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December 15, 2015


But who will guard the guards themselves?

“We’re on the cusp of a very interesting decade on the seas and oceans,” Satellite Applications Catapult consultant and former UK National Hydrographer and Deputy Chief Executive of the UK Hydrographic Office Nick Lambert, told the C-SIGMA conference in London last week. “New business models will mean we can better share information for economic and environmental sustainability.”

If shipping still thinks of itself in splendid isolation – or at least as the biggest thing in the water – then this future may come as a surprise. Increasing naval and coast guard activity, greater economic exploitation, alternative energy and resource management, all are exercising governments and industry alike.

Drawing them together is the use of satellite data – for earth observation, tracking and surveillance, environmental monitoring and more. And as speakers at the event made clear there are challenges and opportunities aplenty.

Big data – or more accurately the right size data – will enable navies and border forces to know much more about the seas they are working in. At the same time, the need for governance means that issues of ownership, interoperability and jurisdiction are as valid as ever.

Not for nothing did more than one speaker include an image of maps from the golden age of western European exploration; satellite data is pushing the frontiers of knowledge. It is also increasing risk.

When Dutch intelligence supplied data to the US for an attack on a suspected terrorist target in Somalia, they could hardly have imagined they would be sued by relatives of civilians caught in the crossfire, but such are the emerging issues.

For Karna Bryan, Maritime Security Programme Manager of the NATO Centre for Maritime Research and Experimentation centre in La Spezia, the concept of information dominance is not new, but its renewed importance reflects the need for greater domain awareness.

For navies, using data derived from satellites means being able to separate ‘normal’ activity from the unusual, something which is much harder in an expeditionary context.

“The trend is towards the evolving value proposition of data and not just its dimensions, for example how historical data can be used to drive decision-making. Data tends to be either too little or too much in volume. What is more important is interoperability and standards so you can collaborate at a deeper level,” she said.

The centre’s work has included analysis of historical data to predict vessel traffic patterns and addressing human-machine hybrid decision-making. In a military scenario, a UAV might take a base level decision but there is a ‘fusion process’ where the human applies the operational context.

Bryan described this as “trying to generate enough information to introduce uncertainty and gain enough data quality to put it into a more quantified context”.

Even more complex is fusing remote sensing, AIS data and rule-based algorithms for ‘route propagation’ which attempts to establish certainty about target vessels and their direction for interdiction or search and rescue applications.

She also noted the contradiction between the concept of Mare Nostrum and the regulation of space but said the slow pace of military development and procurement means there is a “huge opportunity for industry come to the table with information products that governments can use. There is a need to go out to the innovators with ideas like early Apple users. If innovators are using stuff, then we should look at it”.

The point was amplified by Eoin Fannon. Legal Counsel within the Irish Attorney General’s office, he spoke to the conference in a personal capacity but left no doubt that, just as at sea, rules of the road are needed for space data.

Ireland is one of the countries which has identified its ocean resources as a big contributor to the economy. The country has just concluded the huge task of re-surveying its hydrographic baselines and he said the governance challenge was at least as large.

“Our objective is to maximise the use of technology but we must also consider governance. Securing maritime boundaries, search and rescue or pollution response means the applications will increase exponentially but they are often operated by private companies. Just as with drones, I would ask is the law sufficient to regulate the technology and its applications?”

It’s a question relevant to shipping if for example EU states go ahead with plans to use drones to monitor compliance with pollution regulation. Data ownership, access, privacy and commercial interests are all in play together with compliance.

The additional complication that there are no physical boundaries at sea means concepts of sovereign rights need the legal certainty of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea to be enforced. Fannon called this ‘non-territorial territoriality’.

“UNCLOS sets the limits by mutual consent but where is the mutual consent in the use of satellites? I wonder if this will lead to fragmentation. We need to enforce the law so we can’t have a ship everywhere so we will use satellites, but we need a legal standard to give certainty and protect against abuse.”

In the case of the international shipping industry, the use of open registers for legal jurisdiction rather than the country of ownership complicates the picture further but unlike in shipping, Fannon thought that the industry could have a stake in putting forward solutions.

It should be possible for operators to come up with ideas of how they would manage governance when governments use their technology he said, adding that industry needs to assist in broadening the use of satellites to further economic development.

“There are already vast areas of co-operation but when it comes to applying governance levels we need new tools or to adapt old ones. Governance of this technology may be too much for governments and lawyers; industry has a role to play as well.”


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