Maritime Domain Awareness Technology: a Game-changer to Strengthening Maritime Border Management                

The oceans cover 71% of the Earth’s surface and over 90% of world trade are carried via maritime routes, hence, maritime security is critical to not only the economic prosperity and national security of littoral states, but also to global trade and the survival of coastal communities. The vital linkages provided by maritime routes also result in them being increasingly exploited by transnational criminal groups for illicit activities, including drug trafficking, human trafficking, smuggling of migrants, and other fisheries crime. The vast oceans, as useful and resource-rich as they are, also provide the perfect cover for criminal activities since maritime law enforcement agencies often face difficulties in monitoring and patrolling their waters effectively. However, this situation may be changing. As new innovation and technology transform every aspect of life, they are also paving the way for new solutions to help maritime law enforcement agencies effectively detect illicit activities at sea. With this objective in mind, the Global Maritime Crime Programme (GMCP) of the United Nation Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has been pioneering in supporting Member States with the induction of the latest Maritime Domain Awareness technology to counter maritime crime. Delivered under a multi-facted approach, these various initiatives provide advanced solutions to improve maritime surveillance capabilities, enhance intelligence-sharing communication, and further strengthen the maritime border management capability of littoral states around the world.

Vessel Tracking Equipment
For maritime law enforcement agencies, tracking a vessel’s location and identifying suspicious maritime activities in the vast ocean space are some of the most difficult tasks. One of the current low-cost solutions to help maritime law enforcement agencies effectively detect suspicious vessels at sea is through the use of Automatic Identification System (AIS) satellite-based data. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) has required ships of 300 gross tons or over to carry AIS transponder and display their AIS in international waters to avoid collisions. Hence, by utilizing the AIS satellite data effectively, maritime law enforcement agencies can locate an AIS-transmitting vessel, trace the routes of the vessel, and detect irregularity in the vessel’s behavior patterns. This is both important for the detection and interception of illicit vessels in a country’s Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ), as well as for evidence collection purposes to successful prosecute the perpetrators. The AIS satellite system also provides global coverage, thus allowing law enforcement and ocean experts to study the trends and behaviours of vessels at a much bigger scale than the domestic Vessel Monitoring System (VMS).

Understanding the effective use of AIS data in improving the overall maritime situational awareness, UNODC GMCP has successfully provided Terrestrial-based AIS receivers and antennas to several countries in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. The objective of the project is to develop a low cost and sustainable maritime surveillance capability focused on small craft. At present, there is an excessive dependence on AIS Class A signals collected from space-based satellites for maritime surveillance. However, this is not adequate for monitoring purpose as AIS Class A transponders are used primarily by larger vessels, while small craft including yachts, pleasure craft, fishing vessels and buoys use AIS Class B. Furthermore, AIS receivers, when linked through the GSM network to a web-based platform, can feed information and data to national maritime surveillance centers located far away from the coastal province.

Most recently, the AIS equipment provided by UNODC GMCP has contributed to a successful Search and Rescue operation in Timor Leste. On Tuesday, 9 May 2023, a disabled sailing vessel with three persons on board was stuck in Timor Leste waters; what was most concerning was one person was suffering from a cardiac attack that required immediate medical evacuation. The Timor Leste Maritime Police (UPM) was able to use the AIS equipment provided by GMCP to quickly identify the location of the vessel and rescue all persons and vessel to safety.

Besides providing a near real-time situational awareness, this low-cost solution is also sustainable and user-friendly, immediately empowering maritime law enforcement agencies with the tools they require to maintain surveillance over their maritime zone.

Detection of Dark Vessel and Ship-to-Ship Transfers
Locating a vessel is difficult, but locating a “dark” vessel that is purposely hiding from detection is even more difficult. Despite the AIS regulation by IMO, many vessels choose to turn off their AIS for a long period of time in order to hide their location. Patrol ships would have little luck in quickly identifying these dark vessels in the vast ocean space, but technology can help. A few companies have successfully utilized the AIS-based data with global coverage to develop platforms to present the location of both the AIS-transmitting vessels and the “dark vessels” in a near real-time setting. This adds an additional layer of maritime intelligence for law enforcement agencies, as in addition to the VMS system that most countries are using for vessel monitoring, they can now look at AIS data and cross check with the internal VMS system to identify if a “dark vessel” has been registered under their VMS, or if it is purposely transiting in the dark to avoid detection.

In order to help Member States improve their maritime surveillance capabilities, GMCP has provided 40 Member States and 3 regional bodies with pro-bono access to technology using predictive algorithm-based machine learning to detect dark vessel, dark rendezvous and entry alerts within geo-fenced areas. The predictive algorithms use historical vessel track data of five years and behavioural patterns to predict possible rendezvous encounters of vessels that have switched off their AIS transponder signal. Such dark rendezvous often may point to vessels committing illegal transshipment at sea. The predictive outcome also provides a confidence rating to categorise high risk encounters, thus allowing MDA analysts to focus more on these likely ship-to-ship transfers.

Furthermore, the integration of Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) sensor also helps to combat IUU fishing by tracking vessels using bright lights at night. This is because squid jigging and some other forms of fishing often require vessels to turn on bright light. This additional layer of information provided by the VIIRS sensor in the form of a heatmap further helps law enforcement agencies identify potentially illegal fishing vessels. By identifying these suspicious behaviors, maritime law enforcement agencies can then use more advanced MDA tools such as optical imagery to confirm their suspicion, or deploy a patrol ships to the location of the suspicious vessel.

Although AIS data is very useful, it by itself cannot confirm if a dark vessel is committing illicit activities. Maritime law enforcement agencies often need to obtain a high-resolution real-time image of the vessel of interest to determine their next action. Thus, GMCP also facilitates the provision of pro-bono Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) imagery to support maritime authorities with critical operations, such as counter-narcotics operations at sea. Due to the high costs of SAR imagery, not all countries can use it on a frequent basis, hence this is where GMCP support comes in. GMCP is also facilitating pro-bono access to technology that use automated corroboration to achieve higher accuracy. When a predictive rendezvous encounter has been detected using algorithms, the technology will automatically task a satellite image (SAR image) of the rendezvous polygon, under the Tip and Cue feature, to validate the predictive information. The algorithm based predictive event and corroboration of such information is done without any human involvement. The end results provide a higher level of accuracy to rendezvous events. It is also worthwhile to mention that while SAR imagery is expensive, the average cost to capture an event successfully through first this Tip-and-Cue feature is $12,000, which is much lower than the $30,000 cost of a three-hour air patrol.

In November 2022, by using the Skylight platform provided by GMCP and high-resolution optical imagery, Côte d’Ivoire maritime law enforcement agency was able to identify possible ship-to-ship oil transfer in its EEZ. At-sea transshipments within Côte d’Ivoire’s EEZ are illegal except when in specific zones and pre-authorized by the appropriate authorities. From the intelligence and data obtained, Côte d’Ivoire Navy was able to contact the Ministry of Transportation to confirm that the vessel of interest is pre-authorized to conduct transfers for the month of November with non-Ivorian vessels.

Meanwhile, the platform provided by GMCP also supports Timor Leste authorities with identifying vessels captured in and around an oil exploration area within the Timor Leste’s EEZ. As Timor Leste regulations only allow pre-authorized vessels to conduct activities in this area, the Timor Leste Navy had shared the names of all the vessels identified with the National Petroleum and Mining Authority to make sure that all the vessels found in the area are in fact authorized to be there.

These recent examples show how MDA tools and technology can help bolster the capabilities of maritime law enforcement agencies in not only detecting illicit activities, but also in improving their maritime governance across various operations.

Passive RF Sensor – cutting-edge technology
As part of the on-going effort on induction of high technology for the effective prevention and detection of maritime crimes, UNODC GMCP recently introduced cutting-edge technology for dark vessel detection with the installation of a Terrestrial-based Passive Radtio Frequency (RF) Sensor system on Bongao Island in the Philippines.

The Terrestrial-based Passive RF Sensor is able to detect radio emissions from vessels in the Sulu Sea. When applied in a multi-sensor configuration, the passive receivers are able to detect the presence, location and direction of vessels, including ‘dark’ vessels that have disabled their Automatic Identification System (AIS). This means where active coastal surveillance radar is available, the combination of radar, AIS and passive receiver direction triangulation provide a powerful multi-sensor tool in the collection of maritime situational awareness. The individual passive receivers may also be deployed aboard patrol vessels in pursuit operations to similarly detect the direction to dark vessels.

The installation of the Terrestrial Passive RF Sensor, a pilot initiative undertaken with the Philippines National Coast Watch Center (NCWC), would benefit all national agencies in charge of maritime security and maritime crime prevention in the Philippines, including the Philippine Navy and the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG). The passive receiver and AIS reports from the terrestrial installation in Bongao Island are distributed to these agencies’ remote monitoring offices and control rooms, thereby allowing usage by multiple stations via both GSM and fibre internet connection.

Following the equipment installation, GMCP has also provided operation and maintenance training to personnel of the Philippine Navy, PCG, NCWC at both tactical, operational and strategic control level to ensure the effective utilization of the tools.

Drones for Maritime Surveillance
GMCP also pioneered with the provision of aerial drones and training to the Royal Thai Marine Police to support riverbank patrolling to counter drug trafficking across the Mekong River. Drones have also been provided to Mozambique, Seychelles, and Sri Lanka for maritime surveillance to counter narcotics trafficking and other illicit activity at sea routes. Currently, support is being provided to the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) Navy to identify man-portable drones that will enhance their MDA and operational capacity, as well as to evaluate the integration of drone imagery into the LAF-Navy operations center to develop an improved picture of illicit activities in Lebanon’s territorial waters.

In conclusion, as the world evolves, technology has become an integral part of modern life. Organized criminal groups will continue to seek new routes and employ complex and ever-changing tactics to facilitate their illegal operations, both on land and at sea. Hence, it is crucial for law enforcement agencies to also adapt the latest technology to strengthen their operations in preventing and detecting crimes. This is even more true in the vast ocean space, where surveillance and detection capabilities are among the most important factors for effective maritime border management.

by MSc. Hanh Thi Ngoc Nguyen, Communications and Advocacy Lead (Pacific Ocean), UNODC Global Maritime Crime Programme