Here’s what Earth’s busiest shipping lanes look like from space

22 Jan 2018

Image: Igor Grochev/Shutterstock

Satellites developed by the likes of the ESA are helping to track the world’s shipping lanes, resulting in an incredibly colourful image.

Technology developed by the European Space Agency (ESA) is helping to track the world’s busiest shipping lanes, and now it has helped to create a colourful image to illustrate just how busy they actually are.

By law, large cargo vessels and passenger ships are required to carry automatic identification system equipment in order to transmit a wealth of information, including its course, speed and identification, and position information for other vessels and shore stations.

While originally developed to prevent collisions between ships, this technology is quickly adopting to new roles, such as pollution prevention and the tracking of illegal goods.

Now, from the vantage point of Earth’s orbit, the latest ultra-powerful receivers used to track such ships were launched aboard two NorSat satellites last year by Kongsberg Seatex from Norway.

In their first four months of operation, the receivers significantly improved the detection of identification signals, increasing the visibility range of messages from 74km at sea level, to 2,500km from low orbit. This in turn increases the total number of ships that can be seen at one time tenfold.

Ships from space

Ships detected by AISSat-1 from orbit. The colour code shows how many times each ship has been observed by AISSat-1 during the observation period of 24 hours (red-yellow: fewer observations; green-blue: more observations). Image: Norwegian Defence Research Establishment

Each day, NorSat receivers pick up 2.5m messages, making them three times more powerful than previous receivers, such as AISSat-1 and 2.

However, because of the sheer amount of traffic, the number of messages sent by ships in some areas can be so high that they jam the satellite receiver. That is why ESA was recruited to develop a solution that is more easily picked up by satellites and suffers less interference from other messages.

”The advanced receiver was developed using the latest commercial off-the-shelf components,” said ESA’s Carsten Tobehn. “The complex hardware permits more sophisticated software processing, bringing significant improvements in picking up the messages.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic