ESA title


  • ACTIVITYFeasibility Study
  • STATUSOngoing
  • THEMATIC AREASafety & Security, Maritime and Aquatic

Objectives of the service

Dark vessels are vessels that does not self-report as required by national or international law through systems like Automatic Identification System (AIS), Long-Range Identification and Tracking (LRIT), Vessel Monitoring Systems (VMS), etc. Dark vessels can be involved in illicit activities such as Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing, smuggling, piracy, human trafficking, etc. and these are vessels of interest for different authorities and organisations.

Currently satellite based vessel detection services provide information about dark vessels by utilising mostly Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) but also very high resolution electro-optical imagery. The addition of satellite-based RF-data, especially the detection of vessel navigation radars, is expected to provide a valuable addition to these services. Using extended frequency information for the navigation radar detected it is also expected that it will be possible to create fingerprints of the individual radars, hence making it possible to identify a vessel that has been detected.

KSAT is expanding our existing vessel detection service based on SAR and optical data to include RF-data from the Navigation Radar Detector (NRD) on the Norwegian NorSAT-3, as well as from commercial providers such as Unseenlabs, Hawkeye360 and KLEOS.

Users and their needs


Norwegian Defence Joint Headquarters, Joint Monitoring Centre

  • Responsible for applying sovereignty for all Norwegian EEZ.

  • Want to know about all vessels inside or approaching the Norwegian EEZ.

Maritime Security

The Spanish Maritime Safety and Rescue Society, SASEMAR

  • In charge of maritime traffic control, safety and rescue operations, and protection of the maritime environment. (Have no law enforcement responsibilities)

Maritime Coastguard Agency (UK)

  • Responsible for continuously monitoring vessel traffic in UK waters for safety and environmental protection.

Norwegian Coastal Administration, the Vessel Traffic Station in Vardø

  • Responsible for continuously monitoring of the activity in Norway's sea territories. Their main goal is to monitor the civil traffic and avoid accidents and pollution.

Combatting IUU

The International Blue Justice Tracking Centre (International organisation)

  • Mapping fishing vessel movements and detect Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing.

  • Provide actionable intelligence where needed

Service/ system concept

SAR and RF data are collected over an area of interest, then downlinked and processed using a network of ground stations and fast processors. Bespoke vessel detection algorithms based on traditional algorithms as well as new machine/deep learning methods are used to detect vessels in the SAR data, and vessel navigation radars are detected and located from the RF data.

Users will be provided with information on all vessels detected in SAR and RF-data within their area(s) of interest, highlighting dark vessels not reporting on AIS, LRIT or VMS. The information is provided the user by bespoke reports in different formats by email or other distribution channels. The user can also directly access and view the information in their own system by accessing KSAT’s vessel service API.

The detected vessels from SAR and RF are correlated with AIS, LRIT or VMS and the resulting report classifies the detected vessels as either “Correlated”, “Unidentified” or “AIS only”. Dark vessels are classified as “Unidentified” in the reports.

Utilising the possibility to recognise individual navigation radars while combining that with previous detections of the same navigation radar that have been correlated with AIS, LRIT or VMS will enable the identification of a vessel.

Space Added Value

The space-based RF data represents the new and innovative element for the vessel detection service. The Norwegian NORSAT-3 satellite and the Unseenlabs constellation both operate navigation radar detectors, NRD, which can detect X- and S-band navigation radars. Other RF satellite constellations like HE360 and KLEOS provide additional spectrum capabilities capable to detect VHF, UHF and L-band communication as well as GPS jammers in addition to navigation radars.

It is possible to build a database of detected navigation radars making it possible to identify individual vessels based on the signature of the of navigation radar when combining it with AIS, LRIT and VMS.

The near real-time multi-mission SAR data has been the main source for the KSAT vessel detection service. The SAR data is the main source for initial detection and positioning of targets at sea. The SAR data covers large areas and provides surface information and is independent of light conditions and cloud-free skies.

Satellite AIS data as well as LRIT and VMS are the main components for the self-reporting vessel information used in the service. Combined with the RF and SAR detections it provides the basis for detecting dark vessels.

Current Status

The project is in its initial phase where user communication and the development of the technical solution is in progress.

Users like the International Blue Justice Tracking Centre, the Vessel Traffic Station in Vardø and the Norwegian Defence Joint HQ have been visited physically, while the Maritime Coastguard Agency UK and SASEMAR in Spain have been interviewed by videoconference.

An initial system architecture has been established and contacts have been made with the different RF providers to set up interfaces to access the RF data. Some RF test data has been received and is being used to set up the full integration of the RF data into KSAT’s vessel detection service chain.

Work is ongoing on the business model.

Status Date

Updated: 31 October 2022