India, France plan satellite surveillance of ships

Ten low-earth orbit satellites will track aggression, terrorism, piracy, smuggling, source of oil slicks, especially in the Indian Ocean Region.

India and France have formalised the development and launch of what is probably a unique constellation of around 10 low-earth-orbit satellites that will continuously provide maritime surveillance and security.

They will cover a wide belt around the globe and specifically focus on the Indian Ocean region where France, with its Reunion Islands, has a strategic interest.

When in place, the satellite-based Automatic Identification System or AIS will detect, identify and track a range of vessels moving in the ocean region and guard against aggression, terrorism, piracy, smuggling, source of oil slicks and also be useful for rescues. At present, ship operators do fix a non-space-based AIS on their vessels but they can turn it off when they do not want to be detected and identified.

Most ships are mandated to have a transponder that gives their details and also to detect ships around them. By making out the kind of ship, its location, speed and course with AIS, a country’s maritime force can make out potential threats, similar to the aviation system of IFF or ‘identify friend or foe’ for planes.

Joint maritime space fleet

A joint maritime space fleet was first announced during French President Emmanuel Macron’s first visit to Delhi in March 2018. In late July, ISRO Chairman K.Sivan and CNES President Jean-Yves Le Gall signed an implementing agreement on it in Bengaluru.

The pact was formally announced at the Thursday summit of Mr. Macron with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The two leaders met in Paris ahead of the G7 summit that France is hosting at Biarritz, according to a joint statement issued after the event.

French space agency CNES (Centre national d’études spatiales or the National Centre for Space Studies) said in a release, “This constellation carrying telecommunications (AIS) and radar and optical remote-sensing instruments will constitute the first space-based system in the world capable of tracking ships continuously. The satellites will be operated jointly by France and India to monitor ships in the Indian Ocean.”

There was no immediate information coming from its counterpart, the Indian Space Research Organisation, about the cost of the constellation. (An average low-earth satellite and its launch vehicle could cost a conservative ₹300-400 crore; AIS payload could add to the cost.)

It is reliably learnt that ISRO and CNES will share development of the spacecraft and their payloads; the AIS satellites would be launched by ISRO at its space port in Sriharikota.

CNES had earlier said the agreement includes setting up of a maritime surveillance centre in India, sharing of capacity to process satellite data available currently; and joint development of ‘associated algorithms’ or platforms.

So far, the two agencies have put up two climate and ocean weather monitoring satellites — Megha-Tropiques in 2011 and SARAL-AltiKa in 2013. The new AIS ring, according to CNES, will be further supported by ISRO’s Oceansat-3 carrying the French Argos payload in 2020. A joint infrared Earth-observation satellite is under study.

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