Feb 132015

Ships can sink so fast that there is no time to transmit a Mayday, if the EPIRB goes down with the ship, as sometimes happens, and the incident occurs outside AIS coverage – or there is no AIS aboard, the ship may well just vanish. By the time the loss comes to light it may be too late for survivors to be rescued. Now a system using existing earth-imaging satellites may make it easier to find missing ships.

Every day some 54 earth-imaging satellites orbit the earth carrying 85 sensors which only take pictures of land. Dr Nigel Bannister, a space scientist at the University of Leicester, in collaboration with the New Zealand Defence Technology Agency and DMC International Imaging, has been testing a concept for using those satellites to find lost vessels and aircraft.

Says Bannister: ““This isn’t a surveillance system that monitors vessel movements across the oceans in real time, like radar tracking of aircraft in the sky; instead we have proposed a system which records images every time a satellite passes over specific points of the sea. If we are alerted to a lost vessel, the images allow us to pinpoint its last observed position. This could be very powerful for constraining search areas and it could reduce the time it takes to locate missing boats and planes, and hopefully their crews and passengers.”

The team is now testing the concept, working on the automated detection of vessels within imagery provided from the NigeriaSat 2 and UK-DMC2 satellites by DMC International Imaging, and in cooperation with the New Zealand Defence Technology Agency, with the ultimate goal to develop a practical system based on the concept. It is hoped that this system will be active as a maritime monitoring system in a few years’ time as it exploits satellites and technologies which already exist. 

University of Leicester announcement

Dr Bannister’s Paper

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