Sea vision: maritime situational awareness

The blue economy and technology

Rear Admiral Nick Lambert explores the exciting possibilities offered by rapidly developing technology

Stand in the City of London and mention ‘maritime’ to passers-by, and most will think of ships, shipping, shipbuilding, maybe the multifaceted hugely complex business of moving global trade by sea, and perhaps the great London-based maritime institutions such as Lloyd’s, P&I clubs, the International Chamber of Shipping, or the International Maritime Organization. On further thought they might mention fishing and offshore oil and gas – but it will take more effort to broaden discussion to the concept of the ‘blue economy’, embracing aquaculture and fish farming, seabed mining, offshore renewable energy, cruise ships, tourism and recreation, marine biopharmaceuticals and, of course, the importance of the marine environment, the resources it contains and the impact of human activities upon it.

Yet within a few dozen miles of London are Southampton on the English Channel and Felixstowe on the North Sea, two of the world’s most complex, intensely utilised sea basins, vital to the UK’s economy over several centuries and arguably forming the world’s foremost international thoroughfare. Both basins host many of those blue economy sectors, especially offshore renewables and the UK’s aquaculture sector, which generates £1.8 billion annually for the Scottish economy. The economic exploitation of these sea basins epitomises the importance of the world’s seas and oceans for the global economy, as it is the natural capital of the marine environment that will provide the resources, energy, protein and expansion space for the predicted 2-billion growth in the human population by 2050.

The wealth of the oceans

It is all too easy to underestimate the value of our seas and oceans and their importance for national and global blue economies. The EU estimates a European blue economy worth €600 billion and 7 million jobs by 2020, Ireland’s Harnessing Our Ocean Wealth strategy postulated the global blue economy as being worth €1.5 trillion, and a 2015 World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) report, Reviving the Ocean Economy, described the ocean as ‘the $24 trillion asset we’re neglecting’. WWF drew attention to the enormous wealth of the seas and oceans in the form of goods and services from primary resources, fisheries, coastal protection and mangrove swamps through to heat sinks and carbon sequestration, all essential to the prosperity of billions of people. All such analyses reflect on the impact of climate change and the seemingly unwitting damage that we humans do to our oceans – yet still our scientists reiterate that we know enough to worry about the state of the global marine environment but not enough to know just how worried we should be.

At the nub of the problem lies a fundamental lack of data, maps and charts and therefore knowledge of the seas and oceans: vast areas in shallow, continental waters (the complex sea basins supporting the blue economies and blue jobs) need to be surveyed to modern standards, while even greater areas at significant depth are to all intents and purposes unknown, as epitomised by our inability to resolve the tragic loss of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in 2014.

Overcoming ‘sea blindness’

That dearth of knowledge is compounded by a widespread indifference to and ignorance of the marine environment and the industries that derive from the sea. For most of my naval career, senior colleagues bemoaned the curse of ‘sea blindness’, a perception that increased in volume around the time of government reviews of defence and the inevitable scrutiny of naval budgets and resources. We thought ourselves to be ‘out of sight, out of mind’, with few of the general public aware of or caring about the value of our service and our contribution to national wellbeing. And, indeed, it was challenging to build a picture of what was happening in our vicinity. Using radars, helicopters and good old binoculars we would persistently monitor fishing vessels and merchant ships, differentiating between oil rigs, crossing ferries, fishing fleets and yachts and sharing our picture with other ships in the task group. Building a ‘white picture’ of routine shipping activity over a relatively modest area required constant, 24/7 dedicated monitoring of a plethora of data sources, bowling out conflicting tracks and resolving identities.

It is here that space and satellites are making the difference to maritime situational awareness. The Global Positioning System (GPS) was the start, transforming conventional position navigation and time technologies and techniques almost overnight. Today’s plethora of global navigation satellite systems (GNSS) has, to a large extent, replaced the art of navigation. Position and timing are instant, virtually all seagoing systems have a GNSS input of some kind, and centimetric locational accuracy is available to all. GNSS spawned many other innovations, of which the Automatic Identification System (AIS) is, of course, the game changer.

AIS is just the beginning

Originally conceived by mariners for mariners to improve safety by providing enhanced situational awareness in busy seaways, AIS (and now satellite AIS, S-AIS) is at the core of my contention that we are on the cusp of ‘sea vision’, an epoch when we will know everything we need to know about human activity and maritime operations of all kinds in complex sea basins such as the Mediterranean, the South China Sea, the Gulf of Mexico, the North Sea and many, many more. But AIS is not the end of the story, because satellite-derived data sources such as optical imagery and synthetic-aperture radar (SAR) are exponentially improving in performance, offering corroborating information about maritime operations from space. Rapidly improving satellite communications services allied with a bonanza of smallsats (miniature satellites deployed in low earth orbit, often called cubesats) herald cheap, ubiquitous global constellations providing near total coverage of the earth’s terrestrial and marine environments. Utilising off-the-shelf components and benefiting from the evolution of technologies such as tuneable ‘metamaterials’ (synthetic materials engineered to have electromagnetic and other characteristics not found in nature), these constellations will be regularly updated with the latest capabilities, further enhancing global coverage and data resolution.

The phenomenon of artificial intelligence and our ever-improving ability to process big data enable the fusion of these spacederived sources with extant ground truthing information such as terrestrial coastal radar, in-situ sensors and archive datasets including electronic navigation charts, vessel registers, crew manifests to provide a comprehensive, reliable, near real-time picture of human activities on our seas and oceans.

Not to be forgotten is the fact that satellites, especially those providing GNSS and communications services, are fuelling the remarkable growth in marine autonomous systems (MAS). Expect to see one in a sea space near you shortly – MAS of all kinds (air, surface and sub-surface) are being built by a plethora of imaginative small businesses in the UK, Europe and the USA, promising to transform our knowledge of the marine environment. Importantly, these data sources are no longer the exclusive preserve of governments and the military, or maritime and marine professionals; they are increasingly commonly available to the previously seablind public on their mobile devices via a range of paid and free services.

Sea vision for an expanding blue economy

This rapidly growing phenomenon of sea vision has direct implications for all of us. It addresses the human need for a geographical presentation of information – a map, chart or geographic information system (GIS) solution that immediately informs the operator and enables accurate decision making – Maury’s ‘practical bearings’ and ‘precious jewels … beautifully adapted to man’s purposes’.

Many companies are seizing the opportunity to provide better connectivity services at sea, to improve situational awareness, to develop more efficient global logistics chains by tracking ships and goods, to counter activities such as illegal fishing and smuggling of drugs, weapons and people, and to exploit the marine environment in an economically viable, environmentally sustainable manner.

The growth of the blue economy is already at the heart of the economic policies of many island states such as Ireland, the Seychelles and Mauritius, and other countries are following suit. Such polices will direct funding to modern surveys of the seas and oceans as states will want to audit the resources in their exclusive economic zones and to oversee their extraction. Situational awareness will enable that aspiration, resulting in effective legislation and governance of hitherto ungovernable sea spaces that ultimately will improve our knowledge of the marine environment and our ability to manage it. This is an exciting time: sea vision is here and happening, there will be few places to hide, the concept of the High Seas will become anachronistic, and we will become empowered custodians of our global oceans, administering them in a much more sensible way for the benefit of the environment and humanity.

After a 36-year career in the Royal Navy, Rear Admiral Nick Lambert now offers his expertise as a consultant in the ‘blue economy’. He is the Maritime Domain Expert for the Satellite Applications Catapult, an independent company created to foster growth across the UK economy through the exploitation of space.