By the end of 2014, if all goes according to schedule, two commercial companies — Orbcomm in the United States and Canada-based Com Dev’s exactEarth — will have separate constellations of satellites in orbit offering satellite-based Automatic Identification System (AIS) data on global shipping fleets.

The Norwegian government is launching its own Arctic-focused satellites, and several nations planning radar Earth observation spacecraft are weighing whether to add an AIS sensor to them.

The satellite services extend the range of the existing coastal radars by providing authorities with ship data anywhere in the satellites’ coverage, which in the case of the two low-orbiting services means just about anywhere.

These developments would appear to be the answer to a decades-long effort by Guy Thomas, first inside the U.S. government and more recently as co-founder of C-SIGMA, or the Coordination Centre for Collaboration in Space for International Global Maritime Awareness.

As happy as he is with the recent commercial developments, Thomas remains on guard against tendencies in some governments to want to remove satellite-based AIS from the open commercial market and place it under government control with selective access.

Thomas recently spoke with SpaceNews staff writer Peter B. de Selding.

We now have two commercial companies managing AIS constellations, plus a couple of individual government initiatives. Is that enough to get the job done? 

Yes, but competition is good. It keeps everyone on their game. However, there is a good bit of misinformation about various capabilities. For instance, how do you define “near real time”? Certainly not in several hours. In the U.S. military you could not use that term for anything that was later than a second. Some even argue it is down in the fractions of a second. You would be laughed out of the room if you even suggested near real time was measured in minutes, much less hours. 

Indeed, I could tell you stories about arguments between the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office and the air-breather reconnaissance community. 

Here’s just one: In 1978 I personally briefed the CIA director about the difference in time latency between space systems and various airborne assets. Time magazine later did a cover story on his proposal to defund manned reconnaissance and transfer the funds to Army space systems. I was part of the team that wrote the rebuttal and I became one of the two briefers that explained to him he had been misled — much like anyone who believes you can get satellite AIS in anything like near real time, especially using just a few ground stations. 

In your view should this remain a commercial endeavor or be turned over to government agency or agencies? 

I very strongly believe that AIS collection should remain in private hands or we run the risk of having it move behind “the green door” and be taken over by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) and the similar organizations most governments have. That would run the risk of the services being denied to the public. 

We had a huge discussion in the U.S. behind the green door (with NSA) about whether private companies could collect AIS back in the 2003-2005 time frame. Originally, the leadership had no objections. Then the lesser minions got involved and they felt their turf was being trod on. It got a bit ugly before common sense prevailed, and then only with the help of senior lawyers. I understand Canada had the same problems. 

The collection of AIS via space systems is a game changer. It has the potential to be a great force for good, but only if it is sharable, and that means kept unclassified. Actually, I do not want AIS to be completely unclassified, just kept in known hands, who pay for it and use it for legal purposes. There are reported cases of it being used for illegal purposes, but I know of no case where that has proven to be true. It is just speculation by uninformed sources trying to sell a story. Move it behind the green door and the illegals will be more likely to try to use it, thinking it must be a mother lode of information.

The European Maritime Safety Agency appears to believe that high-accuracy, high-volume AIS capacity on satellite would require a government effort. Do they have a point? 

It is often said, “Better is the mortal enemy of good enough.” Such is the case here. One of the main problems with AIS collection from space is co-channel interference from both other AIS emitters as well as other signals that operate in the same part of the spectrum. Indeed, more satellites with smaller footprints, and thus smaller amounts of co-channel interference, would be ideal.

But let us first see the performance of both the next generation of satellites, especially those made by exactEarth manufacturer SpaceQuest here in the U.S., and Orbcomm’s next-generation constellation, made by Sierra Nevada Corp., a company with an excellent track record behind that same “green door” I referred to. I am sure there will always be room for improvement, but at what cost of each marginal increment? 

Are government coastal authorities worldwide ready to let commercial companies handle AIS reception, collation and distribution? 

I have talked to many of them, and other than a few of the bigger ones in Europe and Japan, I think they are ready. There are exceptions. Norway is planning to put its own constellation into orbit. I am sure the commercial companies would be delighted to sell them the same data at a fraction of the cost. Canada has taken a different approach and is pretty obviously subsidizing its home industries to compete on the world stage, and buying the product from them to help them make their bottom line more robust. 

Indeed, that was the deal I worked out with Orbcomm in October 2001, and then validated with the U.S. Coast Guard when they agreed to fund the concept test in late 2003. It took another three or four months of paperwork to finally put them on contract, but it was the same deal as what we originally envisioned in October 2001. I had never heard of the term public-private partnership at the time, but that is what we had. Hopefully, that level of government-commercial collaboration will continue. But it can get out of hand, stifling international competition and creating a company that must live on the dole or starve, if you are not careful. 

When you say AIS, do you also include satellite radar and optical sensors, and satellite machine-to-machine communications, in your thinking?

Not when I say AIS, but most certainly when I say C-SIGMA. Satellite AIS is what makes those other systems viable as a global maritime awareness system. But it will take all of them, operating in full collaboration, to make the envisioned system. 

If you can afford only one system, then satellite AIS is the one you need, but it is my hope that the United Nations will eventually realize both the need for C-SIGMA and the fact that the needed capability is largely already in place. It just needs to be organized. In fact it already has a pair of prospective homes. The Irish National Space Centre is keen to host it, and the newly created 2012 Multinational Maritime Security Center of Excellence is also interested.

Are there any solid data on the current rate of compliance to AIS requirements worldwide or in North American and European waters? 

I believe the vast majority of legal vessels operating in North American and European waters are more than fully compliant. In talking with mariners, I have found they keep AIS on all the time — both because it is a low-cost extra hand on watch and one that does not take breaks, and because if they ever do have a collision they want to say they were doing everything in their power to avoid it.

AIS requirements are now limited to larger ships. Should they be extended to smaller vessels? 

Absolutely. I have been arguing for this for a decade, starting with an article in the Autumn 2003 edition of the U.S. Naval War College Review. By the time it went to the printer I had been told I was nuts and stupid and the idea of collecting AIS from space was impossible so many times that I pared back its mention to just a few sentences. Still, the concept that became long-range identification and tracking is in there loud and clear, except I proposed those requirements be extended to anyone operating more than 50 miles (about 80 kilometers) offshore. 

We defined an area that came to be called the Maritime Identification Zone. By the end of 2001, the team at the Naval War College analysis branch had defined the need for every vessel operating more that 50 miles but less than 300 miles offshore to be positively identified and tracked if we were to have any hope of intercepting a bad guy with a “weapon of mass effects.” That was our main focus in those days immediately after 9/11. We also recommended that the advanced notification line be pushed out to 2,000 nautical miles.

You refer to 26 AIS message types, and a 27th for satellite AIS. Is that still the case?


What regulatory requirements are needed, and at what level — national or international — to make AIS as common on ships as Inmarsat Global Maritime Distress and Safety System hardware?

Actually, we are already there. The International Maritime Organization Safety of Life at Sea requirements are what define Global Maritime Safety System, long-range identification and tracking and AIS carriage requirements, and they apply to the same group of ships. By the way, the long-range identification and tracking requirements came out of the same set of war games/seminars/workshops held at the Naval War College in the fall of 2001 as a direct result of 9/11. They also apply to just that same class of ships. Only after much negotiation by our representative to the International Maritime Organization was it decided to just add it into the Safety of Life at Sea requirements. I had initially held out for and argued for all ships, but my U.S. Coast Guard colleagues would not hear of it. They said it would be too hard to enforce; that seemed to be their main objection — kind of like Prohibition.

There remains the question as to whether all Safety of Life at Sea-class vessels will be required to transmit on the new satellite-only frequencies. I suspect that is going to be a bridge too far at this time.

Follow Peter on Twitter: @pbdes

Peter B. de Selding was the Paris Bureau Chief for SpaceNews.