SpaceX will launch three satellites that will scan the world for radio signals of dark ships. The satellites belong to a startup called HawkEye 360 and aim to help monitor global activity in the oceans using geospatial information.
HawkEye 360 will have a trio of satellites and will be the first commercial operation to capture radio frequency feeds.
Hawkeye’s three satellites will have the ability to triangulate and pinpoint any given radio signal. As a result, the company aspires to have 10 separate, three-satellite flocks zooming around the globe. With that much hardware, it will scan any part of the world in less than 30 minutes.
The software launched by the company will receive unique radio signals from ships to small vessels, track them over time and also assume their future movements. In that way, the cluster will be able to triangulate hard-to-pinpoint signals from satellite phones, push-to-talk radios, and marine radar. Ships need these and other radio-emitting tools to voyage the seas.
In the possibility that Pathfinder works, the global authorities will gain a major advantage in hunting 'dark ships', meaning vessels that turn off their GPS location transponders or automatic identification system. The AIS broadcasts a ship's GPS location to avoid collisions, but turning it off is a usual trick vessels use if they're slipping into unapproved fishing zones or trafficking illegal drugs, wares, or people. The tracking of illegal activities amounts approximately $3 trillion per year.
Moreover, Pathfinder, a satellite similar to those SpaceX is launching, will sway around Earth from pole to pole in a sun-synchronous orbit, called SSO. This orbit keeps sunlight drenching a spacecraft's solar panels while allowing it to fly over every square inch of the planet.
The already existent Pathfinder System is used by many brands and models of radio transponders. However, this device results to some differences concerning radio emissions that are not always obvious. On the contrary, HawkEye supports that though its satellites can detect those differences and exploit them. To this result, by tracking a number of these radio emissions on a ship and pairing those with AIS signals, when they're turned on, the company can track with detail every ocean vessel on Earth. In this way, even if a ship is 'spoofing' its AIS data, HawkEye supports it will be aware of. AIS data will report one location, but the vessel's radio fingerprint will reveal its true location.
HawkEye 360 stated that its system works, since when it installed the Pathfinder technology into three Cessna jet airplanes and flew them over the Chesapeake Bay, it manage to detect ships that were spoofing their AIS data.
In addition to fingerprinting such vessels, HawkEye 360's machine-learning algorithms will also be able to determine typical activity patterns for a ship and flag any unusual deviation.
The Pathfinder satellite cluster will give HawkEye 360 a global view of certain radio transmissions on Earth once every 4-6 hours.
HawkEye 360 consists of approximately $30 million in funding, which is enough to operate for 18 months, has 31 employees, and has lined up more than $100 million in future work. In the future, they aim to launch five more three-satellite clusters, which will create a constellation that can map Earth's radio signals once every 30 to 40 minutes.
Launching larger and more capable satellites will also improve the company's ability to detect weaker signals.
Finally, except the offshore detection, Pathfinder could be used and onshore as well. The technology could also detect improper use of the radio-frequency spectrum, including interference between cell-phone towers. Such interference can cause data loss between mobile devices and towers, leading to slow and unreliable internet, among other problems. Ground crews with trucks typically drive around towers to search for and identify such problems, but such teams and equipment can expensive to deploy, especially on a nationwide scale.