WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
Over $3Trillion worth of goods are transported illegally, and this new technology gives law enforcement a major new weapon in the race to find them.
A little while ago I talked about a company called Planet, that can watch the world, and everything on it in real time using the visual spectrum, but now another company, HawkEye 360 has gone one better by revealing what was previously invisible. SpaceX hopes to fire off its next Falcon 9 rocket mission in a few days time. If the launch goes well, Elon Musk’s aerospace company may not only break spaceflight records, but also help fight nefarious behaviour on the open ocean and help identify illegal activity at a scale and speed never seen before.
Officially the goal of SpaceX’s upcoming mission, called SSO-A, is to put 71 satellites into orbit all at once. A company called Spaceflight Industries organised the mission, and it claims this is the largest ever rideshare mission in US history as spacecraft from 35 different companies and organisations will fly aboard the rocket at the same time.
How it works
However, it’s three microwave oven sized spacecraft on the mission, a cluster called Pathfinder, that are the stars of the show.
The trio of spacecraft belong to a startup called HawkEye 360, and they’re designed to “see” radio signals from space, a world first. The company’s software will take unique radio signals coming from ships to “fingerprint” vessels, track them over time, and even forecast their future movements, and if, or when, Pathfinder works, authorities around the world will all of a sudden gain a major leg up in hunting down so called illegal “dark ships” – vessels that turn off GPS location transponders, often to hide their whereabouts and engage in illicit activity.
Such activity includes illegal fishing, something that people are also tackling using the blockchain, smuggling, drug trafficking, and piracy, and the illegal trade amounts to roughly $3 trillion each year, says John Serafini, the CEO of HawkEye 360.
“We care about the folks that are not doing the right thing. We care about the vessels that don’t want to be found,” said Serafini in a recent interview. “We’re focused on detecting those and stopping them.”
HawkEye 360 claims it’s unique not only for its radio-signal-detecting technology, but also Artificial Intelligence (AI) powered software the startup has developed to process the data.
“You couldn’t have started this company 10 years ago,” Serafini said. “The costs were too high, and the technology wasn’t there.”
He added that HawkEye 360 exists today because of the increasing miniaturisation of electronics, SpaceX’s lower-cost rocket launches, thanks to their reusability, and advancements in machine learning.
Pathfinder, like the other satellites SpaceX is launching, will sweep around Earth from pole-to-pole in what’s called a Sun Synchronous Orbit — hence the “SSO” in the mission’s name, where the “A” signifies that it’s the first of multiple rideshare missions. This orbit keeps sunlight drenching a spacecraft’s solar panels while allowing it to fly over every square inch of the planet – leaving no hiding place ships operating illegally, like the ones that so often keep docking in North Korea.
The antennas of Pathfinder can detect a wide range of radio signals above about 1 watt in power.
“Cell phones operate well below a watt in power,” Serafini said. “We don’t have the ability or the focus to do that.” But as the technology and the sensors improve one day it’s also highly probable that the company will be able to use the same technology to track individual smartphones and their users movements and other “patterns” too.
All this means the cluster can triangulate normally hard-to-pinpoint signals from everything from satellite phones, push-to-talk radios, to marine radar. Ships need these and other radio emitting tools to navigate the seas, or so the thinking goes.
This is especially true for “dark ships,” since those vessels turn off a mandatory device called an Automatic Identification System, or AIS. The AIS broadcasts a ship’s GPS location to avoid collisions, but turning it off is a common trick vessels use if they’re slipping into unapproved fishing zones or trafficking illegal drugs, wares, or people.
Serafini said that may soon cease to be an effective way to avoid getting noticed.
“If you’re turning on and off the AIS, we’re going to track your other emitters. If you try to turn them all off, you’re effectively negating your operation. You need to use them to navigate and communicate,” Serafini said. “And if you do that, we’ve won. You can’t be effective.”
The Pathfinder system also relies on the fact that so many brands and models of radio transponders are used by ships. Minor variations in those devices , and the frequencies they use, lead to subtle differences in radio emissions that HawkEye 360 says it can detect and exploit.
More importantly, by tracking a mix of these radio emissions on a ship and pairing those with AIS signals, when the devices are turned on, the company can “fingerprint” every ocean vessel on Earth. That way, even if a ship is “spoofing” its AIS data, the company says it will know – AIS data will report one location, but the vessel’s radio fingerprint will reveal its true location.
HawkEye 360 says it has already proved that the system works by equipping three Cessna jet airplanes with Pathfinder technology, flying them over the Chesapeake Bay, and detecting ships that were spoofing their AIS data.
“We were able to not only detect the AIS spoofing but also geolocate the ships using their other radio signals,” said Chris DeMay, the founder and CTO of HawkEye 360. “We were able to map where the ship actually was and compare that to where the ship said it was.”
In addition to fingerprinting such vessels, HawkEye 360’s machine learning algorithms will also be able to determine typical activity patterns for a ship and flag any unusual deviation. Over time, the company says, it could even forecast the future locations of individual vessels based on their past behavior.
“Because we’ll be the first ones to do this, we’ll be the first ones to bring it to the commercial market,” Serafini said.
The Pathfinder satellite cluster will give HawkEye 360 a global view of certain radio transmissions on Earth once every four to six hours. But DeMay and Serafini say that’s just the beginning.
According to them, HawkEye 360 is backed by about $30 million in funding, which is enough to operate for 18 months, has 31 employees, and has lined up more than $100 million in future work. In the future, they aim to launch five more three-satellite clusters, which will create a constellation that can map Earth’s radio signals once every 30 to 40 minutes.
Launching larger and more capable satellites will also improve the company’s ability to detect weaker signals, as I mentioned before.
“Trucks use radio emitters that we could detect and track,” Serafini said. “If a truck is known to have a history of illegal border crossing, we might want to track that particular object too.”
The company expects the US Military to be increasingly interested in the technology, especially considering that HawkEye 360 can deploy its sensors on airplanes and high-altitude balloons in addition to satellites. That feature could allow for real-time tracking of drones and weak signals on a battlefield.
Another planned use of Pathfinder is more down to earth – the technology could detect improper use of the radio-frequency spectrum, including interference between cell phone masts and towers that can often cause data loss which leads to slow and unreliable internet, among other problems.
Ground crews with trucks typically drive around towers to search for and identify such problems, but such teams and equipment can expensive to deploy, especially on a nationwide scale.
“It’s like that Verizon ‘Can you hear me now?’ guy, but in space,” DeMay said. And possibly a lot cheaper and more effective. The war against illegal activity and trafficking, it seems, has a big new trick up its sleeve.