Swarms of satellites track illegal fishing and logging

fishing boats kept Washing dishes in Japan with dead North Koreans on board. Dozens have been documented each year, but in 2017 they increased with more than 100 boats found off the north coast of Japan. No one could explain the appearance of these ghost ships. Why were there so many?

An answer came in 2020. Using a swarm of satellites orbiting the Earth, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit called Global Fishing Watch found that China was fishing in North Korean waters illegally, “as well as in violation of Chinese and North Korean laws UN sanctions against North Korea,” said Paul Woods, the organization’s co-founder and chief innovation officer. As a result, North Korean fishermen had to travel farther, as far as Russia, for which their small vessels were not suited. “They couldn’t go back,” says Woods. The caught China immediately stopped its activities.

The startling discovery was made possible by DC-based Spire Global, which operates more than 100 small satellites in Earth orbit. These were designed to pick up the radio pings sent by boats around the world, primarily used by ships to avoid each other at sea. Keeping an eye out for them is also a useful tool for tracking down illegal maritime activity.

“The way they move when they’re fishing is unique,” says Woods of the boats. “We can predict what type of gear they’re using based on their speed, direction, and the way they tack.” Of the 60,000 vessels sending out such pings, 5,000 were spotted engaging in illegal activities, including fishing, thanks to Spire, Woods said at restricted times or offloading protected fish onto other vessels to avoid inspections in ports.

Satellite constellations like Spire’s have experienced tremendous growth in recent years, and novel applications like these are becoming more common. Where satellites used to be large, bulky machines costing tens of millions of dollars, advances in technology can now launch smaller, toaster-sized machines at a fraction of the cost. Flying these together in groups or constellations to perform unique tasks has become an affordable prospect. “It’s now economically feasible to deploy many, many more satellites,” said Joel Spark, co-founder and general manager at Spire.

Before 2018, no constellation of more than 100 active satellites had ever been put into orbit, says Jonathan McDowell, satellite expert at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in the US. There are now three, with nearly 20 other constellations being launched and about 200 more in development. It’s a “constellation boom,” says McDowell.

The reasons for flying constellations are numerous. Most notorious is beaming the internet to distant locations, made famous by SpaceX’s Starlink megaconstellation. This massive swarm of 3,000 satellites accounts for nearly half of all satellites in orbit and will continue to swell to 12,000 or more. Others, like Amazon, have plans for their own internet constellations in space. Many are concerned that so many satellites will be put into orbit, greatly increasing the risk of collisions and producing dangerous space debris.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.