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SeaVision Improves Africa's Maritime Picture

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

An evolving maritime domain awareness tool is helping countries on the western coast of Africa combat human traffic smuggling, illicit drug trade, piracy, and illegal fishing on their waterways.

Developed for the U.S. Naval Forces Africa (NAVAF) by Volpe, The National Transportation Systems Center, SeaVision is a maritime tool that enables users to see ships on a map and view the movement history of those ships. This Internet-based program leverages Google Maps, using a program already familiar to users in order to display more than 62,000 ships around the world and their corresponding information.

SeaVision draws from Automatic Identification Systems (AIS) data, which are transmitted over marine VHF radio frequencies. AIS allows the automatic exchange of real-time vessel data between ships or between ships and shore stations. This includes dynamic data, such as a ship's position, course, and speed, as well as static data, such as the name and size of a vessel.

"Before the U.S. Navy installed AIS receivers, we had limited visibility of our waters," said Captain Jean Baptiste Faye, Chief of Operations for the Senegal Navy. "After installation, we could see 30 nautical miles from our three key ports. Now, due to SeaVision, we can monitor our entire coastline, up to 400 nautical miles out to sea and respond to events quickly."

SeaVision is part of a suite of software tools that Volpe has developed to facilitate and improve maritime domain awareness around the world. These tools include the Maritime Safety and Security Information System (MSSIS), which is a government-to-government system that collects and stores maritime data, and Transview (TV32), a Windows application that accesses data and displays it on a map. TV32 provides the main way to view data from MSSIS, which won the 2008 Innovations in American Government Award from Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government Ash Institute (see video).

While SeaVision leverages the data and capabilities of MSSIS and TV32, it has additional freedoms: With TV32, users download and install software on a computer, but with SeaVision, users need only an Internet browser. In addition, TV32 shows real-time data, while SeaVision also allows users to see up to a 30-day history of a ship.

Furthermore, SeaVision allows for future expansion beyond AIS. For instance, a user could overlay radar, weather, maritime, or other user-inserted data on top of the program, said IT specialist Brendon Providence, the main developer of SeaVision. As a proof of concept for this potential expansion, Volpe has added radar data, which can show, for example, if a ship is present at a given location but not transmitting AIS data. Thus, SeaVision has the potential to provide a more complete maritime picture.

SeaVision is the main tool that Volpe uses with NAVAF and the Africa Partnership Station support team, which completes four maritime domain awareness exercises per year. Volpe staff have installed, repaired, or enhanced many of the AIS receive stations in the 20 participating African nations, ensuring a more robust system and more reliable data. Volpe staff also serve as the technical support team and help participating African countries examine SeaVision data and patterns, and draw conclusions from those data.

Initially released "at a trickle" in the summer of 2011, SeaVision has been under development and improvement over the last year and is now at a peak in performance after Volpe staff spent the last year gathering and implementing user requirements, updating technology, performing AIS system repairs, training staff in Africa, enhancing the system so it can handle large volumes of data, and getting all 20 countries to become participating nations, said project manager Henry Wychorski, an electronics engineer at Volpe.

Earlier this month, the project hit a milestone: all 20 African countries that are members of MSSIS and use SeaVision were contributing their own data.

"SeaVision has revolutionized the maritime domain awareness for African Navies," stated NAVAF. "Before SeaVision, partner nations had limited visibility of the vessels in their exclusive economic zone. With SeaVision, they can see every vessel transmitting AIS up to 400 nautical miles from their coast, allowing them to better control their maritime environment."

Volpe enhances MSSIS, TV32, and SeaVision on an ongoing basis to improve performance, add features, and modify the software to fit user needs. In December, Volpe released a function as part of SeaVision that allows users to draw and save shapes onto the map as visual identifiers. Thus, a country could easily monitor a given area of its waters by creating a visual field of interest on the map. Volpe is currently working on increasing the system's speed, examining ways to bring in additional data sources beyond AIS, and making improvements to allow groups of users to better collaborate with one another, said Wychorski.

Volpe also plans to enhance SeaVision's search functionality to allow users to hone the types of queries they place on the system. "We try to anticipate what we might be asked for [from users] and start working on them," said Providence.

Screenshot of SeaVision showing a ship off the African coast.
SeaVision allows partnering African countries to see ships on a map and view up to a 30-day history of those ships. This program helps improve maritime domain awareness, prevent vessel collisions, and combat illegal marine activities off the western coast of Africa. (Volpe photo)

Real-World Impacts of Volpe's Maritime Domain Awareness Tools

Screenshot of SeaVision showing a ship off the African coast.

Volpe's suite of software tools—which includes the Maritime Safety and Security Information System (MSSIS), Transview (TV32), and SeaVision—has been used to improve maritime domain awareness around the world, with some of the following results:

  • $100 million cocaine bust: In a multi-day joint operation between Cape Verde and U.S. law enforcement officials, authorities used MSSIS to identify a cargo vessel offloading a historic 1.5 tons of cocaine in Cape Verde, Africa, in October 2011. Volpe deployed and maintained the AIS system in Cape Verde and developed MSSIS, which was used to facilitate the $100 million drug seizure. "AIS in Africa is still a work in progress…but this past week, in Cape Verde, it was working and made a historic difference," the sponsor wrote.
  • Tropical storm rescue: In September 2011, Tropical Storm Nate damaged an oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico and sent it adrift with 10 workers onboard. The Mexican Navy used MSSIS to track the adrift platform and execute command and control for the rescue from Mexico City. "To those involved in the AIS…initiatives, your work has saved lives," the sponsor wrote.

  • Uncovering illegal fishing: During an April 2012 maritime domain awareness exercise in Africa, the Fisheries Department in Senegal asked Volpe staff to use SeaVision to focus on vessels from one particular country. It turned out that numerous vessels from the identified country were illegally fishing in Senegal's waters—and fishing is one of Senegal's largest industries. "That means money to them," said IT specialist Brendon Providence, the main developer of SeaVision.
  • Expanding Mexico's maritime picture: Volpe staff built Mexico's AIS system from scratch, working directly with the U.S. Northern Command and the Mexican Navy to install 36 AIS receive stations around the country. This project, which began in 2009 and was completed in 2012, has allowed Mexico to move from more labor-intensive methods of keeping up their waters to taking part in MSSIS, which has increased efficiency and significantly expanded the country's maritime picture.