SAN FRANCISCO — The Norwegian Coast Guard is using satellite imagery delivered to Iridium satellite phones to navigate through the ice-infested waters of the Arctic Ocean. This imagery, captured by the European Space Agency’s Envisat satellite and Canada’s Radarsat-1 satellite, is being collected, processed, compressed and sent to hand-held devices within 30 minutes.

The technology that makes it possible to view near-instantaneous images of Arctic waters is a product called Image Access Solutions (IAS) developed by ITT Visual Information Solutions of Boulder, Colo. Kongsberg Satellite Services A.S. (KSAT) of Tromso, Norway, receives the data transmitted from the satellite-based synthetic aperture radars and processes the images. IAS provides image compression and delivery capability over limited network bandwidth, which KSAT then uses to send the satellite imagery to ships.

“When you go on these expeditions, you want to know the location of the icebergs and the ice flows,” said Richard Hall, KSAT business development manager and a former Norwegian Polar Institute sea ice scientist. “You want to study the ice, but you also want to avoid the ice as you travel to the area you really want to study.”

KSAT and ITT executives anticipate heightened demand for the ice detection imagery as more ships move into the Arctic Ocean. “Traffic is steadily increasing in all industrial sectors – shipping, oil and gas exploration, fishing and tourism,” Hall said.

As a result, KSAT is marketing the ice detection service to maritime fleets.

KSAT charges approximately 1,000 euros per day — roughly $1,400 — to guarantee the transmission of a single daily image showing the ship’s current position.

That is simply a rough estimate because prices vary based on the length of a voyage and whether a ship deviates from its planned route, Hall said.

While maritime fleets initially may balk at the expenditure, Hall said they are likely to embrace the technology when they see how an accurate picture of sea ice conditions can trim hours of sailing time and hours of fuel consumption.

“With one image, I can show how a research ship can save three hours sailing,” Hall said. “Three hours of sailing is three hours of fuel. For a ship, that’s 1,000 euros an hour.”

To view ice conditions around a ship, a crew member with an Iridium-linked phone or personal computer would receive an image of the ship’s general vicinity, a 400 kilometer by 400 kilometer square. By simply typing in the ship’s latitude and longitude, a cursor would identify the ship’s location, allowing the crew member to zoom in on a 70-meter resolution image of the area around the ship. That image then could be transferred to an onboard geographic information system or saved on a computer.

In addition, IAS can be used to add cruise tracking to the image, showing where the ship has traveled. It also could show the ship’s planned route, or a new route recommended by someone in the maritime fleet’s central office, Hall said.

“This system can be customized to bring in functions the client wants,” said Nick Fernando, ITT Visual Information Solutions director in the United Kingdom. The technology is designed to serve any customers who need imagery sent quickly over low-bandwidth communications lines, he added.

While KSAT and ITT continue marketing the ice imagery to shipping fleets and research vessels, company officials are working behind the scenes to develop imagery that not only will provide a snapshot of current ice conditions, but will add wind vectors and ice flow trajectories to highlight ice movement. Researchers at the University of Sheffield in England are working on algorithms to detect ice flows in one image and compare them with the location of ice flows in the next image. This product is scheduled for testing and shipboard demonstrations by the end of 2009, Hall said.

At the same time, KSAT and ITT are exploring new markets for satellite imagery that can be processed in 30 minutes and sent to satellite-linked phones. Determining whether a bridge has been washed away by a flood is similar to determining the movement of ice flows. Computer software is used to quickly detect changes from one image to the next. This type of product has applications for military operations, environmental programs and emergency rescue services, Fernando said.

“After a disaster when telecommunications have been damaged, [rescue personnel] will rely on satellite phones,” Hall said. “Being able to transmit images in low bandwidth, means that even if telephone lines and Internet broadband communications are down, satellite phones will allow you to view images in the field. We’ve started with sea ice because of my experience and my background, but we see IAS as a generic tool for anyone wanting an image anywhere.”

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...