Space technologies can ‘support’ the EU’s maritime sector

Parliament Magazine


With 90 per cent of external trade going by sea and five million jobs attributed to Europe’s ports and seas, maritime policy is of the tmost importance, explains Pedro Lourenço.

The gross added value of the maritime sector to the European Union is estimated at €500bn, including jobs for some five million people. Over 90 per cent of EU external trade and 37 per cent of the intra-EU trade goes by sea. Effective, safe, and secure management of the maritime domain for transport and trade is therefore of critical importance.

To support shipping, maritime safety, and the marine environment, European authorities need detailed, reliable and timely knowledge about what happens at sea. Monitoring of large sea areas is a challenge, but developments in space technology over recent years have considerably extended the options available.

EMSA, the European maritime safety agency, has operational tasks in the field of oil pollution response, vessel monitoring, and the long-range identification and tracking of vessels. Space technology aids EMSA considerably in the day-to-day execution of these tasks, and particularly in the provision of maritime monitoring services to key stakeholders: the commission, EU member states and other EU bodies.

“The gross added value of the maritime sector to the European Union is estimated at €500bn, including jobs for some five million people”

EMSA provides stakeholders with a range services with the overall aim of ensuring safer and more secure shipping. These services use a variety of space based data sources, including telecommunications, synthetic aperture radar, and optical satellites.

EMSA’s services are used in a range of different maritime activities. In environmental protection EMSA’s CleanSeaNet service is based on the analysis of radar images from Earth observation satellites, in support of identifying oil pollution on the sea surface, monitoring accidental pollution during emergencies and identifying polluters.

Satellite images are analysed to detect possible oil spills and possible polluters, and alerts are sent to member state authorities within 30 minutes of the satellite passing. The service is integrated into national and regional pollution response chains, and aims to strengthen operational response to accidental and illegal discharges from ships.

Search and rescue is one of the most important activities in the field of maritime safety, and is vital for saving lives at sea. For rescue centres, being able to obtain accurate, up-to-date position information of vessels in distress, and of vessels in the vicinity that may be able to provide assistance, is fundamental. EMSA combines tracking information from different systems, and provides it to authorities in one single interface. This improves the likelihood that authorities will be able to locate and contact vessels, and mount rescue operations, even in remote sea regions.

In law enforcement and maritime security EMSA can tailor services to unique operational requirements, combining information not only from the agency’s maritime applications but also from other external sources. This means that the agency is ideally placed to work with other EU bodies that have tasks in the maritime domain.

EMSA currently works with the European fisheries control agency (EFCA), European Agency for the management of operational cooperation at the External borders of the member states of the European Union (Frontex), and EUNAVFOR, supporting their maritime monitoring needs in different fields such as border control, fisheries control and anti-piracy.

EMSA supports Frontex operations to address irregular migration and cross-border crime along European maritime borders. This includes system-to-system interfaces for real-time vessel position information, and automated vessel behaviour monitoring.

EMSA provides the EFCA with a real time maritime awareness operational picture, fusing and correlating position reports together with visual sightings thus supporting the operational coordination of fisheries control and inspection activities by member states.

EUNAVFOR’s anti-piracy operations are supported through a dedicated maritime surveillance service. This includes the correlation and integration of a wide range of vessel reporting information into a tailored web user interface.

Enabling governmental and institutional organisations to make use of EMSA’s systems avoids duplication of effort, overlapping infrastructures and unnecessary expenditures. By combining specific capabilities, experience and resources, EU agencies can build on synergies and provide higher quality services to their users.

Since its inception EMSA has been in the forefront of using state of the art space technologies in the delivery of services to its user communities. In the coming years, and building upon European programmes like Copernicus and Galileo, it is expected that improvements and enhancements in these technologies will allow the agency to bring further added value to maritime safety, shipping and the European citizen.