Achieving maritime domain awareness is vital to the United States economy, to keep threats at bay and to find solutions when threats arise. But the mission isn’t just along the world’s bodies of water. A large part takes place in space, and relies not just on defense assets, but commercial partners whose missions may be different from the Navy’s.
Alan Hope, head of the mission development branch at the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) inside the Naval Center for Space Technology, said the “maritime mission is a global mission, and as such, that requires access to parts of the globe that aren’t easily accessible by any other means.”
According to Hope, the Navy has invested in space for communications, but it doesn’t just rely on DoD assets in space.
“Some of the assets that we have access to are DoD-driven assets, DoD-operated, and we utilize those to the extent possible because that’s already money that the government has spent on collection of those missions. So we try to utilize that again. And what we do is make sense of that information. We don’t just take the picture and publish it. We try to make sense of what is in that picture,” Hope said on Federal Monthly Insights – Maritime Domain Awareness. “We also utilize now commercial partners with proliferation in space. We have a lot of commercial partners now that we can procure data from. So that comes at a cost. And some of them have missions like illegal fishing and others that are of great public interest that they’re willing to give us the information at a very reduced cost or potentially for free at least to study the problems.”
One challenge faced by the Navy is maintaining persistence. Commercial satellites have different orbits than the national and DoD satellites. Hope said they rely on their commercial partners for repeat coverage of parts of the globe that aren’t being passed by their own assets. That, however, requires matching data from different sources, different optical resolutions and creating a cohesive picture.
The Navy also relies on analytics when seeking out what Hope refers to as “patterns of life, and things that we can use to identify those objects of particular interest: adversarial naval vessels.”
But there aren’t enough humans to review the data, so the Navy is working and training artificial intelligence to help solve future problems. The goal is to employ AI and machine learning and to make a set of tools that is usable by the operators in the field. The Navy recently launched its first conversational AI program called Amelia to answer help-desk requests.
“NRL is looking at continuing research and has a continued investment in basic and applied technologies that we developed to transition out to the DoD warfighter, the Navy and other federal organizations that are in need of that technology,” Hope told the Federal Drive with Tom Temin.
The Navy also uses electronic tracking tools like automatic identification system (AIS), which is a ship-based system used for navigation, and Maritime Mobile Service Identities (MMSI) numbers.
Hope said the Navy is “not using infrared imagery today to do the recognition of combatant versus non-combatant vessels, but rather optical and other [radio frequency] means like AIS.” Hope explained that the chief challenge is being sure they are properly identifying what they see from space. That requires merging data from different sources into singular tracks. The aim is to not lose custody of an object, because that would require tracking an object again from the beginning
“There’s the pattern of life. We want to understand when someone leaves point A, how they get to point B, for safety of the economy of the United States, and things that our inbound ships are required to report at previous ports they’ve been to,” Hope said. “So many agencies are looking to ensure that those vessels did go there. And if you don’t have those persistent tracks monitoring, understanding where they have been versus what they’re reporting, we could end up with a big mess on our hands.”
Full maritime domain awareness requires observations of even the weather, which can explain ships’ travel patterns, and disruptions to typical behaviors. Regular interval information is relied upon. And that’s the most important role played by commercial partners.
“There’s literally millions of things out on the sea every day moving around. I wish they stayed still for us. It’d be a great advantage to us. But they move each and every minute, but not very fast. But if you don’t revisit them every so often, you sort of lose track of where they’re at. And it becomes a whole new problem of rediscovery, of ‘is this the guy I saw yesterday, or is it a new person out there that I need to be aware of?’” Hope said.