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New satellite imaging concept for locating vessels

Dr Nigel Bannister Dr Nigel Bannister University of Leicester

A team from the University of Leicester is trialling a concept that uses satellite imagery to more accurately locate vessels and aircraft at sea, with the hope of improving safety and aiding rescue operations, such as the search for missing Malaysian flight MH370.

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A preliminary study published this month in the International Journal of Remote Sensing, identified 54 satellites with 85 sensors which currently only take images of land. It is proposed that these could be used to take images of the Earth’s oceans and inland waters, reducing search areas for missing ships to just a few hundred square miles.

The team is now testing the concept, working on the automated detection of vessels using imagery provided from the NigeriaSat 2 and UK-DMC2 satellites by DMC International Imaging, and in cooperation with the New Zealand Defence Technology Agency.

“If you are in the open ocean, and you get into difficulty, particularly in a small vessel, there is a significant chance that you will be lost at sea,” says Dr Nigel Bannister from the University of Leicester’s department of physics and astronomy.

“There is currently a big problem tracking small vessel maritime traffic and this system could provide a much improved awareness of vessel movements across the globe, using technology that already exists.”

As the concept is based on technology already in existence, it is hoped that it will be active as a maritime monitoring system within the next few years.

“This isn’t a surveillance system that monitors vessel movements across the oceans in real time, like radar tracking of aircraft in the sky; instead we have proposed a system which records images every time a satellite passes over specific points of the sea,” says Dr Bannister.

“If we are alerted to a lost vessel, the images allow us to pinpoint its last observed position. This could be very powerful for constraining search areas and it could reduce the time it takes to locate missing boats and planes, and hopefully their crews and passengers.”

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