UK CubeSat takes aim at illegal maritime activity

A new UK CubeSat platform set to launch in 2020 will track electronic emissions from ships in an effort to crack down on illegal maritime activity.

(Credit: Clyde Space)

All ships are equipped with Automatic Identification Signals (AIS) which allow them to identify each other at sea as well as helping authorities track them via satellite. However, AIS systems can be switched on and off, and are generally disabled when ships carry out illicit activity, such as smuggling, piracy and illegal fishing. Known as IOD-3 AMBER, the new 6U CubeSat will track vessels using an L-band Satphone detection sensor package combined with radar detection, matching the signals against the presence of AIS beacons.

The project – which is backed by Innovate UK - is a collaboration between Horizon Technologies and the Satellite Applications Catapult, and is part of the latter’s In-Orbit Demonstration Programme. The satellite bus will be built by Glasgow’s AAC Clyde Space and launched from the International Space Station. Once in orbit, it will work in tandem with Horizon’s Amber Ground Exploitation Station (GES), set to be built in Newquay, Cornwall.

“The Satellite Applications Catapult has been committed to the use of space-based technologies for tracking illegal maritime activity since 2013,” said Stuart Martin, CEO of the Satellite Applications Catapult.

“It is our role as a Catapult to grow the market for satellite-enabled services like Amber, and working with Horizon Technologies to deliver new capability from a CubeSat platform demonstrates the tremendous potential of the In-Orbit Demonstration programme.”

The detection technology at the core of the satellite is based on Horizon’s existing Flying Fish signals intelligence (SIGINT) system. According to the Reading-based company, customers including NATO and the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, FRONTEX, use the system daily from aircraft. IOD-3 AMBER will be the first of a planned constellation that will now offer SIGINT services to government agencies via space.

“As a UK SME, we couldn’t be more pleased to work in partnership with the Satellite Applications Catapult for Amber as part of the In-Orbit Demonstration programme,” said Horizon Technologies CEO, John Beckner.

“The programme is a perfect example of the benefits of an optimal private/public partnership. By the end of next year, our UK and international customers will be receiving ship geolocation data (to include GPS locations) of maritime vessels via a number of RF emissions. The world will have taken a major step forward in its quest to monitor international illegal maritime activity.”