The Maritime ISR Primer: How Capella’s SAR Technology is Preparing to Help Combat Ocean-based Crime

In this post, John Allan of Capella Space previews his speaking engagement at Maritime ISR in Bucharest, Romania on September 25 at 3:00pm (GMT+3) 

More than 70% of the Earth’s surface is water, and roughly 90% of the world’s trade is conducted on the ocean. Yet our visibility across the ocean’s surface—over 139 million square miles of it—remains poor, and ships evade detection, often for nefarious reasons.

Much of our inability to actively monitor sea-going vessels is due to the lack of suitable technologies. It’s impossible to equip the entire ocean with sensors, and even drones can’t travel long distances to effectively monitor vessel activity. The obvious solution has been to utilize satellites, but electro-optical satellites can’t see in darkness or penetrate through cloud cover—and 67% of the Earth is cloaked by clouds. Further, current radar-based satellites (Synthetic Aperture Radar or SAR satellites) refresh so infrequently that they cannot be used to monitor active illicit activities. However, Capella’s technology uses a constellation of small SAR satellites to provide near real-time effective intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR)—and ultimately give law enforcers a new solution for preventing crime at scale. 

How criminals vanish on the ocean

Bad actors rely on the limitations of space-based radio frequency (RF) monitoring capabilities such as automatic identification systems (AIS) to aid their subterfuge. Vessels are required to actively broadcast an AIS signal to maintain visibility and avoid collisions. But as soon as a vessel turns off its AIS, it effectively disappears from tracking systems, allowing the vessel to avoid detection for as long as the AIS remains off.

This invisibility is an ideal landscape for conducting illegal activity in the ocean. The ocean is rife with a variety of illegal activity from drug smuggling and terrorism to piracy and fishing violations. Illegal fishing alone costs an estimated $23 billion in global lost revenue each year and has caused the world’s population of predatory fish to decline by two-thirds.

But these crimes aren’t separate silos, either: Terrorism, fishing and smuggling are all connected operationally. The same boat that ravages endangered fish supplies can also be used to transport drugs between countries. A boat used to transport immigrants can also conduct piracy. And avoiding detection for illicit ship-to-ship transfers is often as easy as flipping a switch. 

The combination of satellite imagery and AIS are being adopted slowly; most Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) budgets are focused on acquiring helicopters, maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) and offshore patrol vessels (OPVs) for monitoring the ocean. However, getting “eyes on target” using these systems requires time, range and endurance through an unforgiving environment, and the crime is often over long before intervention arrives. The ideal solution would be to merge the use of physical equipment with the technology of powerful satellites to improve the efficiency of ocean vessels and aircraft—in other words, use the satellites to see and the ocean vessels and aircraft to act.

But the current electro-optical satellites can’t operate in darkness or in bad weather, and there are too few SAR satellites in operation. In the current environment, criminals benefit from monitoring systems that are too slow to react and are easy to manipulate.

How SAR can be the ocean’s eyes

Capella is building a network of 36 small SAR satellites that provide hourly revisit and imaging in any weather, day or night. The resolution will be high enough to categorize and profile vessels, and an image of any point on Earth can be tasked and delivered within the hour.

This is a massive difference from the way things currently work. Right now the industry is dominated by large companies, and the process for getting satellite imagery is complex and time-consuming. It can take up to 24 hours just to get confirmation that an image can be taken. Combine this with a limited amount of revisits, current technology is rendered almost useless in monitoring on-going illegal activities.

Capella is transforming the industry by providing flexible, frequent and timely Earth observation data and putting control into the hands of the users. Capella aims to be the fastest SAR imagery provider from order to delivery, with an average of 90 minutes from order submission to data delivery. Capella customers can also embed the tasking capability directly in their MDA systems using Capella’s API and can instantly log and verify satellite tasking requests through an online portal. Details of the imaging request (e.g. the location, time and frequency of revisit, etc.) will be forwarded via Inmarsat to the next available satellite, which will maneuver to complete the task and return the image and data to the ground station network within minutes of capture.

With Capella’s small SAR satellites, there are no longer blind spots on the ocean’s surface. Now, governments and other agencies have access to a tactical reconnaissance capability that acts as a force multiplier, enabling them to make better use of their surface assets and to have a better picture of activities in their areas of responsibility—not tomorrow or the day after, but within the hour.