VICTORIA, British Columbia — MDA Corp. will over the next six months find new methods to combine the use of radar and optical satellites to track so-called dark ships — vessels that are not broadcasting Automatic Identification System (AIS) signals.

The goal of the new research program is to better coordinate the two types of satellites, which in some cases need days of notice in advance for an imaging mission, said David Belton, vice president of Geospatial Services for the Richmond, British Columbia-based company.

“We’re doing research where multiple satellites and sensor technologies can be used more efficiently to plan and collect data for the purposes of detection of vessels that aren’t broadcasting AIS information,” he explained.

All ships above a certain weight class are now required to carry AIS packages that transmit information such as their position and heading. Satellites are used to relay that data to coastal authorities. Dark ships are vessels that are required to broadcast AIS signals but do not.

Belton said the problem of dark ships, also known as dark targets, is significant in some areas; one analysis of maritime traffic in the Mediterranean Sea indicated that upward of 50 percent of vessels in that body of water fell in the dark target category. Similar problems with such vessels exist in Southeast Asia, he added.

The plan would be to use radar satellites to do broad area imaging to get general patterns of marine traffic. Optical imagery satellites would provide coverage of a much more specific and smaller area, such as choke points.

Belton said one of the main challenges of using commercial satellite imagery for such a task centers on the time lines required to get imaging plans in place. That can take anywhere from 12 hours to seven days, which hinders a rapid turnaround for such information.

“The goal of the research is to come up with algorithms and some heuristic rules of how to most efficiently combine two sensors together to accomplish that coverage goal,” Belton said. “Different missions have different characteristics, different orbits, different swath widths, so we’ll be looking at what is the most efficient way to pair Radarsat 2 data with RapidEye coverage as an example. Or the most efficient way to pair Radarsat 2 with TerraSar and COSMO.”

But Belton said the effort is not aimed at undercutting AIS information providers such as Com Dev’s exactEarth. Such data are needed, he said.

“I don’t think it’s a shot over their bow — exactEarth is a core data feed we use to support our service,” Belton said. “But the recognition of the maritime awareness people is that AIS is not enough because it only represents those ships who are choosing to self-broadcast. What we’re offering is not a replacement of a capability in comparison to an AIS feed.”

Belton noted that MDA currently has an existing product called BlueHawk that provides an unclassified multisensor maritime domain awareness picture to clients.

BlueHawk is available as an Internet-based service accessible through any Web browser, as a direct data feed into customer systems, or as an enterprise-class system installed at customer locations.

Belton declined to detail BlueHawk customers for proprietary reasons but said it is provided to international defense organizations, coast guards and border security organizations.

BlueHawk uses optical satellite imagery, employing RapidEye data, in a limited fashion, Belton said.

MDA wants to improve BlueHawk with its new research. Belton said he does not have a time frame on when improvements might be made to BlueHawk because of the research into better use of optical and radar satellites but expects that lessons learned will be incorporated as soon as they are available.

“Our expectation is that as we learn more through this research and improve our knowledge base on how to collect with multisensors, those rules of thumb will role their way into our acquisition planning methodology,” he said. “As the research is completed it will become one of the foundations of our sensor planning that feeds into the BlueHawk system.”

The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) said it is also interested in the research, noting that the research “would provide great value to Canada in managing its maritime surveillance capability.”

Belton said the CSA is eyeing the research for possible contribution to its proposed Radarsat Constellation Mission or RCM. RCM is a constellation of three radar-imaging satellites that will conduct maritime and Arctic surveillance. The first RCM spacecraft was originally scheduled for launch in 2014 but project delays has pushed that back to 2018.

RCM will also be outfitted with an AIS capability.

David Pugliese covers space policy and developments in the space industry in Canada. He has a bachelor’s degree in political science from Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario, and a degree in journalism from Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario.