Commercial technology is leading advances in naval reconnaissance and surveillance, with data analytics and display technologies important weapons in the fight against crimes at sea.

Lleon Downes, chief systems engineer at the Institute for Maritime Technology, explains that maritime domain awareness (MDA) is a key component of any countries’ active maritime defence strategy.

Speaking at the Maritime and Coastal Security conference in Cape Town, Downes defines MDA as the effective understanding of anything associated with the maritime domain that could impact the security, safety, economy or environment of the nation.

MDA can be achieved by improving the navy’s ability to collect data from various sources including sensors; to fuse that data together, analyse it, display it and disseminate it.

“This is when it becomes actionable intelligence that operation commanders can use. The recipients could be military, rescue or environment agencies – as long as they are the people who can do something about a situation.”

South African technology is coming to the fore in information gathering roles, Downes adds.

For instance, Reutech has developed radar for the Norwegian navy and will soon debut its new Spider radar system.

Transponder and AIS technology also important for information gathering, allowing authorities to pinpoint the movement of vessels and individuals out at sea.

While traditional has some limitations due to high density and limited frequencies, new technology overcomes many of these challenges.

Trials of the new vmsTrack system show that fishermen are happy to wear the integrated GPS receiver for personalised tracking. The unit has also been successfully tested on vessels.

The vmsTrack is able to track large numbers of smaller vessels and people, and has an emergency mode that users can activate.

Gathering information from radar or sensors is one thing, but these vast amounts of information need to be stored, analysed and used.

Downes explains that a lot of work has gone into sensor integration using cell phone technology, virtual private networks and hosted server environments – which can be virtualised or on the cloud.

Once this is achieved, the information can be analysed so that authorities can make sense of the vast amount of information.

“We need to look at how we are going to analyse this information, make sense of it and turn it into actionable intelligence,” Downes says.

“We need to test for compliance, alerts and distress signals. We need to do behavioural analysis which require persistent surveillance and a clear definition of behavioural rules.”

To achieve this, commercial database tool, using data mining and business intelligence are used to keep the operator in the picture.

The final step in an MDA strategy is to take action, and this requires various systems to be interoperable, able to share information and get intelligence to the right people at the right time.

“For this we use internet communications and mobile network connectivity,” Downes says. “We need to have information gateways, standardised formats and messaging and data security management.”