Maritime watchdog eyes polluters from space

By Paul Hemsley

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) has bolstered its commitment to using satellites equipped with sophisticated synthetic aperture radar (SAR) to catch ships leaving behind damaging oil slicks in the act.

The boost to the satellite monitoring program comes as regulators seek out innovative new ways to catch polluters before they can leave the scene and evade potential prosecution and fines.

AMSA has been using the SAR technology in trials that was conducted since March 2012, with present tests scheduled to run until June 2013. The agency expressed interest in the technology after its successful use by the European Maritime Safety Authority since 2007 and Canada since 2006.

A big advantage of SAR is that it can monitor the earth’s surface both day and night and see through cloud, rain, fog and other weather limiting ground visibility.

This overcomes limitations of traditional optical imagery satellites, especially in areas where cloud cover is more prevalent, like monsoonal regions.

AMSA marine environment division general manager Toby Stone said the technology’s success in deterring illegal discharges and to inform oil spill response operations was the main catalyst for a trial in Australian waters.

Mr Stone said Australia’s Exclusive Economic Zone is 8.2 million square kilometres, which represents a challenge in terms of oil spill monitoring and surveillance.

“The expansive area and the high cost of monitoring the entire area frequently prompted the trialling of satellite monitoring services to monitor oil spills from space.”

Mr Stone told Government News that a number of “positive alerts” were received but all were found to be legal discharges or unknown anomalies or false positives.

He said the cost of the trial is “commercial-in-confidence” but per square kilometre it is 10 times more effective than aerial surveillance.

AMSA acting marine environment division general manager, Jamie Storrie said once this phase of the trial is completed, AMSA will assess the viability of implementing the system permanently in Australia, so “that it will continue to act as a deterrent for would-be polluters”.

AMSA has traditionally relied on other vessels, airlines or the public to report oil spills or marine pollution, a situation which creates the problem that by the time a spill has been reported, the oil can spread to sensitive areas and the chances of catching the polluter have diminished.

To overcome this difficulty in catching polluters, the satellite information that captured with SAR technology is sent to AMSA within 60 minutes, allowing the agency to quickly track the origin of the spill.

According to AMSA, Australian waters have been considered to be at high risk of oil pollution due to heavy shipping movements or offshore oil and gas projects.

After spotting SAR’s successful uses by Europe and Canada, AMSA contracted Norwegian company Kongsberg Satellite Services (KSAT) to provide the oil monitoring service, which has contracts with various commercial satellite owners for the delivery of satellite imagery to support their maritime monitoring services.

These satellites are owned by various commercial companies, governments and space agencies.

But there is far more to SAR technology than spotting oil spills.

Some of the best known imagery generated by SAR has been the maps of terrain on Venus obtained by visually penetrating the planet’s thick storm clouds would otherwise be impossible to see with conventional satellite photography.

The historical significance of SAR is hard to overlook because of the pivotal role it has played in covert intelligence gathering through spy satellites and planes including its use during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962.

Its development was largely the result of US government demands the military to find ways to keep an eye on the Soviet Union.

The technology was initially developed by the Goodyear Aircraft Company in 1951 when the Americans were searching for an aerial means of spying on the Soviets. The Goodyear Aircraft Company would later become the Lockheed Martin Corporation.

However like many military developed technologies including the internet, SAR is now used on international and industrial scale that has transcended espionage applications by expanding into other areas like flood monitoring, ship monitoring and agricultural and mineral research.

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