Nanosatellite-Powered Small Vessel Tracking and Monitoring

  • Note: In order to provide you with a better experience, this website uses cookies — by using our website, you agree to our use of cookies OK


Case Study - Nanosatellite-Powered Small Vessel Tracking and MonitoringGlobally, illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing is estimated to account for over $23.5 billion of fish per year.1 Countries in areas such as South East Asia face particular problems, with extensive coastlines and seas to monitor – it has been reported that Indonesia alone suffers losses of over $3 billion due to IUU fishing. Satellites are already being used to combat the problem, but are expensive to launch and not always able to track smaller vessels, which can account for a significant proportion of IUU fishing.

With funding from the UK Space Agency’s International Partnership Space Programme (IPSP), Spire Global has designed, developed and launched three nanosatellites that were specifically created to capture tracking information from Automatic Identification System (AIS) transponders, especially those on smaller shipping vessels. These satellites will be used to allow the paths of vessels to be plotted, with a special focus on monitoring fishing vessels’ activities.


  • Clyde Space
  • Spire Global Singapore Pte Ltd
  • EDB Singapore


IUU fishing is a huge global problem, affecting those who rely on fishing for their income and those for whom fish is the major source of protein in their diet. It is also associated with crimes such as human trafficking and slavery. However, finding those engaged in illegal fishing is very difficult at sea level, as there are simply too many vessels spread across vast swathes of ocean.

One method of identifying vessels that may be fishing illegally is to log the positional data signals broadcast by AIS transponders, which many boats are mandated to carry when at sea. These transmit location information at frequent intervals that can be picked up by coastal receivers and by suitably equipped satellites. However, Class B AIS transponders that are carried by smaller vessels can be hard to track as they are low power devices.

An additional challenge to AIS monitoring systems is that vessels tend to turn off their transponders when they are about to engage in illegal fishing. Hence positional data needs to be gathered as frequently as possible, so that the prior path of a boat is clear and can be used to predict its subsequent location and likely activity. What is required, therefore, is a satellite-based system that can reliably capture all AIS signals and revisit target areas of the ocean as often as possible.


The requirement to monitor low power transponders at frequent intervals led Spire Global to design and develop a solution based on nanosatellites that would operate in low Earth orbits, instead of the more common approach which is to use sensors on much larger satellites.

The chosen design was a three-unit (3U) CubeSat measuring just 30x10x10cm. CubeSats are much more cost effective to build and launch than larger satellites. Low Earth orbit satellites have an orbit of around 90 minutes and Spire’s ultimate aim is to have a large enough constellation to be able to offer global revisit times under 30 minutes.

Spire launched four CubeSats in September 2015 for initial testing, and the data gained from these informed the design of the three IPSP-funded satellites, built in a partnership between Spire and Clyde Space, which were launched in March 2016. These are specifically designed to test and begin to address the issues caused by the relatively weak signals emitted by Class B AIS transponders and have already transmitted data that will have a direct impact on the future detection of IUU fishing vessels. However, in order to demonstrate how a more complete constellation would function, these will be used alongside the rest of Spire’s standard nanosatellites (which also have AIS functionality) during the proof of concept stage.

IPSP benefits

IPSP funding allowed Spire to kickstart several key technological development projects to advance nanosatellites’ capability to capture AIS messages, in order to address the problems of IUU fishing by both large and small fishing vessels. The results of trials in South East Asian countries will inform the design of future Spire nanosatellites, so that Spire can constantly improve its service capabilities and data qualities to address IUU issues.

The UK Space Agency’s backing of the project through IPSP funding and promotion in South East Asia has been beneficial in negotiations with countries in the region. In the UK, the project has accelerated Spire’s growth and local recruitment, and intensified its commercial relationships with UK partners.

Outcomes & Future

Spire has signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Indonesian Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries (KKP) for a data trial with the AIS data captured by the nanosatellites. During the trial they will work together to test and evaluate how data provided by Spire’s constellation of nanosatellites can help KKP better monitor, supervise and manage vessels entering and operating in Indonesia’s 5.8 million square kilometre exclusive economic zone.

The company has also launched multiple data trials in other South East Asia countries in parallel. Once the concept is proven in South East Asia, Spire will look to offer similar services in other similarly affected regions globally.