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Unseenlabs Uncovers Ships That Vanished From Conventional Geolocation Systems

There has been a sharp decrease in the number of ships broadcasting with AIS signals from China. VesselsValue, a company that tracks ship movements, reports that there are 90% fewer ships in Chinese waters than before the satellite regulation law went into effect.

Ships are normally identified via the location of their AIS transponders, which broadcast information such as their MMSI number (a unique 9-digit number associated with each ship) type, nationality, course, and speed. The AIS identification system is compulsory for most ocean vessels by the IMO to all flag states that have ratified of the SOLAS convention to avoid collisions in congested waters. But since its implementation, wider uses of the system have developed which provides port data on berth availability and waiting allocation times among other things.

Since the AIS system is not a perfect surveillance method, it’s trouble-free to install in ports and waterside facilities.

Chinese authorities have recently introduced a measure, citing national security and sovereignty issues; meanwhile, maritime transporters are unsure what to think as they wait for more information. Although the measure doesn’t mention AIS data specifically, one of the reasons for its introduction was because foreign intelligence agencies and companies were using this system to track Chinese military vessels and gain sensitive economic intelligence.

Most ships are not visible from traditional surveillance systems once they get close to China. AIS gives an inaccurate picture of traffic at sea in this new context as seen in Unseenlabs’ series of satellite acquisitions in that area (space-based radiofrequency signals detection): In the sample image below, more than 60% of vessels in the area have disappeared from AIS screens.

Global maritime traffic could be disrupted with a blind zone

One unfortunate side-effect of this new regulation is the disruption of sea traffic due to a lack of data on ships positions. Six of the world’s 10 busiest container ports are in China, so it’s essential to have visibility on ship departures, arrivals, and general flow of activities around Chinese shores. This device has the ability to show traffic at sea by intercepting wireless RF signals

We conducted an eight-day satellite acquisition campaign in East China Sea and revealed a consequent gap in AIS data: up to 80% of ships found through RF detection don’t broadcast an AIS signal (AIS beacons turned off or data transmission blocked by the Chinese authorities).

Unseenlabs’ marine atlas uses Radio Frequency Detection to record every vessel near China, including those that don’t have AIS. It also lets users track ships in real time by tracking the evolution of their position on a map.

This disruptive technology provides maritime stakeholders in need of precise, up-to-date information with a new type of data that contributes to a new level of accuracy. The new situation surrounding China’s shoreline illustrates the potential dangers when incomplete data sources are used, such as from AIS systems. When all types of marine traffic data can be analyzed, shorelines and countries can take more precautions to increase maritime domain awareness.

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