Government officials on both sides of the Atlantic became concerned in February when a cruise ship bound for the scrap heap from Newfoundland broke free of its towline and started drifting toward Europe.
Some wondered if the 295-foot Lyubov Orlova would affect shipping lanes or barrel into offshore oil rigs. Others worried the derelict ship would drift into their nation’s waters and cause problems.
Guy Thomas, retired from the U.S. Navy and then the U.S. Coast Guard, and now a Baltimore-based consultant to several space companies, saw Orlova as an opportunity to test a satellite-based maritime tracking concept he developed a decade ago.
After learning that the Irish government was preparing to locate and track the derelict liner, Thomas recalls telling the director of the Irish Coast Guard “that’s the kind of thing I think we can help you with.”
Thomas’ Collaboration in Space for International Global Maritime Awareness (C-Sigma) concept uses satellite radar imaging to scan vast amounts of ocean. He then compares that data with satellite-based AIS and Long Range Identification and Tracking (LRIT) data to identify as many ships showing up on radar as possible.
“The radar satellites can operate at night and they can see through clouds,” he said in a telephone interview. “They tell you the blobs that are out there. The AIS tells you who most of the blobs are — and who they are or not.
“If you see a reflection out there that probably should be reporting, and is not, that catches the analysts’ attention,” he said.
Thomas spent two decades in the Navy, during which he participated in recon flights and relayed intelligence to sea, air and ground forces. He later helped plan war games and exercises while working at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. He served as the science and technology advisor for the Coast Guard for nearly a decade.
He conceived the idea of space-based AIS in 2001 while developing the U.S. maritime awareness concept at the Naval War College, where he was on loan from Johns Hopkins. He created the C-Sigma concept in 2005. Since then, he has advocated for an international collaborative that uses commercial, unclassified earth observation satellites, especially those with radar and/or AIS, to track activity on the world’s oceans.
Thomas developed the program as a security initiative, but quickly learned there were other applications, including oil spill detection that can be linked directly to the offending vessel, increased maritime safety and improved anti-smuggling and piracy efforts. It can be used for illegal fishing detection — a truly global multi-billion dollar problem.
Recent field tests conducted jointly by the U.S. and Chilean coast guards used space systems to identify a Chinese fishing fleet and ultimately dissuaded it from entering Chilean waters, according to Thomas. It was used to locate and rescue an injured mariner whose ship’s onboard GPS was disabled.
New Jersey-based Orbcomm has assisted Thomas’ efforts by providing free access to its satellite-based AIS. Cosmo-SkyMed satellites, which are funded in part by the Italian government, part by Telespazio, an Italian aerospace firm, provides free radar imaging.
For long-term success, Thomas believes many governments must work together on the effort. A single “hub” for all of the data collection must be created — something he says the Irish government has shown interest in.
“That is the core part of C-Sigma. We get many different nations to rent time on the commercial space systems in a collaborative manner to do ocean surveillance,” he said.
“Many countries are doing it now and many more would like to. … Pooling their individual efforts would assist each other as well as the lesser-developed countries.”
Greg Flessate, Orbcomm’s vice president of government and maritime, said the company is launching 17 new AIS-enabled satellites within the next two years as part of a $180 million upgrade.
Space-based AIS combined with radar and other available data, he said, offers a complete and comprehensive picture of maritime activity “not previously imagined from the commercial world.”
“The future is indeed bright and it is just a matter of the rate of cooperation and adoption. Sometimes these things take more time than those directly involved would like,” said Flessate, a friend and longtime collaborator with Thomas.
Harm Greidanus, of the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, which advises the European Union on science and technology matters, said maritime awareness is about knowing what is happening at sea — knowing where the ships are and what they are doing.
“I think we do not want or need a system that contains all the ship positions always over the entire world. Nobody needs all that information (there are just too many small ships!),” he said in an e-mail message, adding that he was speaking only for himself and not the commission.
“What we are talking about is the possibility that authorities get access to particular information when they need it; in particular without having to redo all the effort to collect the data if someone else already has it,” he continued.
What would happen with all that data? Greidanus said it would not be available for public consumption. It’s still unclear who could access the information, when they can use it, and how it can be used.
Benjamin Strong, director of Amver maritime relations for the U.S. Coast Guard, said a maritime global awareness system has value.
“Having a clearer picture of what vessels are available for search and rescue benefits everybody,” said Strong.
“So whether it be a fishing vessel or a tanker, whatever the vessel may be, if there is a way through a global maritime awareness system to identify that ship and to send them to go save somebody, then that is definitely a benefit.”
Amver, which has existed since the late 1950s, relies on a network of nearly 5,300 ships around the world that voluntarily report their positions to the U.S. Coast Guard at least every 24 hours. In that way, authorities know which ships can assist during emergencies.
So what happened to Orlova?
The satellite companies gathered data from six sections of the North Atlantic where Irish, U.S. and Canadian authorities thought the ship would likely be based on currents and other factors.
Thomas and his team reviewed the information and identified all ships that were 60 meters or larger — ruling out the possibility that Orlova was among them.
After locating an EPIRB radio beacon signal from the doomed liner, they zeroed in on its location with a high-resolution image that also found nothing.
“That pretty well told us that the buoy was floating free. It wasn’t on a lifeboat, it wasn’t on a raft, we would have seen those, so it must be there by itself. EPIRBs can do that. That told us the ship had probably sunk,” Thomas said.
Still, he hasn’t given up. Neither have his satellite partners, e-Geos or Orbcomm, which are donating their services free.
“There are whole sections out there where we know it’s not,” Thomas said. “We are still looking, but it’s a big ocean.”