Using satellites to fight illegal fishing

A low-cost satellite system may hold the answers for real-time monitoring of fishing vessels using synthetic-aperture radar (SAR).

Illegal fishing has always been difficult to monitor and the prospect of monitoring all the world’s fishing vessels in realtime has always seemed impossible yet we are one step closer thanks to the use of  “minibar-sized satellites” which are equipped with synthetic-aperture radar (SAR).

In theory all ships over 300 gross tons are required to use Automatic Identification Systems or AIS to show there whereabouts. The problem is that it is possible to turn these systems off which is often done to avoid being detected during illicit fishing activities. These ships are known as ‘dark ships’. In December, Capella will be launching a constellation of 36 of these satellites, which are a 20th of the weight of there predecessors and therefore easier and cheaper to launch.

Whilst the radar from these satellites doesn’t provide the same clear picture that optical satellites produce, it can detect boats against the sea and when compared with AIS data can show illegal fishing. In an important bonus of these satellites is that they work in any weather including at night and whilst clouds are present which prevents optical satellites from taking images.

Up until now the major drawback has been that there haven’t been enough of these sorts of satellites in orbit to function properly and because they are power-intensive and large they generally only operate where it is light. This meant that they only imaged a small-portion of the earth per day. As it takes time for these satellites to get into position, orders have to be made up to 72 hours in advance. Capella believe that they will be able to reduce this process to order on-demand images online through an API (a software intermediary that allows two devices to talk to each other). Each of Capella’s satellites will begin to take images as soon as they are launched and the whole system will be operational by 2022.
At this point Capella believe that the satellites will be able to take one new image of a target per hour at the equator and even more at the poles. Capella are not the only organisation doing this either and ICEYE have announced plans to build an 18 satellite constellation by 2020.
The challenge now is being able to overlap this technology with currently existing technologies such as AIS and Vessel Monitoring Systems (VMS) to be able to provide a full picture and really tackle illegal fishing but this is certainly an interesting step in the right direction.