With maritime concerns very high, not only in the Persian Gulf areas but worldwide. The practice of shutting off AIS tracking systems is on the rise too. The Automatic Identification System, or AIS transponders, signal a vessel’s position and depth in the water, along with other critical vessel identifying information. This is vital for vessel safe operation and proper traffic coordination. The AIS system is similar to aviation tracking system which air traffic controllers use to coordinate flights. Oil tanker to tanker transfers are on the rise, with AIS systems being turned off to avoid detection. This is an example of how to avoid various international sanctions and tariffs. New technology is poised to make future vessels unable to “go dark” while illegally fishing or trying to avoid product sanctions and tariffs.
Iran’s current fleet of 36 very large crude carriers (VLCC) and eight Suezmax tankers have manipulated and expanded the so-called practice of ‘going dark’ by establishing complicated logistic chains to avoid detection and thus disguise the origin and destination of oil cargoes. London-based shipbroker Gibson, recorded that 33 of the National Iranian Tanker Co’s (NITC) VLCCs did not transmit signals via AIS data in June 2019. That number compared with 12 VLCCs in May, and 22 in January 2019. During these so-called dark periods, NITC tankers have been observed sailing to Syrian ports to discharge cargoes of Iranian crude and conducting ship-to-ship transfers to other tankers in waters off Iran, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Malaysia. Similar practices have been observed with North Korean, Syrian and recently Venezuelan oil and gas cargoes, with shipowners and operators using similar techniques to hide deliveries and transfers of sanctioned crude oil and other cargoes.
The use of synthetic aperture radar (SAR) technology is being used to detect this chicanery. Satellites can see through clouds to detect vessels via microwave pulses to produce two-dimensional images with a resolution of two meters. The Finland-based company Iceye, who is the leader in the commercial application of this type technology is claiming this see-through to “going dark.” Iceye currently has one satellite providing SAR images, and this year expanded its application from monitoring illegal fishing activity to tracking commercial vessels trying to go dark.
Within two years, Iceye expects to have a further five satellites launched that will allow hour-by-hour images of vessels. When married with AIS tracking, this can provide a complete overview of any vessel voyage. Currently images are only available every 24 hours. Grainy photos can now identify dark tankers alongside those transmitting AIS signals in areas off Iran, Fujairah and elsewhere in the Middle East Gulf. 24 hour reporting time still makes the nefarious maritime practice, a cat and mouse game.
The use of AIS technology is mandatory under SOLAS regulations unless the safety and security of the ship is compromised. Vessels transiting the Gulf of Aden and other piracy hotspots in the South China Sea often turn off their AIS for safety and security reasons. But the frequency of what Iceye describes as “uncollaborative vessels” has risen sharply with the application of US sanctions on Iran and Venezuela.
Marine insurer Gard said in a statement last month that ‘going dark’ was a bad practice. Breaches of the SOLAS convention heightened the risks of vessel collision and could be grounds to deny shipowners P&I insurance coverage. “Going dark in areas of heightened surveillance is a red flag to authorities and legitimate reasons may need to be evidenced to dispel suspicion of intentional avoidance of sanctions compliance,” the Gard statement emphasized.
Iceye forecasts that within two years the application of SAR will be widespread throughout commercial shipping and will provide 24-hour tracking regardless of AIS signal. Currently, the nascent technology is expensive and limited, but Iceye is combining their SAR technology with AIS provider Spire Maritime, to offer fixed-area monitoring. The desire by port states and flag registries to monitor dark vessels is nebulous at best. The Liberian vessel flag registry recently de-flagged a Chinese-owned VLCC that was shipping sanctioned Iranian crude, loaded while its AIS was not transmitting. But with geopolitical and financial considerations in play, the practice will continue in the immediate future. Iceye detected vessels at Fujairah, UAE anchorage not using their AIS and conducting ship-to-ship transfers involving Iranian crude as recently as January 2019. This is the same maritime location of the four ships that were attacked in May 2019. Currently bunkering demands at the Port of Fujairah has following these tanker attacks. Saudi Arabia has publicly condemned the practice of going dark.
Combining the AIS and SAR technologies is developing a sound and close to fool-proof option to detect this dangerous maritime practice. the first, broad picture about the prevalence of vessels without AIS and hotspots where potential illegal activity is happening.
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 New Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) Regulation was adopted by the International Maritime Organization in order to increase maritime safety and reduce the dangers to cargo, containers, and everybody involved in container transport throughout the supply chain.