Tipping Satellites with Skylight: A Promising Development for Under-Resourced States

How Skylight’s latest efforts are automatically cueing optical imagery so countries can take action on suspicious maritime activities faster.

Satellite imagery (c) 2023 Maxar Technologies

For the vast majority of countries, the size of the ocean dramatically outweighs the resources available to monitor the area for illegal fishing and associated maritime crimes. Take Seychelles for an example. Its 115 islands make up a total of over 450 square kilometers, but the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) Seychelles protects is three times the area of California.  During the past United Nations Oceans Conference, Steve Lalande, Director General for Regional Affairs and Maritime Security at the Seychelles Ministry of Foreign Affairs, reported that it costs roughly $93,000 for a one-week sea patrol and $30,000 for a three-hour air patrol. For the majority of countries in the world, these costs are out of reach to adequately patrol their waters. 

From Skylight’s founding, philanthropist and Microsoft co-founder, Paul G. Allen, envisioned a different time where countries did not have to depend entirely on ships, planes, or people out-at-sea to have “eyes on the water.” He envisioned that technology can better capture activities at-sea and dramatically reduce costs for coastal states globally. 

In 2019, Skylight started enacting Paul’s dream by running experiments with tip-and-cue. When we use the term “tip-and-cue,” we specifically mean tipping satellites with Skylight’s events to capture high-resolution images of those events. In 2022, we hit some major milestones working alongside our partners at Maxar Technologies and the UN Office of Drugs and Crime Global Maritime Crime Program (UNODC GMCP). 

Milestone One: Setting Up a Fully Automated Process

In February 2022, we got a fully automated tip-and-cue service running between Skylight and Maxar. This meant that whenever an event met certain criteria, it would automatically send a request to Maxar’s satellite constellation without a human-in-the-loop. The initial criteria were to image all potential transshipments (“Standard Rendezvous Events” in Skylight) between Automatic Identification System (AIS)-transmitting fish carriers and fishing vessels. The first picture came out of the Eastern Tropical Pacific. 

Satellite imagery (c) 2023 Maxar Technologies

We see clear evidence of vessels hull-to-hull and distinguishing features of the vessels’ structures. This trial proved that Skylight’s Standard Rendezvous events are precise enough and fast enough for optical satellites to successfully capture transshipment activities. The next question was cost. 

Milestone Two: Making This Service Cheaper Than Standard Patrols 

In November 2022, we ran another tip-and-cue trial with Standard Rendezvous Events with the help of Maxar and UNODC GMCP. This trial ran for a full month and included tracking how many events were ‘successfully’ captured compared to dollars spent. We also broadened the participating vessel types to include fish carriers, tankers, and fishing vessels and narrowed the geographic areas to some target regions. 

At the end of the month, the average cost was $12,000 to capture an event “successfully,” which may be helpful to compare to the $30,000 cost per flight patrol reported by Lalande. Some other statistics:

  • Skylight generated 230 “tips” (Standard Rendezvous Events that met the vessel type and geographic criteria) 
  • About 34% of these tips successfully “cued” to Maxar satellites 
  • About 37% of these cues (or around 13% of events generated overall) successfully imaged the activity
  • Average time from event to image for successful cues was 2 hours and 14 minutes 

Milestone Three: Gaining Affirmation From Enforcement Agencies That These Images Can Kickstart the Enforcement Process

During the same November trial, UNODC GMCP and Skylight asked four enforcement agencies to share their response to cued imagery: Côte d’Ivoire Navy, Timor Leste Navy, Philippines Navy, and the Pacific Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA). Outside of the Philippines Navy, which did not receive a successful image, agencies immediately shared their images and associated information with counterpart agencies. This uptick in information sharing is significant compared to how agencies normally react when receiving AIS or satellite-radar based information alone. Maritime analysts generally associate a higher amount of reliability and confidence with data surfacing interesting activities when there are timely supplemental high-resolution images. As a result, they are more likely to share the information with key partners and kickstart the enforcement process. 

Specific examples from the November 2022 trial: 

At-sea transshipments within Côte d’Ivoire’s EEZ are illegal except when in specific zones and pre-authorized by the appropriate authorities. Here we see a possible ship-to-ship oil transfer in the Côte d’Ivoire Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) between the Anuket Jade (IMO 9393656) and the Rayvan I (IMO 9322085). The Côte d’Ivoire Navy contacted the Ministry of Transportation to confirm that the Anuket Jade was authorized to conduct transfers for the month of November with non-Ivorian vessels.  

Satellite imagery (c) 2023 Maxar Technologies

In an FFA member’s EEZ, a bunkering (refueling) event is seen. The FFA reported that the light-boat at the back of the purse seine vessel is likely providing stability by pulling the vessel against the windward direction, helping the vessel from colliding into the bunkering vessel, and the Main Skiff for the set is clearly attached to the stern of the purse seine vessel. After receiving this information, FFA confirmed that the member state does allow bunkering activity in their EEZ, though this activity must be notified to the coastal state authority as part of their reporting requirements.

Satellite imagery (c) 2023 Maxar Technologies

Satellite imagery also captured vessels in and around an oil exploration area within the Timor Leste EEZ. Vessels must be pre-authorized to engage with the activities in this area. The Timor Leste Navy shared the names of all the vessels identified in the area with the National Petroleum and Mining Authority to make sure that all the vessels found in the area are - in fact - authorized to be in the area. 

Satellite imagery (c) 2023 Maxar Technologies
“The value that can be contributed from these images is evidence. The image could support and prove the behavior of activity or objects in the area. They showed clear information of the area, such as localization, time, the event, other nearby installations, and geographical features of the environment… Providing digital information like this from Skylight enhances our Maritime Domain Awareness.” - Timor-Leste Navy, Centro de Operações Marítimas

Looking Forward 

We continue to receive immense demand for a tip-and-cue service from many coastal states. Partners are interested in imaging activities besides Standard Rendezvous events, which can only occur when two vessels are both transmitting AIS consistently. The highest demand is for cueing optical imagery after “dark” (non-AIS-transmitting) vessel detections from sources like synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellites. The task gets more challenging when vessels are less likely to stay in the same place compared to fishing and transshipment activities. 

In future trials, it will also be important to collaborate with coastal states and their enforcement authorities to be more prepared for receiving cued images. By collaborating with partners like UNODC GMCP, we can help agencies understand their legal frameworks for working with digital data and conduct exercises to better prepare handling these data in a timely fashion. 

Finally, we need thought partners to help us develop the funding mechanisms for this service. There is more opportunity to make this service as affordable as possible and a real alternative to standard methods of patrolling for the coastal states who most need it.