25 June 2021
Australia's Great Barrier Reef is one of the few natural wonders visible from space. The incredibly rich ecosystem, both in terms of biodiversity and landscape, relies on the delicate balance of the marine environment, which must be protected. Earth's oceans, covering three quarters of the planet's surface, play a primary role in environmental sustainability, in terms of oxygen production and CO2 absorption, and also provide sustenance for a significant part of the world’s population.
Great Barrier Reef, Australia. DEIMOS-2 Image © Deimos Image an UrtheCast Company (2020)
The image of the Great Barrier Reef is paired with a shot by a National Geographic contributor, which draws attention to the beauty of life underwater by capturing the moment when a school of Diagonal-banded Sweetlips is carried away by the currents.
Satellite observation offers a fundamental contribution to the protection of the seas and underwater ecosystems, with the SEonSE (Smart Eyes on the SEas) platform developed by e-GEOS for marine life surveillance playing a key role. The name itself is inspired by the nature of the project: using technology to support sustainability. This aspect is also one of the pillars of Be Tomorrow – Leonardo 2030 and the company’s Sustainability Plan.
We spoke with Filippo Cristian Daffinà, SEonSE Product Manager at e-GEOS.
How can satellites contribute to the planet’s sustainable development?
Satellites can observe any area of the world, multiple times a day, to provide a constant flow of information on even the most remote areas of the planet. Thanks to the constellations of radar satellites – such as the first and second-generation COSMO-SkyMed, SAOCOM (Satélite Argentino de Observación Con Microondas), and the European Space Agency’s Copernicus Sentinel-1 and Sentinel-2 – we can transmit data to understand occurrences on the surface of the water. On behalf of the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA), e-GEOS and Telespazio, we can also monitor at-risk areas where the impact of environmental pollution would have obvious consequences. This includes areas dedicated to fish farming or near oil extraction sites.
Our oceans and seas are important routes of transportation, especially for goods. Monitoring their transport, and ensuring their safety, means having control over their routes, reducing and combating illegal activities and smuggling, fighting piracy and reducing (as much as we can) causes of pollution – such as accidents at sea or washing the internal tanks of oil tankers using sea water. The satellites can also detect the presence of fishing boats that are operating illegally in protected areas, as well as unauthorised tourism.
What makes the SEonSE platform stand out, and what advantages does it offer?
The maritime surveillance services provided by e-GEOS through SEonSE, cover a range of applications. Thanks to a multi-sensor approach, SEonSE leverages data acquired from satellites and integrates it with data from ground stations, aircraft, drones and underwater sensors. Using big-data analytics and artificial intelligence, this information is used to detect and analyse events occurring at sea, such as illegal behaviours and potential environmental risks.
In fact, thanks to SEonSE, we can detect the presence of vessels and their routes, and identify them and any suspicious behaviour, even in the absence of navigation data transmission. The platform is also able to process and aggregate large volumes of data, including historical data, to extract what are defined as maritime patterns of life, i.e. habitual behaviours or consolidated dynamics at sea, to outline and quantify Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC). These are the so-called ‘highways of the sea’, maritime regions where the traffic entering and leaving the Mediterranean Sea is concentrated. This allows us to quantitatively and qualitatively analyse the dynamics of maritime traffic, detect and compare trends at different times, and quantify the impact of socio-economic events (such as COVID-19) on maritime traffic. Satellite monitoring and subsequent processing available through SEonSE allows us to also identify and promptly report the presence of both cooperating vessels (which voluntarily transmit their identity and route information) and non-cooperating vessels – the so-called ‘dark vessels’ that are potentially involved in illegal activities.
Are there any other uses for SEonSE?
SEonSE is also used to support search and rescue missions by detecting oil stains which cannot be attributed to pollution or as potential indicators of crash or accident sites. This allows us to reduce the area of operations, even in adverse weather and environmental conditions, which can delay or make recovery and rescue activities more complex.
The platform is useful in shipping and cargo handling, too, as it can provide data to the trading and brokerage sectors. It is used in security and intelligence to protect national waters and monitor sensitive infrastructure such as offshore platforms, or undersea cables or pipelines. Furthermore, SEonSE generates analytics that can be used by decision makers dealing with environmental policy, tourism or regulation.
Using the platform, we can configure early warning rules that enable automatic detection and reporting of events at sea that are of specific interest to the user, greatly reducing manual intervention in the monitoring of maritime traffic. Lastly, in recent years, e-GEOS has been collaborating with the Italian Navy in the High North (HN) campaign. HN21 is technological innovation and research for a sustainable ocean that also implements ARNACOSKY (ARctic NAvigation with COSMO-SkyMed), a joint research project between the Italian Navy Hydrographic Institute and e-GEOS to navigate the Arctic at the edge of the ice, predicting the safest route by monitoring environmental dynamics.
For more information on Earth observation technologies and solutions, you can also read other interviews.