Norwegian Space Center Chair Kari Nygaard is flanked by center CEO Bo N. Andersen, left, who will be succeeded on June 1 by Christian Hauglie-Hanssen, right. Hauglie-Hanssen comes from the space division of Kongsberg Group, which builds AIS receivers.Credit: Norsk Romsenter

PARIS — The Norwegian government’s order of a Norsat-3 maritime ship-detection satellite with a new radar detector is the first of a planned constellation that Norwegian officials say is not intended to compete with Orbcomm, Spire Global, exactEarth or other commercial AIS providers.

Like the Norsat-1 and Norsat-2 spacecraft launched in July, Norsat-3 is being built by the University of Toronto’ Institute for Aerospace Studies’ Space Flight Centre.

In addition to the latest Automatic Identification System (AIS) ship-tracking receiver, Norsat-3 will carry a sensor designed to capture navigation radars on ships that, for whatever reason, have switched off their AIS transmitters.

The program has the backing of the Norwegian Space Centre, the Norwegian Coastal Administration and the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment.

Norway’s defense ministry in 2017 established a formal space program whose motto is: “As civilian as possible, as military as necessary.” Beyond maritime domain awareness, the program is looking at polar-orbiting broadband communications to provide communications as far as the North Pole.

“The development of micro satellites has meant even smaller nations can develop capacities in space,” Defense Minister Frank Bakke-Jensen said in a Jan. 8 address.

Bo N. Andersen, chief executive of the Norwegian Space Centre, said Norway views its maritime surveillance capability as a sovereign domain. He expressed skepticism about the commercial viability of AIS.

You now have a fleet of AIS terminals in orbit and have just ordered another, with added capacity. Are there commercial ambitions here?

This has never been viewed as a commercial, global service and that remains the case now. The work we do on AIS, and also with respect to the additional payloads we fly, such as on Norsat-3, is for governmental maritime surveillance.

The data is owned by the Norwegian coastal services, and they share some of it with EMSA [European Maritime Safety Agency] and then they get data from EMSA from sharing. We do not do this commercially, we do it because we have a national interest.

This despite the fact that you have a constellation now?

We currently have four satellites in orbit with AIS terminals — AISSat-1 and -2, and Norsat-1 and -2. Unfortunately AISSat-3 ended up in the Atlantic with the Soyuz launch failure in December.

The new payload on Norsat-3, besides AIS, is to detect ship radar?

This is a detector for the navigational radars on ships. It’s an additional understanding of where the ships are, to assure that one is not spoofing or doing something wrong with AIS. So this will detect the specific radar pulses from the ships in the field of view.

This is for ships that switch off their AIS terminals or don’t have them in the first place?

Yes. For their own safety, most ships will leave their radar navigation systems on. But if they’re doing something they shouldn’t do, they may turn off their AIS, and of course we have seen this. We have followed ships out into the ocean and all of a sudden they disappear on the AIS signal because they do not want to be seen.

Norsat-1, pictured here, was launched with Norsat-2 in July. Credit: Norsk Romsenter

This new payload is to ensure we have a better overview of where the ships are, and specifically when we are looking into illegally fishing activity, which is a priority for Norway.

Is violation of fishing regulations the main reason for switching off the AIS?

In our local waters, we have a pretty good overview, and what’s interesting is that we have not caught anyone doing illegal fishing in the last couple of years. So this is more for a global application that we are looking at this.

We see a lot of ships coming from countries that are in Europe and elsewhere, that are in areas where they shouldn’t be fishing but probably are. We’re there to provide information on this.

The satellites are in polar orbit so the service is global.

Together with the fisheries directorate, and the coastal directorate, this data will be made available for groups that need it. For us it’s just an augmentation of our AIS system, to make it better concerning the few ships that turn off their AIS when they come into the high seas.

The idea is that this navigation-radar detector will become standard on future Norsat spacecraft?

This is a test satellite. Our first AISSat satellite was a test, and it is still functioning after seven and one-half years. If this works well, we have in parallel proposed a constellation of satellites. We will not get money for that before we show this works. But we are prepared.

So yes, we want, longer term, an operational system for this.

The constellation would be Norway-owned only or with partners?

Initially it will be a pure Norwegian system. But we collaborate broadly with other countries because we are quite developed on maritime issues.

What was the nominal life of AISSat-1, launched in 2010?

Two years was the guaranteed lifetime, and it still works well. Of course, the AIS receiver on board AISSat-1 is not as developed as the ones on Norsat-1 and Norsat-2, or on the International Space Station.

Norsat-2 here shown with its AIS antenna, left, and its VHF data exchange antenna, right, deployed. Credit: UTIAS Space Flight Centre

What’s interesting is that on Norsat-2, we can also hook the AIS receiver onto the VHF antenna and get a much more directional beam, which is quite interesting. This is being tested now. They see much more clearly, in certain areas, the direction of where things come from.

Many AIS terminals are going into low Earth orbit — from Spire, Orbcomm, exactEarth, Norway and others. It’s not clear what the total market size is. Orbcomm says the total addressable market is maybe $15 million a year.

Let me put it this way: Before we decided on AISSat-1, a commercial AIS provider offered us two years of access that would have cost us more than our AISSat-1 satellite, including launch. So I cannot see a business case for all of these semi-commercial or commercial satellite constellations.

We want our own data and the control over our own data covering our waters. With these satellites and with the Norwegian coastal authorities, we have that. AISSat-2 and Norsat-2 were fully funded by the Norwegian coastal services. But we manage it. AISSat-1 and Norsat-1 were funded primarily by us.

The coastal services are also funding AISSat-3. So they see this as a natural extension of their ground network of stations along the Norwegian coast. And they are building out ground stations at Svalbard.

A day in the life of an AIS receiver over the North Sea. At left, the number of ships whose AIS messages were picked up by the AISSat-1 and – 2 satellites, launched in 2010 and 2014. At right, the same area as captured by the more-advanced AIS receivers on the Norsat-1 and -2 satellites, launched in July, which are able to capture the compressed “type 27” signals for better yield — 2.5 million messages per day compared to 900,000 for the older satellites. Credit: Norwegian Defense Research Establishment

The point is you want to have control over the information source that you feel is important for the management of your waters.

We haven’t gone out commercially because we didn’t think there would be much money there.

So your decision to develop your own satellite line was not because the satellite-AIS companies were too expensive? Presumably costs have fallen as their number has increased.

When we started this my government wanted me to go out to the commercial market. And at the time the price aspect was important. But now, there’s a full understanding by my government that this is a national issue.

When you start something new, most finance ministries don’t want to fund it. We have to use the arguments we had.

One argument is that this is a sovereign domain. Another is that government should let the private sector do what it can do more efficiently. How do the Norsat AIS terminals compare to ones on the commercial systems?

When one of the commercial companies buys an AIS receiver from Norway, they must believe that it is quite good.

But they aren’t all buying Norwegian receivers.

Many are, including one of the major commercial companies, which has bought our detectors. But the important thing here is that it’s not very difficult to make an AIS receiver. They do that quite cheaply.

But what Kongsberg Seatex has developed is more than that, including the capability of doing on-board, real-time processing of the data, which not all the others have.

This has bot positive and negative consequences. You can of course do much more if you get all the raw data down and then do a lot of processing with the large computer power on the ground. But for us it’s the near-real-time issue that’s important, to get the information quickly.

In our waters, in the Barents Sea and along the Norwegian coast, the coastal series get the data immediately, while the satellite is looking directly down. It takes a few milliseconds before they have the information on the street.

The real advantage is what we can do the basic type of processing on board and get the data out immediately.

For the radar, this is backed by the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment, not the coastal or fishing authorities, correct?

Yes. For the satellite, the AIS receiver is funded by the Norwegian coastal services. The Defense Research Establishment is developing the detector that the coastal services want. The detector will work on the civilian radar bands. It’s not the military band, even though lots of non-civilian ships use these frequencies.

Military ships don’t do much fishing.

No, but they may be looking for fishing ships.