Maritime Surveillance in the New Millennium

By Marianne Molchan, President, Molchan Marine Sciences (MMS)

In 2014, Forbes Associate Director for Maritime Services at Control Risks stated that maritime risks are on the rise. Mariners and ship owner/operators experienced a 26 percent spike in maritime piracy and armed robbery since 2014 and the North Sea Oil Industry admitted that it had been targeted and thwarted cyber attacks, attacks that if successful could have caused untold financial and logistical damage. While most of us see these security incidents in news snippets, consider:

  • Tankers are still being hijacked and emptied at sea in alarming rates;
  • A plot to bomb the Suez Canal was revealed in 2015
  • Oil companies are installing surveillance equipment protecting rigs in response to perceived threats
  • Within the last decade, plans to attack a cruise ship in a major U.S. port were revealed.
  • Maritime surveillance systems play a key role monitoring sea lanes and ports while supporting worldwide maritime safety and security.

Situational Awareness & Operational Effectiveness
The ability to operate effectively and securely in any environment (air, land or sea) depends on an acute awareness and understanding of the surrounding elements. Military, law enforcement and port security specialists pride themselves in maintaining a high level of situational awareness (SA). Their lives depend on the ability to accurately predict the status of the surrounding elements within a measurement of time and space. Today’s port security officials, naval personnel and U.S. Coast Guard Ship Captains and Sector Commanders all use an electronic display of data and sensor information providing real-time situational awareness. The source data supporting these maritime surveillance systems may include cameras, radars, sonars, Automated Identification Systems (AIS) and real-time crowd sourcing data. An excellent surveillance system offers data clarity within a common operating picture supporting operations and appropriate security responses in emergency situations. This article provides clear guidance to companies in the process of seeing though the clutter in the development or selection of an operationally effective coastal surveillance system and sensor integrator.

Challenges in Developing Maritime Surveillance Systems
Making multiple sensors form one cohesive situational awareness picture is not just about the sensors. The genesis of an effective SA system begins with clearly identifying the problem(s) that need solving. A clear definition of the problem and performance requirements for the system is the first challenge. Once the end user has defined the Concept of Operations (CONOPS) the experienced integrator will choose appropriate sensors based on a number of factors, including but not limited to:

  • Area of Coverage (sectors, 360 degrees, land, sea, air, distance from shore, overlap, blind spots)
  • Environmental Factors (weather, marine life, sea and land clutter, water temperature, salinity)
  • Duration of Coverage (day, night, months, years)
  • Restrictions (power, staff, passive vs active sensors)
  • Target Behavior (speed, track, medium, distance)
  • Sensor Limitations (side lobes, signal strength, data storage, bandwidth, range)

Some of the challenges are as basic as getting the sensor feeds to literally plug into one another and play well together. Cross correlation of multiple sensors is an art form. Once a target is identified on one sensor, it may or may not be seen on other sensor types depending on the sensor settings, time of day, sensor capability and vulnerability etc. Determining the most appropriate sensors and sensor placement for the surveillance system requires seasoned sensor integrators. In order to get reliable and consistent target identification under a variety of conditions, multiple types of sensors may be required. Sensors typically have certain conditions under which they perform optimally. For example, infrared cameras provide a reliable tracking of “warm” targets in no or low light conditions where a daylight camera may not.

Many first and second generation maritime surveillance systems are in need of upgrades. During the lifetime of a surveillance system, legacy sensors may need to be merged or work in conjunction with new sensors. The modernization of the USCG Fleet C2 sensors mentioned later in this article is a perfect example.

A surveillance system secure from interceptors, or cyberattacks is paramount. In an effort to underscore the importance of cybersecurity within maritime environment in June 2015 the USCG published a document entitled Cyber Strategy which outlines the defense of cyberspace, enabling operations and protecting infrastructure. While cyberattacks are a known threat and some protections are available and in place, it is the author’s opinion that more attention could be paid to securing integrated sensor systems.

  • In designing and evaluating a multi-sensor SA systems objectives include but are not limited to:
  • Scalability and interoperability meeting future expansion while leveraging existing systems
  • Flexible sensor solutions for a variety of platforms, environments and data links
  • Sensors with complementary capabilities and limitations
  • Abstracting specific sensors behavior and characteristics from the end-user (providing illusion of Plug & Play)
  • Consistent / accurate performance in all weather conditions
  • Filtering raw data and information; displaying what’s pertinent to the mission
  • Multi-sensor track processing and correlation
  • Reliable target information supporting operator decision making
  • Real-time anomaly detection / alerting for operator incident recognition
  • Capability for sharing information with other systems.
  • User friendly operation and maintenance
  • Ongoing customer support and open feedback loops

Examples of Sensor Integration
Core system capabilities that tie the sensors to the user display are often developed and maintained by agile sensor integrators. SSR Engineering Inc. is considered by many in the defense and maritime surveillance industry to be a prime example of a capable, responsive sensor integrator providing everything from portable stand-alone systems using non-terrestrial communications to large scale multi-site sensor installations. SSR Engineering’s personal computer based radar processor (PCRP) is an example of a “black box” that is the functional backbone of multiple national and international maritime and shipboard surveillance systems, port security, offshore platforms and range safety systems. Used by both military and civilian clients, the value in the PCRP lies in the fact that it seamlessly interfaces with most modern and legacy radars and Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) systems.

Following are some prime examples of how the design and customer feedback loop to a SA system creates optimal performance.

Maritime Law Enforcement Information Network (MLEIN) Protecting Natural Resources
Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources uses SSR Engineering’s surveillance system to protect valuable oyster beds (photo left) in the Chesapeake. Land based radars, shipboard cameras, and portable sensor systems are monitored by the Natural Resources Police. The network uses 4G, Wi-Fi, Microwave and terrestrial data links providing target data, AIS and Blue Force tracking in a cohesive track picture. The sensor rich system covers the Chesapeake Bay from the Susquehanna River to the Virginia state line.

SSR provides lifetime customer support to the MLEIN owner/operators. Ongoing customer support generates a valuable feedback loop. The experienced MLEIN operators continue to provide system improvement requests that contribute to tailored system enhancements.

Boosting Vessel Surveillance in the Port of Long Beach– Enhancing Surveillance to Detect Small Targets

Based on small boat attack tactics navies worldwide have been paying close attention to small boat behavior within a port. The Port of Long Beach determined they needed additional sensors to provide this key missing component to their Port Security System. SSR Engineering created a system supporting multiple missions simultaneously through a set of processing and display filters used specifically for the purposes of tracking small vessels. This provided port security personnel much needed mission specific information. Existing radar sensors were monitoring and tracking the larger vessel entering and exiting the port but the new radar system provided a second layer of security supporting ongoing patrols by the USCG and Long Beach Marine Police. The combination of additional radars and radar processors feeds vital information into the port security operators, C2 Center and Jacobsen Pilots.

This system includes a centralized alarming capability that monitors the small boat tracks and provides a real-time alerting function. These alerts include geo-fences, closest point of approach, proximity zones, loitering zones and anchor watch.

Modernization of the USCG - Fleet-Merging Old and New Systems and Capabilities
USCG shipboard C2 systems incorporate SSR Engineering technologies allowing operators to use the ARPA interface augmented with tactical features and functions.

As a result, the C2 system is scalable, interoperable and suitable for future expansion while leveraging the existing systems. Because of SSR Engineering enhancements, the USCG installed their radars of choice without worrying about prohibitive integration issues. The system includes an identification friend or foe transponder, an Automatic Identification System (AIS), electro-optical / infrared sensor system, surface search radar and air search radar. Depending on the mission at hand, these technologies allow operators to quickly identify threats, violators, or distressed vessels and coordinate joint response operations.

Securing Offshore Platforms- 360 degree Integrated Sensor Surveillance, Detection and Alerting Systems for Mobile Operators
With a worldwide movement towards minimal manning and the need to provide 360 degree protection for vessels and offshore platforms, the future in maritime security systems lies in sophisticated alerting capabilities. SSR Engineering technologies provide sensor solutions for a variety of platforms, environments and data links creating an interconnected set of patrol boats and platforms. The platform acts as the command center which is capable of sharing radar and track information with patrol boats.

SSR’s surveillance systems include custom alerting capabilities delivering alarms and threat alerts via email, Short Message Service (SMS), Multi-Media Messaging Service (MMS) and Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP) to assist operators working with mobile devices. They have incorporated alerting systems such as Long Range Acoustic Devices (LRAD) and AIS with their Radar, Camera and Sonar surveillance systems. With the use of AIS and LRAD, the operator can provide direct notification or warning to the target. The SSR Composite Tracker correlates target information from multiple sensors providing an accurate track picture while alarm zones based on proximity and predetermined characteristics detect and trigger events like slewing cameras or LRADs towards the threat and send out a warning.

Remote monitoring and control capability sending sensor data and control messages over low-bandwidth radio and satellite links provide owner/operators of platforms an additional surveillance capability.

A primary goal of a robust SA system is to sharpen the operator’s perception of the surrounding environmental elements with respect to time and/or space. Experienced operators of robust SA systems find them essential to surveillance, detection, classification, identification and potentially prosecution of a target. Engineering companies that provide software that produces organized data fusion from multiple sources essentially create a reduced operator workload, enhanced decision-making and essential mission management.

Essential concepts for developing a maritime surveillance system are provided in this article. A review of some of the key points are provided below:

  • The first challenge in developing maritime surveillance systems is understanding and defining the customer’s problem and performance requirements.
  • Determining the most appropriate sensors and sensor placement for the surveillance system requires seasoned sensor integrators.
  • Each sensor has specific capabilities and limitations. The multi-type sensor approach will achieve consistent performance under all conditions.
  • A surveillance system secure from interceptors, or cyber attacks is paramount.
  • Ongoing customer support generates a valuable feedback loop. Experienced operators can provide SA system improvement requests contributing to tailored system enhancements. 
  • Multi-mission support capability using a set of processing and display filters allow each operator to see the pertinent information they have requested for their mission.
  • With a worldwide movement towards minimal manning and the need to provide 360 degree protection for vessels and offshore platforms, the future in maritime security systems lies in sophisticated alerting capabilities. 

The Author

Marianne Molchan is President of Molchan Marine Sciences (MMS) and a retired Navy Commander. MMS supports the development, evaluation and implementation of maritime safety and security technology systems for clients worldwide.  Currently she serves as the Vice President of the Marine and Oceanographic Technology Network and is a Senior Advisor to Security Dynamics LLC.

1  Tom Patterson, “Maritime Risks Rise Even as Somali Piracy Recedes” Forbes 2/10/2015 (

(As published in the September 2015 edition of Marine Technology Reporter -

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