Italian maritime activity, detected by HawkEye 360 satellites, dropped precipitously around March 9 when the government imposed travel restrictions to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus. Maritime activity remained flat until May 4, when Italian factories and construction sites were allowed to resume work. Credit: HawkEye 360

San Francisco — Maritime activity around Italy is beginning to pick up as the government eases travel restrictions imposed in March to stem the spread of COVID-19.

In early May, HawkEye 360 satellites detected an uptick in X-band marine navigation radar activity within 50 kilometers of the Italian coastline. Herndon, Virginia-based HawkEye has been tracking Italian maritime activity with satellites that identify and geolocate the source of radio frequency signals to gauge the impact of the novel coronavirus on the Italian economy. Vessels operate X-band radar to avoid collisions, making it a good indicator of maritime traffic.

Although Italian ports were exempt were from nationwide travel restrictions imposed March 9 by Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, maritime activity spiked immediately prior to the lockdown (as students and visitors fled the country) and then dropped precipitously. Maritime traffic generally remained flat until May 4, when Italian factories and construction sites were allowed to resume work.

During the pandemic, geospatial imagery and data is proving to be a quick way to assess everything from national oil supplies to air pollution and automobile traffic.

Italy was one of the first countries hit hard by COVID-19. As the country begins to emerge from the nationwide lockdown, government leaders around the world are watching to see how quickly Italian economic activity resumes.

Since it was founded in 2015, Hawkeye 360 executives have discussed how the firms radio frequency observations can be applied to defense, border security, emergency response, telecommunications and maritime activity.

“But I don’t think anyone could have anticipated how we might use this data to specifically assess the impact related to the pandemic,” HawkEye 360 CEO John Serafini told SpaceNews by email. “Commercial, space-based RF data is an entirely new commercial modality of knowledge. From the beginning, we recognized our RF collection capability was going to reveal truths about the world that people may not have been aware.”

HawkEye 360 operates a cluster of three satellites launched in December 2018. The company announced plans in 2019 to expand its constellation to include six clusters of three satellites each.

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...