Can Google track ships — even U.S. Navy ships — better than the government can?
No way, says Guy Thomas, a man who’s in a position to know because he designed the satellite on which the information giant is renting space for its latest venture — a satellite that uses the same technology the Navy and the Coast Guard use.
It’s called the Automated Identification System (AIS), which all commercial ships of more than 300 tons are required to carry. Military ships use the same system, but transmit locator signals only when entering and exiting port.
“Anybody driving along the shore with a pair of binoculars can see that destroyer out there. That’s the only time those ships have AIS on,” said Thomas, the Coast Guard’s science and technology adviser for maritime domain awareness.
The controversy over AIS popped up after Michael Jones, chief technology advocate for Google Ventures, said in a May 17 speech to the U.S. Naval Institute’s annual Joint Warfighting Conference that his company was developing a system to track ships at sea globally — including naval vessels. In a comment that was widely reported, he said: “It angers me as a citizen that I can easily do this and the entire DoD can’t do this. The [National Reconnaissance Office] can’t do this. It’s crazy.”
But Eric Wertheim, an expert with the U.S. Naval Institute, said the technology Google is developing is nothing new to the Navy or Coast Guard. In fact, the Coast Guard has contracted with Orbcomm, a commercial global satellite company, to use their satellites to do the same thing since 2004.
“Some of the quotes [from Jones’ speech] are kind of shocking,” Wertheim said. “The Navy and DoD take a lot of lumps, some rightfully, but there are things they do well. Tracking ships around the world, especially non-cooperative ships when they need to, is one thing they’re very, very good at.”
Not only does the Coast Guard use AIS technology to track ships, but Thomas, who met with representatives from Google on Feb. 16, also is working on a way to combine different types of satellites to give a more complete picture of what is going on in the world’s oceans.
Better Tracking on the Way
AIS is just one piece of the Collaboration in Space for International Global Maritime Awareness (C-SIGMA), an international collaboration to create a service that could be used by navies, coast guards, first responders, the U.S. Transportation Department and those who track illegal resource pillaging, like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. C-SIGMA, which is still in the planning phase, would combine information from four types of satellites to give ships a better awareness of who is around them.
C-SIGMA will use synthetic aperture radar, which can provide imaging at night and through clouds, electro-optical high-resolution imaging, the current AIS and other transponder-based systems to give a more complete picture of what is going on in the ocean. If one type of satellite picks up some anomaly, another type will be able to provide another picture to give more information, like providing an image. In one image Thomas showed during a presentation at the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies, viewers could see the direction in which the gun on a tank was pointing.
Another benefit of C-SIGMA is that even in densely traveled areas, such as coastlines or the Mississippi River, authorities would be able to track a ship’s signal.
Some of the main goals would be to combat environmental resource theft, such as illegal fishing, as well as drug or immigrant smuggling. Thomas has already received positive feedback from a Coast Guardsman aboard a cutter in Hawaii.
“He said it was really handy to know who was in their area and they were getting that report from space-based AIS,” Thomas said.
In addition to improved situational awareness on ships, Thomas said the C-SIGMA system will save money in the operational budget in the long run. In a test with the Chilean coast guard, the AIS satellites were able to show that no ships were near a suspected illegal fishing area, saving coast guardsmen a long and expensive trip 1,500 miles off the coast.
“My project manager said that was a failure because we didn’t detect anything. On the contrary, negative intelligence is very valuable,” Thomas said. “I said, ‘You go back and talk to the Chilean coast guard captain and see if he thinks it was a waste.’ He said, ‘Absolutely not. It saved me wear and tear on my airplane and 15 hours of operation time on my aircraft.’”
The U.S. Coast Guard is accessing this capability through leased commercial satellites. The service bought five years of information transmission from Orbcomm, but since the contract expired in 2009, it has been relying on short-term contracts, which are more expensive.
What’s to prevent illegal fishermen, arms traffickers and drug smugglers from using the technology to spot other commercial ships and steer clear? Thomas agreed with Jones on this point, saying it’s all about revenue for owners of the technology, who would be unlikely to betray their governments for fear of losing the money coming in.
“I would hope that if we’re their best customer and they get this suspicious guy buying from them, I think they’d come and talk to us, because if we found out later that the satellite people were assisting illegal activities, they might lose their best customer,” he said.
In addition to increased awareness of nearby ships, Thomas said the system will also save money, both in reduced need for people to investigate suspicious ships and in fewer tax dollars lost on stolen fish and oil.
“Where I do believe you’re going to see a difference is eventually in the bottom line of the operating budget,” he said. “I think that this is going to save money in the long run. Save money, save lives, save fish, save oil.”
Thomas recently returned from a C-SIGMA conference in Italy, where the international community looked at the next steps to make the advanced tracking system a reality. He said he hopes to create a joint program with the Japanese, Irish and European Union, which are all moving forward with researching ways to implement C-SIGMA.
“It’s not just a Coast Guard, or even just a Navy effort — it needs to be collaborative and international,” he said.