Airbus Defence and Space

ISS keeps an eye on shipping traffic around the globe


1/ NASA astronauts Randolph Bresnik and Michael Foreman installing the antenna for the Vessel ID system on the Columbus module. (© NASA)


Since the beginning of June, the European Space Agency’s Airbus Defence and Space-led Vessel ID technology experiment has been enabling maritime traffic to be monitored from space.

The global ship tracking system operates on the basis of Automatic Identification System (AIS) data and is the maritime equivalent of air traffic control.

All international shipping vessels with a tonnage over 300 metric tonnes, container ships with a capacity exceeding 500 metric tonnes, and all passenger vessels are required to be equipped with AIS transponders providing a constant flow of navigation data, including the name of the vessel, its size, location, course and speed.

The present generation of AIS technology enables port authorities to track maritime traffic in coastal waters up to a distance of 40 nautical miles (74km) from shore. AIS transponders can also be used for ship-to-ship communications. The disadvantage of the AIS system is that it was originally designed for terrestrial use and its signalling range is too short for tracking ocean-going traffic. However, AIS signals have a much greater range vertically. This makes communication possible even as far as the International Space Station (ISS), which orbits at an altitude of approximately 400km.


2/ Randolph Bresnik during the November 2009 spacewalk, seen using the GATOR adaptor to attach the antenna to the ISS. (© NASA)


The experiment: AIS on the ISS

The ISS is a multifunctional laboratory for a wide range of experiments, in particular those making use of the zero-gravity conditions on board. Now it is also a test bed for monitoring international sea traffic.

Astronauts Randolph Bresnik and Michael Foreman installed the antenna for the Vessel ID experiment on the outside of the station’s Columbus module in November last year, using the Airbus Defence and Space-developed GATOR adaptor (Grappling Adaptor for Onboard Railing).

The Vessel ID system itself consists of two receivers (NORAIS and LUXAIS – from Norway and Luxembourg respectively), an external VHF antenna, and the Airbus Defence and Space-built ERNObox control computer. The VHF antenna on the ISS captures signals emitted by ships. The receivers then decode the signals and interpret the data to determine the ships’ location. Operational since the start of this month, the Vessel ID system’s data transmission functions are working perfectly and have enabled the first plots of international sea traffic to be produced.

Dr. Michael Menking, Airbus Defence and Space Senior Vice President Orbital Systems & Space Exploration, reminds us that: “Airbus Defence and Space has been responsible for the operation and exploitation of the European modules of the International Space Station for over two years now, as part of the Industrial Operator Team (IOT).” In this case, Airbus Defence and Space Bremen was also in charge of the preparatory phase for installation of the technology experiment, and designed both the ERNObox and the GATOR adaptor. "By using the ISS as the test bed for the Vessel ID system, we now have a space-based AIS experiment up and running for monitoring ship movements. This is a good example of the extended use of the ISS, much welcomed by ESA,” he adds.


3/ A successful experiment:the green dots on the map indicate the approximately 90,000 AIS signals received during a 14-hour period on 2-3 June 2010. (© FFI)


2/ Randolph Bresnik during the November 2009 spacewalk, seen using the GATOR adaptor to attach the antenna to the ISS. (© NASA)