BlackSky and Spire Global provide a maritime tracking service using RF detection and imaging satellites. Credit: Spire Global

ST. LOUIS — The geospatial intelligence companies BlackSky and Spire Global announced May 24 they are offering a new global monitoring service that tracks ships via satellites.

The “maritime custody service” uses radio frequency emissions to automatically task imagery, detect and classify vessels, and continuously monitor change, the companies said. 

The service combines data from Spire’s radio-frequency monitoring satellites that detect emissions from ships and locate dark vessels that manipulate their reported position in order to conceal nefarious activities. The system automatically tips BlackSky’s satellites to collect imagery.

BlackSky’s Spectra AI cloud-based platform analyzes the electro-optical images using artificial intelligence to detect vessels, estimate cargo and monitor change over time. The maritime tracking service also relies on synthetic aperture radar from third-party satellites to supplement visible imagery, as only SAR can peer through clouds and darkness. 

Spire satellites track vessels emitting automatic identification system (AIS) data, spoofed AIS signals and other types of very high frequency (VHF) signals.

270,000 vessels can be tracked

The companies said they are able to track as many as 270,000 vessels worldwide in open water, along rivers and canals, and while docked at port.

Monitoring global maritime activity is critical to safeguarding national security, identifying illicit ship-to-ship transfers, intercepting smugglers or sanctions evasion, and tracking illegal fishing in restricted areas, said Iain Goodridge, senior director of radio frequency geolocation products at Spire. 

“The ability to identify, locate and continue to monitor ships, especially those that are spoofing their location, is becoming increasingly important as dark shipping activity continues to impact the global economy, the environment and the safety of people,” he said.

The data can be used, for example, to anticipate the impact of port congestion and shipping delays on global and regional supply chains.

Patrick O’Neil, chief innovation officer at BlackSky, said the service was designed to provide timely insights with minimal latency across the tasking, collection, processing, exploitation and dissemination process.

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...