Episode 10: Peter Mabson
In this very special episode we welcome Spire's own Peter Mabson, CSO of Spire Maritime. Peter is an industry veteran, having started out as a physicist and satellite engineer and eventually founding AIS tracking pioneer company ExactEarth, and we go down memory lane on the history of vessel tracking and AIS data. Peter also deep dives into all the current use cases using vessel tracking data and the complex subject of dark shipping, and how Spire's most recent offering, RFGL, can help bring light into dark activities in the open seas.Listen now (00:43:17)
Full episode transcript
- Welcome into another episode of Maritime Means, a podcast by Spire Maritime dedicated to building a community of innovators. I'm your host, Blythe Brumleave, and I'm happy to welcome in Peter Mabson. He is the CSO of Spire Maritime. And we're going to be talking about the evolution of AIS and maritime data. So Peter, welcome into the show.
- Well, thanks, Blythe. Great to be here.
Peter talks about his space technology background - building and designing satellite hardware that became increasingly miniaturized, before actually creating ExactEarth which eventually got acquired by Spire.
- Now, before we dive into the, you know, the, I guess the meat of the discussion, give us a sense of your career background and how you ended up joining Spire.
- Okay. Yeah, so for more than 30 years of my career, I spent that in the space technology industry, largely designing and building satellite payload hardware for all sorts of different spacecraft, communications, navigation, television broadcast. So a lot of the really, really big spacecraft that were built, our customers were major companies like Boeing and Lockheed and Airbus and around the world. So that was my pedigree. By training, I'm an engineer and a physicist and threw in a business degree or so along the way there. So that was what I spent a long part of my career on. And as we may get into in more detail towards the end of that time - and a lot of this was with a Canadian satellite technology company called ComDev. And towards the end of my career there, I was running what was called the Advanced Technology Group on the corporate side of things. And we were looking at what sort of new age stuff could we do. This is going back about 15, 20 years ago. Now we started looking at this, what then was a nascent emerging area called micro satellites. So whereas the stuff I just talked about with broadcast and stuff like that, these are satellites that weigh several tons and cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Micro satellites at the time, we were looking at things that were like 100 kilograms or less. When we started looking at that, we determined that, A. the technology with all the miniaturization of electronics and everything that was going on would actually allow you to do some pretty interesting stuff in very small spacecraft. So we started to take a longer look at what was that interesting stuff. And one of the applications that we serendipitously found out about, which I think we'll talk more about here on this podcast, was the fact that ships had been, at that time - this is now 2006, 2007 - had been in the previous couple of years, started to be outfitted with these automatic identification radio transponders as part of an anti-collision system, and they were publicly broadcasting a low power radio broadcast that gave the ships identification, GPS location, etcetera, etcetera. So as satellite nerds, we said, oh, wow, this is fantastic. If we put up some satellites that can receive and decode those signals, we can locate and track ships. And that led us to end up convincing the management of ComDev to back us doing that, spun off and formed a company called ExactEarth, which then developed that business.
Along in parallel on that path, Spire also started developing a business like that. And in 2021, Spire acquired my company, ExactEarth. So we brought together the two leaders in the space of so-called Satellite AIS. And it's really a very, very exciting story. I'm looking forward to getting more into it here on this podcast. But that's kind of my story. I was running the Exact Earth company for that whole time. So came on to Spire with the acquisition and I've been running the combined entity now and recently sort of passed over the reins on that to my very, very capable colleague, John Lusk, who's taking it on from here. And so I'm focusing these days on the go forward strategy of the business.
The past, present and future of AIS
Peter counters ChatGPT's explanation of AIS with his own experience-based knowledge - what AIS started out to be, the underlying technology and how it's evolved to current day, especially on the Satellite AIS front. He also explains how data delivery works.
- You mentioned AIS for a couple of times, and I can't imagine that a lot of people working in maritime don't know or aren't aware of what AIS data is. But for folks who do not know, we like to think of this as sort of an educational journey. So I asked some new technology about some current and older technology. So I asked ChatGPT to define the timeline of AIS data. And so that said, it goes back to, so for AIS, Automatic Identification System is a tracking system that was initially developed to enhance maritime safety, as you said. It utilizes a combination of GPS, VHF radio, and specialized tracking technology to monitor and communicate the position of ships in real time. And it goes back as early as the 1940s. So the emergence of radar technology in the 40s, back in the 70s, automated radar plotting aids were created, in the 90s, development and implementation of AIS, and then in the 2000s, adoption of AIS. And then in the 2000s to present, it's the expansion and evolution of AIS, where it's used for a variety of applications, including maritime domain awareness, search and rescue operations, maritime intelligence, and environmental protection. Now based on your experience, how accurate was the new technology in ChatGPT in breaking that down?
- Well, not bad, although I'd say it's a huge stretch to say that AIS goes back into the 1940s and things like that. So yeah, I mean, radio aids for navigation do go back many years. But I think what we would class as AIS, like the automated identification transponders, that's really, you know, I would put the genesis of that really sort of just post 9-11, I think is the sort of, that was the period that to my understanding, AIS sort of the powers that be, the International Maritime Organization, so that for non-maritime folk is the large treaty organization that all the maritime countries in the world are members of, there's about 192, I think, countries that are part of the IMO. So that's policy on the open ocean, etc. So AIS falls under what's called SOLAS, the Safety Of Life At Sea policy in the IMO. And it really did, the real genesis to my understanding of the system was an anti-collision system, an automated anti-collision system for vessels. Because as you can appreciate, there's been a huge expansion in the amount of shipping that's done. I can say that because, you know, as the satellite AIS kings, we're now tracking something like more than a half a million vessels a day, every day, globally. So there are an awful lot of vessels of various sizes, types, and descriptions that are plying coastal and open waters. And yes, a lot of them have radar and other systems that are supposed to help them avoid running into things. But having an automated system that automatically, without any human intervention, passes information from vessels that are in line of sight of each other as to who they are, where they are, and what direction they're going is a huge safety aid. And that's what AIS was all about, was trying to make that happen. That was the focus of the people that originally designed the technology to do this.
And so when ChatGPT calls it a tracking service, that actually wasn't really the original idea. It was anti-collision, it was safety. I think the tracking aspect of it is, what hugely happened afterwards, that was not actually part of the original intention. And so if you want, I mean, my understanding of the kind of evolution of this is, well - as I said, it came about as an anti-collision system. So the IMO then mandated that all vessels over a certain size and weight, or who carried passengers on open ocean, would have to have outfitted these automated transponders as part of the anti-collision system. As that was done and people saw how useful it was in improving safety, people voluntarily expanded the application of AIS to a large number of other vessels as well. And then countries started putting up receivers, like AIS receivers on radio aerials along the coast and near ports so that as the ships came over the horizon, they would receive these signals and they could track them into the ports. So that was the evolution or the introduction of what is now known as Terrestrial or T-AIS capability. And it was when our satellite folk came along and figured out how to also receive and make sense of these signals from orbit that we added the sort of global layer that was able to receive and decode these messages, these AIS transmissions wherever they were, and truly be able to track vessels all over the surface of the Earth. And at that point, it then really started blossoming out into tracking applications, voyage, logistics, commodity applications, surveillance, all sorts of new applications emerged that were never originally intended for AIS. So it's a huge story of serendipity, actually.
- It sounds like a bunch of different positive side effects have come from just this one technology. I guess, present day with the data collection, you mentioned earlier with Satellite AIS, what was that data collection like before, I guess, the digitization of AIS?
- Yeah, so there's one of the really interesting stories. So back in 2006, the team I was running at ComDev, we'd heard about AIS through some studies we were doing for the European governments and realized that, oh, we figured we could design appropriate technology to put on satellites to track those. But then the question I asked the team is, well, yeah, but it's the 21st century. So, sure, we could do this. But since it is the 21st century, people are already tracking ships, right? Everybody knows where they are? Only to find out, our team did a little research - no, it wasn't true. In fact, sure, the ship owners generally knew where their own vessels were because they're outfitted with satellite communications equipment and they kept in touch. But they were certainly not sharing that information. So there was no available source of information that located ships at that time. Once they went over the horizon, out of the port, they truly were, as the saying goes, master and commander of all they surveyed and ships could and were going wherever they wanted. So, it wasn't actually a data set that existed, and that's where we saw the opportunity, that, because as your listeners may be aware or it may be obvious, that almost all intercontinental trade happens by ship. I mean, a little by aircraft, but 99.7% of all trade between continents is by ship. That was about, I don't know, some $20 trillion worth of goods last year. And of course, there's all the global fishing also happens generally outside the line of sight of coastlines. A lot of it does. So another 20 odd billion dollar industry. So there's a huge economic factor in what the ships are doing, where they are, when they're going to arrive and everything to do with that. So we'd said, certainly there's got to be demand for this information. And that was certainly one of our strong sort of drivers in wanting to pull the business together in the first place.
- When we talk about satellite AIS, what kind of equipment is on the satellite to relay that information? Is it like high powered cameras? Is it almost like a, I guess, for a novice like me, what does that look like? Is it radar technology? Is it both? What does that look like on the satellite itself?
- So as Peter Platzer, the CEO of Spire, is want to say, he classifies all satellite systems into three different categories: satellites that look, satellites that talk, and satellites that listen. So the satellites that look are the ones that you're all familiar with that do the Google Earth, or that take images of everywhere. So those are satellites that are looking. Satellites that are talking are all the satellite communications that are doing the communication back and forth. The satellites that are listened though, are the type that we're talking about here. So the satellite constellation that Spire has, and commercially, Spire runs the largest so-called Low Earth Orbit microsatellite constellation in the world. So these are small satellites that are the size of a shoebox that contain a number of sophisticated electronic payloads that largely are listening at radio frequencies. So in the case of AIS, as your ChatGPT sort of said recently, one thing it did get right is that one of the powers of AIS is that it's the same communication transmission frequency and protocol everywhere on Earth. That one set of frequencies in the VHF radio band is reserved for AIS application maritime, and it's the same frequency and the same transmission protocol everywhere. So an AIS device sold in one place can work anywhere in the world as it would have to, because you're on ships, right? And ships go everywhere.
So in the case of AIS, there are payloads on the Spire satellites that are configured to listen to those specific radio frequencies. Now that, as it turns out, is only one part of what you need to do. It's an important part, but it's actually not the most difficult part. The most difficult part is because - back to my serendipity story, so the good news is they came up with this AIS system that you can listen to these messages and track and locate all of the vessels. The bad news is they never intended that. And what that means is, so therefore, from a technical point of view, they never designed AIS to allow, to facilitate that. And I guess to use analogy to describe what the problem is, when you have satellites that are up 700 kilometers or 500 miles above the Earth in orbit, the satellite from that altitude you can see a very large portion of the ocean surface at once, about 3000 kilometers, as it turns out. And in that 3000 kilometer area, there may be tens of thousands of vessels all equipped with these AIS transponders, each of which several times a minute is bleeping out its message. So what the satellite hears, the analogy I've used over the years is it's as if you're in the rafters of a very large dining hall, and there's literally thousands of people at tables down below you, and they're all talking. So you hear all the conversations at once.
So what the satellite, the AIS satellite, has to do is to be able to detangle, or as we call it, decollide all of those various transmissions so that you can hear the individual conversations separately and therefore understand the ID of that, the identity of that vessel and its GPS location. So that we call, technically, decollision software processing or signal processing. And in the early days on the ExactEarth side, we spent a lot of money developing some very sophisticated algorithms and software to do that, because that, it turns out, is the really tricky problem of Satellite AIS. Otherwise, if you can't do that, you can receive all these signals, but you can't make any sense out of them. So it doesn't do you much good.
- And so you're collecting all of this data, and then what happens after the fact? Is it almost, does every company, I guess, have access to AIS data that they can sort of comb through and make determinations, or is it privatized? What does that look like after the data is collected?
- Yeah, so probably a couple of different things to say about that. So first of all, from the Spire side, what do we do? So we have our satellite networks that collect all of this data in space. We bring it down to the ground. We clean it up, process it, put it in large data centers, and we serve it out to customers all over the world as a subscription data service. These can be commercial customers, they could be government agencies. And that subscription data service then can be sliced and diced according to what they want. It can be all the way from, they get the entire stream of the full global service, all the way down to, no, no, there's only 20 vessels in the world they're interested in, and they just get that, or they're only interested in the Bay of Bengal, and they only get that area. So it's a whole range of different abilities to deliver this data in the form of what technically these days is called an API. So, machine to machine, the customers' machines can pull the data and the information that they're interested in, they pay a subscription fee to do that. So it's that basic sort of business model.
But here's an example of where we run a very sophisticated satellite system, and we understand how to do all of that. But what we actually produce is data that then tens of thousands of different companies and users can make use of, because they don't need to know anything about the satellites, they can just make use of the data. I think it's also probably appropriate to give a bit of a shout out to actually the IMO and the global shipping business. Because again, one of the stories from the early days here is, after we started putting up satellites to do this Satellite AIS, we thought, well, we better go and talk to the IMO and the delegates of the IMO to let them know what we're doing, just to make sure that the IMO, who after all is responsible and in charge of AIS, don't decide that we're doing something they don't like. So we went over and gave briefings there, and the IMO is a government organization, so as a commercial company, you're not actually allowed to go in and brief directly in the IMO, but what you can do is you can set up briefings at the end of their regular sessions at the end of the day, and invite delegates who are interested to come listen. So we did that a couple of times. And I remember the first time we set it up in a room that would probably hold 100 people, thinking, well, that'll be plenty, only for me to get there and find out that there was like 150 people trying to get into this room. Like it was a huge amount of interest. And so I would say kudos to all the delegates of the IMO and the shipping organizations, they listened to what we were intending to do and the benefits that we thought we would have, and they supported it right from the early days.
Because as I said, this wasn't, what we're talking about here, wasn't one of the intended applications of the system originally, but it's had huge, huge benefits to the shipping community and all of those who use and interact with that community, including improvements in lifesaving that our services have certainly created over the years. And so we're always proud when we hear we actually helped save somebody's life by helping identify quickly where vessels were and that sort of thing.
- Which is kind of, I guess, historically rare in the shipping and supply chain industry overall. If you introduce new technology, you're going to have maybe a small amount of people that are really excited for it, but the rest of everybody else is just going to bemoan it and be very slow to adopt.
- Particularly with shipping, there has been something of a, you know, sort of dragged into the 21st century kicking and screaming type of attitude. I mean, it is true that many industries have rapidly adopted digitization of services. Shipping has been relatively speaking slow, but is certainly, to use the pun, gaining steam on that regard, at that regard in the moment. Yeah, I mean, when we first started out, there were companies that employed people in each of the major harbors around the world to just write down when ships actually got there and left there, you know, on paper and send and phone that information in. That sort of thing was still happening at that point. So yes, now it's far, far more - even in the sort of 15 years that I've been involved, there's been a tremendous leap in the sophistication and digitization activity that is going on here. And I think ship owners and operators are recognizing the huge value of that in order of helping them run their businesses more efficiently. And again, all of the various sort of companies that are on the periphery of the maritime business.
- We've talked a lot about, you know, sort of the Satellite AIS, and you had just mentioned, you know, there used to be jobs all around the world where people were just marked down, you know, where the ships were in the time and the location. Do both of those, I guess, sort of data collections still exist? Or do they play off of each other? Or is it pretty much just all powered by satellite right now?
- Well, it's actually a hybrid combination of satellites and terrestrial based systems in ports that - so a number of the things that used to be done in ports by people actually looking at things and writing them down are now done in more automated ways on the land. So it's not all, not everything is done by satellite, but there's one truism about the oceans, and that is that once you get away from, you know, line of sight of land, you need to be doing things by satellite. It's literally the only way to do things. Unlike here in the land, where you can have cell towers and other infrastructure there that can be monitoring things, in the ocean that's obviously not viable. So it is one of these natural environments, as we say for satellite. And that's the other sort of thing. I mentioned that my journey in this started when back at my previous company, I was looking at the possibility of building so-called micro satellites, and we discovered that the modern electronics technologies actually were powerful enough to facilitate that. That's probably an understatement. I mean, one thing that I have seen in my career, which now is I started working in the satellite industry 40, 42 years ago now, and the change in the capability has just been unreal, in terms of things that are being done now routinely that even 15 years ago I would have said were absolutely impossible, technically.
The power of miniaturized techology
Beyond AIS, Peter is extremely excited about the efficiencies adjacent to miniaturization - and he uses the case of Satellite radio technology to exemplify how technology has advanced in that area.
- What kind of things?
- So well, some of them you're probably familiar with, some of your viewers would be, like satellite radio. A lot of people sort of receive satellite radio and you think you turn it on and it works and you think you don't think anything of it. So let me get a bit techie for you for a minute. So I happen to live in Southern Ontario in Canada, I'm about 100 kilometers away from downtown Toronto. Many people may be familiar with the large tower, the CN Tower that's in downtown Toronto, a very large tower. What you might not know is the top 300 feet of that tower is a big radio antenna. It was one of the purposes that tower was built. And so one of the radio stations that's broadcast from that is a superstation called Chum FM, FM station in downtown Toronto. Single radio channel, broadcast power, 100,000 watts from that aerial that's 1500 feet above the city of Toronto. I'm here, 100 kilometers away, and I can, yeah, I can receive Chum FM, but if I drive another 50 kilometers or so, I won't. Okay? So take that 100,000 watts, 100 kilometers away. Now take the XM radio satellite. So that's a satellite that is 40,000 kilometers away in geostationary orbit around the Earth. It broadcasts about, to my memory, about 200 radio channels at about 20 watts each - not 100,000 watts, but 20 watts. And you can receive it on the rooftop of your car with a $100 radio receiver. Okay? So I would definitely have said to you when I started in the satellite business, that is not possible. You cannot do that.
So how can you do that? The reason you can do that is all these advances in digital signal processing technology and very fast processing. Like everybody knows what a gigahertz is now, because most of your chips in your phones work at gigahertz and people get familiar with what a gigahertz is. But those processing rates, how fast information can be processed, how small those chips are, how little power they consume, Moore's law has been sort of relentlessly working on this for the last 20 years. And because of that, on things like what Spire does in very small satellites, you, with very low power and very small payloads, you can do these very powerful applications, receive very weak signals, process them, collect them and transmit things back down to the ground. So, I mean, one of the next revolutions that's coming is these low earth orbit satellite systems enabling sort of the Internet of Things to be able to talk with really tiny devices that you can wear or can fit into anything, and cost $30 or $40 and can communicate with satellites that are in orbit seamlessly as the internet sort of is really going to encompass the whole globe, including the oceans. So I mean, that's what's coming. And it's enabled by these tremendous advances in digital signal processing and the miniaturization of electronics that's making it all possible to do.
- And that's super interesting because I would have, I guess my brain, I would have thought that the larger the satellite, the more data that you can collect, the more data that you can receive, but you're actually saying the opposite, that it actually works much more efficiently if they're smaller.
- Well, so obviously a bigger satellite would do a lot more, but it would also be a lot more expensive. So - and I actually witnessed that sort of economic lesson earlier in my career - the very first direct broadcast satellite that was built to broadcast television was a large satellite and it was only capable of broadcasting six television channels. So, one big satellite, only six channels. And what happened shortly after that was a digital revolution where they started, this was analog television. So they then digitized the TV signals and, because of digitization, instead of six channels, people said, oh, if you digitize it now, then that's going to ruin the whole market for TV, because you'll be able to broadcast so many channels. But the point was in the same, the next direct broadcast satellite they launched, again, one satellite, this time not six television channels, but 120. But it's the same cost of satellite. So, the cost per channel came way down, that actually enabled the market, because if the service is too expensive, no one will buy it. So, and that's partly what's going on here. So yes, you could build very large satellites in low orbit to do these things and you'd have higher capacity, but it would also be so much more expensive that people wouldn't pay for the service, you know, nobody would afford it. So what the miniaturization is actually allowing to do is companies like Spire to make very inexpensive small satellites in orbit that cost a hundredth of what a large system would cost, and therefore the economics are there, so that's the other thing that's really going on here.
Vessel tracking data use cases and other satellite data
Peter talks about the plethora of companies that make use of AIS-based vessel tracking data to build new and exciting use cases, as well as other Satellite-based technology that Spire uses to produce diverse datasets, such as weather forecasting data.
- And that's so interesting now because you have more access to, you know, I guess a greater affordability of these data type services, as Spire makes it more attainable for them to put out more satellites into the near earth orbit, that allows more businesses to take advantage of that data. What kind of action steps or actionable data that you're seeing for maybe smaller companies that can now afford to get this kind of data and insights? Are there any kind of changes in that regard of the data collection, making it actionable?
- Yeah, I mean, there's actually sort of dozens of examples like that. So once the data becomes economic enough, then we deal with a wide range of customers that take our data and perform various sorts of analytics on top of that data, turn it into other capabilities that they can then sell on into the market. So whether that's people that are using the data to track various commodities, like there are services that use it to track the flow of oil in tankers, and when is it going to arrive, and how might it affect the spot pricing? There are people that look at environmental monitoring. There are people that are looking and modeling carbon emissions from ships on the basis of our data, and how fast is the ship going, and what type of engine does it have, and what type of oil is it using, and modeling all the emissions footprints from them. So there's all of that type of thing. But again, these small satellite platforms are also now enabling people to put up instruments that look to monitor greenhouse gas emissions around the world, that look to monitor weather.
Spire has probably one of the leading satellite weather capabilities, and one of the things that Spire does - again, with large numbers of satellites - they do something that's called radio occultation. So here's another serendipitous, completely unintended application. So, you may be aware of the GPS satellite network. I mean, everybody knows GPS. I think some people don't actually realize it's satellite based, but the US Air Force built and continues to maintain a constellation of some 30 odd GPS satellites around the world that - what they do is they transmit these very precise GPS signals. And you have chips in your anything from your cars to your golf watches or whatever else that simultaneously receive a number of these signals. And by processing those signals in terms of their direction and phase and everything else, it knows exactly where it is. It calculates where it is. That's how GPS works. So what Spire is doing with Radio Occultation is, because GPS satellites are out there and they're constantly always transmitting these GPS signals, and Spire has a constellation of 150 odd satellites in low orbit, if Spire put some payloads on those satellites that could receive GPS signals, not to do GPS, but because those signals were passing through the Earth's atmosphere, and so what they're able to do is collect tens of thousands of such transmissions every day and getting up into the hundred thousand and more, and in effect, if you process all that information about those signals and how much were they attenuated by going through the atmosphere and how much did their phase change, you gather all that information and you put big processing on it, you can actually model the things like density and temperature and wind in the atmosphere. It's kind of the equivalent of a way a CAT scan works, a medical CAT scan, where CAT scan blasts very, very low power x-ray through your body from all sorts of different directions at the same time and it processes all that information to make a 3D image of what you look like. And so this is what Spire is doing with Radio Occultation, is basically doing a 3D image of the Earth's atmosphere to help improve weather monitoring.
And so there's all these serendipitous applications that come up when the economics get - when things get inexpensive enough and the data gets inexpensive enough, then it becomes very useful and it can enable a lot of different things to happen.
Fighting Dark Shipping with RFGL
Dark shipping is front and center in the current maritime scene, and Peter explains how Spire's new offering, RFGL, can help shed light into illegal activities in open seas, as well as other future evolutions of maritime technology.
- And so we've talked a lot about the positive, serendipitous things that have happened, but then there's also a little bit of the other side of it with dark shipping and the lack of discovery with that kind of data. For folks who may not be aware, can you kind of break down what dark shipping is and the dangers around it?
- Okay, so as I mentioned, all ships at sea that are, as it happens, over 300 tons are required to maintain an AIS identification transponder and to operate it at all times while they're on the ocean. So that's what we - the ships that are voluntarily doing that as they are supposed to do by maritime law in the lingo of shipping, we call those "white ships", i.e. ships that are voluntarily identifying themselves the way they're supposed to do. A dark ship is one that is not identifying, either because it's not actually adopted the equipment, or it's chosen to turn it off at various times. And there are a variety of reasons that can happen. Sometimes it's malfunction of the equipment, etcetera, but often it's not. It can mean that, yeah, it's a bad actor. They're up to something they don't want people to know about, or they don't want to know what they're doing.
But here again, technology is in due courses, it will be coming to our rescue here, because it's getting harder and harder these days to hide completely. In part because, for instance - I've talked before, there's all sorts of imaging satellites up. Spire has some. There are a number of companies that specialize in that, that have a lot of optical imaging satellites. There are radar satellites that take radar images of what's going on in the ocean. But also, on Spire's front, our specialization is radio frequency, so transmissions. And so we are moving very, very heavily now into an area that goes by the sort of techie name of RFGL, which stands for Radio Frequency GeoLocation. So again, what it means is that - and we can do this with AIS signals, but we can also do it as we continue to outfit new satellite payloads, we can do it with other signals that we can receive. So with AIS, we generally locate the ship because part of the AIS transmission is the GPS location that the ship itself is transmitting. But one of the things we can do with AIS now is we can also, independent of the GPS that the ship is transmitting, by the aspects of the signal that we're receiving, because we have our satellites, they're all moving in orbit, they receive signals, we know when the satellite received the signal, we know what direction it's coming from, we can actually calculate the location of that vessel independent of the GPS transmission it's making. So that's called geolocation. And again, there's very sophisticated algorithms and other things that are used to do that. So that means that, for instance, there are AIS transmission vessels out there that are deliberately transmitting false GPS signals as part of their AIS, because they're trying to hide where they are, so that technique can now be overcome with the services that we're offering.
And as time goes on, ourselves and other companies are also expanding that capability to other types of radio transmissions, whether it's satellite communication transmissions, because all ships at sea at various times make satellite phone calls and other things, so, again, you can triangulate the location of those. You can do that with radar. Most ships have radar that they operate, and again, those radar signals permeate out into space as well. So with more and more satellites, with more and more of these types of sensors on board, it is going to become more and more difficult for people to hide in future.
- And it sounds like with all these different combinations of data collection and reporting, is that you'll be able to identify and combat against dark shipping much more efficiently in the future. And it also sounds like it's the future of vessel tracking that's technically already here, or are there any other improvements that need to be made?
- I think the basics are already here. There needs to be some further improvements in the technology and a lot more deployment and implementation. But yes, I'll strongly echo the statement you just made. And I think this is what the IMO and the shipping community realized, that this was all actually a good thing, that the vast majority of everyone involved in the oceans are good, legitimate players that are operating the way they should. And they actually welcome all of this because it will help undermine the people that are trying to take advantage of the system, or evade sanctions, or whatever it is that they're doing. And it's the common good to let that happen. But yes, I mean, a lot of the basic technologies now exist and are being demonstrated. So, there is more deployment to do. So over the coming years, you're going to see a lot more of this capability rolled out.
- Is there any other evolution in maritime that needs to happen?
- There are a number of other things that are being looked at in the maritime area. I mean, just in the way that's starting to happen with automobiles. There are various entities that are looking at autonomous navigation of ships, including up to very large ships. So in order for that to be viable, and obviously ultra reliable as it would have to be, again, there would have to be a lot more deployment of various types of satellite networks and triple redundancy and all that sort of thing to allow that wide sort of autonomous vessel navigation to happen. So that's going to take a while. But I think along the way, what shipping is doing more and more is making use of satellite and other information as a very strong aids to navigation for the pilots of the vessels, again, to help improve not only their safety, but actually voyage efficiency. I mean, after the capital cost of the ship, the single largest cost for ship operators, you might imagine, is fuel usage. Fuel usage can be very heavily sort of determined by vessels not going faster than they have to go, not arriving when they don't need to, trying to avoid weather and high waves, areas and all that sort of thing. So routing can be important, so, there are already more and more aids to navigation coming from satellite systems that are being utilized in the maritime industry today.
What's next for Peter
Peter finishes off by talking about the next phase in his life - retirement and experiencing AIS from the user perspective in his and his wife's trip through Europe.
- So more and more serendipitous things that are happening from the small beginnings of AIS into what it has evolved into today. And speaking of evolution, you know, you've had a very lengthy career of evolution from, you know, physicist and working on satellites and starting your own company and joining Spire. So what does the next step of your career evolution look like?
- Well, I have to say, Blythe, so the next step of my career evolution is, I'm on the cusp of retiring. And so, people have asked me, so what are you going to do when you retire? And of course, I'm going to keenly keep a watch and keep in touch with all of my colleagues here and everything that's going on. But I have to say, as my wife would be the first to tell you, is that I'm one of these people that was never very good at the work-life balance thing. So for me, way too much, the pendulum was way too much on the work side. So I'm now going to solve the work-life balance equation in the only way that's possible for me, and that's to go to no work and all life. And so I'm getting ready for that phase. And I must say, looking forward to that as well. It's bittersweet, but I'm certainly looking forward to it.
- I'm sure it's definitely bittersweet. Do you have any trips on the horizon or any big part of the life things that you got planned that you would like to share?
- Well, it also happens that this year is my wife and I's 40th wedding anniversary.
- Oh congratulations!
- So being in the maritime business, what we're going to do is go and take a long river cruise through Europe just so I can try and experience the other side of this AIS thing.
- Oh, very nice. That's a heck of a way to close out a very good career in the maritime industry. So I guess on behalf of the audience, on behalf of the Spire podcast team, thank you so much for your contributions to the industry. I'm sure I'm not alone when I say that it is very much appreciated, all of the advancements that have been made, thanks to folks like yourself and the technology that you guys have invented and also just continue to evolve throughout the years, so thank you to Peter for coming on the show. Where can folks, I guess, maybe continue to follow the journey or should they just stay updated with Spire and leave you alone?
- Oh, they can stay updated with Spire, but I'm sure if you want, everyone wants to reach out to me, I'll continue to be on LinkedIn and places like that. It's impossible to get completely disconnected in this world now, as we all know. And yeah, I have to say, thanks so much for having me on the podcast. I must say doing all of this over the last 15 years with the Satellite AIS and maritime has been an absolute blast. I've been working with a fantastic team and the fantastic team here at Spire. It really excites me for the future that there are so many great and exciting young minds that are working on things and creating these things that I always thought weren't possible. So look forward to it.
- That's amazing. Amazingly well put. Well, Peter, thank you so much for joining the show. This is a great conversation, both for industry vets and newbies to the industry alike. So thank you again.
- Okay. Thanks, Blythe. It's been great.