Group Communication Manager

The result is improved safety, fewer violations at sea, and overall greater understanding of maritime activity in the world.

AIS, or Automatic Identification System, is required on all ships over 300 gross tons, but is in practice used on many more types of vessels. AIS transmitters send out signals containing information on a ship’s identity, position, heading, speed, and planned destination. The signals are picked up by other ships, land-based stations, and by radio tracking systems provided by Kongsberg on the ISS and the AISSat satellites.

SEEING FROM SPACE
“Data from the space station is controlled by the ISS for now, but it is a hugely important experiment in the value of information from space for many areas of society,” says says Gard Ueland, President and CEO of Kongsberg Seatex, a Kongsberg Maritime company.

He names research, environmental protection, fisheries and search and rescue at sea as just some of the beneficiaries. When the European Space Agency (ESA) contacted the Norwegian Space Centre with a need for a robust and effective transponder that could meet the stringent requirements of a human space flight mission, the job went to KONGSBERG. No small task, and one that had to be completed in record time.

“We basically had to respond on an experimental level. We took the best of our technology that had been developed for AISSat and adapted it for this mission. Our expectations were understandably modest, but the equipment has performed far beyond what we anticipated,” Ueland relates.

SAVING LIVES ON EARTH

The AISSat surveillance satellites gives the world a way to track virtually every ship sailing the globe.

While the users of space AIS data are primarily government agencies, ships’ crews and owners are the direct beneficiaries. “They feel safer at sea, knowing they can be seen wherever they are,” says Ueland.

While AIS technology enables following ships from space, there is still much sea traffic that is best kept track of from earth. To that end, land bases were installed in 2004 along Norway’s coast. The bases represented a vast leap forward at the time, but the last ten years have seen new advances, and upgrades were deemed necessary.

Now the same technology used on the ISS and in AISSat satellites is being employed on land. KONGSBERG has been contracted by the Norwegian Coastal Authority (NCA) to upgrade AIS equipment in 57 base stations in Norway.

“This is space technology brought down to earth,” Ueland emphasizes. “Kongsberg is using our cutting-edge radio technology in land-based surveillance stations and on ships and boats.”

Just days after upgrading one station near Bergen, on the southwest coast, a Polish sailboat with low-wattage AIS-B onboard capsized in the area. The new station picked up the distress signal and dispatched a SeaKing helicopter, rescuing the entire crew just before the boat went under. With winds at 60 knots and waves up to 15 feet, the situation was critical.

“They were nearly 60 nautical miles from land,” says Harald Åsheim, senior engineer in the NCA. “The old stations had a range of around 40 miles and were not as sensitive as the new models, so without the upgrade we wouldn’t have picked up the signals and couldn’t have initiated the rescue.”

MEETING PRACTICAL NEEDS

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AISSat-1 was launched in 2010, designed for a life of three years. Five years later, it is still relaying information to earth. AISSat-2 went into orbit in 2014, further strengthening surveillance capacity. Now KONGSBERG and the Norwegian Space Centre are developing a more powerful AIS transponder to be launched on AISSat-3 in 2017.

Originally intended as a collision avoidance system, AIS information is finding steadily more uses. The AISSat satellites were enlisted by the Norwegian Coastal Authority to survey Norway’s vast and remote arctic territories, but during the 2011 tsunami in Japan, Norwegian authorities supplied their Japanese counterparts with valuable information on the status of vessel traffic, as parts of their own infrastructure were knocked out by the giant wave. As an indication of the varied uses for AIS data, Gard Ueland tells this story:

“I was sailing last summer when I happened to meet an adventurer just minutes after he got his feet back on Norwegian soil, after four years sailing around the world. He had been 62 days at sea on one crossing, and he had AIS-B on board. He said he always knew where he was, and he could plot the courses and speeds of all ships in his vicinity, then go below deck and have a nap for a couple of hours, knowing that they could see him as well.” Safe, with the watchful eyes of AIS and KONGSBERG on every ship.

Video indicating the vastly improved coverage area obtained using satellite based AIS base stations.

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