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BlackSky Introduces AI-Powered Maritime Custody Service for Real-Time Vessel Tracking and Surveillance

Posted on June 15, 2023


Abstract: BlackSky, a leading provider of real-time geospatial intelligence, has developed the Maritime Custody Service (MCS) to address the crucial need for advanced vessel tracking and surveillance in maritime domains. The MCS utilizes a multi-source system, combining commercial radio frequency (RF) data, electro-optical (EO) imagery, and synthetic aperture radar (SAR) imagery to monitor vessel movements in real-time. By leveraging data streams from the BlackSky Global satellite constellation and Spire Global Inc.'s satellite constellation, along with the Spectra AI platform, the MCS enables users to identify vessels of interest, monitor their positions, and observe their activities using commercial, unclassified sources. This article provides an overview of the MCS's design, algorithms, early prototype results, and expected improvements. 


Introduction: With the increase in maritime traffic and the associated risks of geopolitical conflicts and criminal activities at sea, there is a growing demand for real-time maritime surveillance systems. These systems play a critical role in identifying and responding to illegal activities such as smuggling, sanctions evasion, illegal fishing, marine terrorism, and disaster-related incidents. However, existing surveillance solutions have limitations in terms of capabilities, flexibility, and accuracy, hindering their ability to provide real-time intelligence for various applications. To overcome these challenges, BlackSky has developed the Maritime Custody Service (MCS), a cutting-edge AI-powered system for on-demand monitoring of vessels in the world's oceans and waterways. 



Maritime Custody Service (MCS) Overview: The MCS combines high-frequency satellite imaging, including electro-optical (EO) and synthetic aperture radar (SAR) sensors, with accurate target acquisition, vessel trajectory prediction, and vessel identification and classification. The system utilizes data from BlackSky's satellite constellation, Spire's satellite and terrestrial receivers for RF emissions, and the Spectra AI platform for image processing and analysis. By integrating these diverse data sources, the MCS can monitor vessels in real-time as they navigate open oceans, rivers, canals, and while docked at ports. It has the capability to detect vessels of interest, track their positions, and classify them by type. 


Concept of Operations: The MCS operates in a continuous cycle to maintain custody of monitored vessels. It begins with RF-based vessel tracking and trajectory prediction using emissions data collected by Spire's Lemur satellites and terrestrial AIS sensor network. The system then identifies imaging opportunities by intersecting the probabilistic vessel trajectory forecast with the ground tracks of BlackSky's satellites. Once the imaging opportunities are determined, BlackSky's satellite constellation captures images of the targeted vessels. The collected images are processed using the Spectra AI platform, which detects and classifies vessels. If a vessel is identified in the images, its position and trajectory are updated, ensuring accurate vessel tracking. 



  1. Target Geolocation via RF: Using RF emissions collected by Spire’s Lemur satellites and terrestrial AIS sensor network, the MCS identifies a vessel’s current position, speed, and direction of travel, otherwise referred to as a vessel’s heading. 

  2. Predict Vessel Trajectory: The MCS then predicts the vessel’s future trajectory by analyzing position and velocity information derived from the captured RF emissions.  Currently, the MCS uses a simple dead-reckoning approach, in which vessel trajectories are computed assuming constant vessel speed and direction. Accordingly, the vessel trajectories consist of a simple series of straight lines. However, BlackSky has developed more advanced heteroscedastic regression models in order to anticipate the future position of ships. See the Results & Expected Improvements section for additional detail. 

  3. Identify Imaging Opportunities: BlackSky identifies imaging opportunities by intersecting the probabilistic vessel trajectory forecast with the upcoming ground tracks of BlackSky’s satellites. Opportunities with the highest probability of interception are then integrated into a mission plan and uploaded to the satellites for execution. 

  4. Collect Images: The BlackSky satellite constellation then collects imagery at the coordinates with the highest probability of interception. To maximize the probability of a successful capture, BlackSky can collect multiple images along the vessel’s forecasted trajectory (to compensate for variations in the vessel’s speed) or across the vessel’s forecasted trajectory (to compensate for changes in the vessel’s heading).   

  5. Detect Vessels: Once images are collected and downlinked, BlackSky’s Spectra AI platform analyzes the collected images. BlackSky’s proprietary vessel detection model is then run to locate and classify the different types of vessels present in the images. 

The vessel detections are then cross-referenced against any available AIS information describing the target vessel to determine whether it was successfully captured in the image. 


  1. Update Target Geolocation: If the target vessel is identified in the collected images, Spectra AI can then update the vessel’s position and direction of travel and refresh its MCS trajectory forecast based on this new information. This helps ensure that an accurate starting location is used when vessel trajectory forecasts are initialized.

Once all six steps above have been executed, the cycle is repeated.  


By executing this loop during a vessel’s entire journey, the MCS can be used to maintain custody of a vessel as it travels nearly anywhere on Earth. Furthermore, if a vessel’s AIS report purports to be at a particular pair of coordinates, but the vessel is not present in the collected image, it is more likely the vessel is spoofing its AIS transmission.  


Results & Expected Improvements:




The MCS prototype has shown promising results, capturing targeted vessels both while docked at ports and while deployed at sea. The initial prototype achieved a vessel capture rate of approximately 25% of the collected images. However, there is room for improvement by refining the system's algorithms. Three key improvements are highlighted: transitioning from dead reckoning to probabilistic route prediction models for better vessel position forecasting, reducing image collection latency to ensure timely capture of vessels, and implementing multi-frame, larger area image collections to increase the probability of capturing vessels within the collected scenes. 


Conclusion: BlackSky's Maritime Custody Service (MCS) represents a significant advancement in real-time vessel tracking and surveillance capabilities. By leveraging AI and multi-source data integration, the MCS provides users with a powerful tool for monitoring maritime activities and detecting illicit behavior. With ongoing algorithm improvements, including enhanced vessel position forecasting and reduced image collection latency, the MCS is expected to become an even more effective solution for commercial, military, economic, and environmental applications, contributing to the security and safety of maritime domains worldwide. 


🔎 Who do we think should be interested in MCS?


Trade Finance 🛢️


  • Compliance, Sanctions and AML officers: Help ensure compliance with regulations like AML and sanctions screening. MCS helps monitor vessel movements and detect suspicious activities beyond the means of vessel tracking data such as AIS.

  • Trade Finance Operations Manager: Oversees trade finance activities and utilizes MCS for monitoring vessel movements and verifying trade documents.

Marine Insurers 🚢


  • Hull Underwriters: MCS supports underwriters to understand the activity of vessels/owners in the event there are gaps in their AIS coverage to support thorough risk assessments and policy issuance.

  • Claims Managers Investigates insurance claims using enhanced vessel tracking and historical data provided by MCS.

Commodity Traders 🌾 🛢️ 🪨


  • Risk Managers: Manages trading risks by monitoring shipments, identifying potential delays, and proactively mitigating risks using enhanced data from MCS.

  • Compliance Officers: Ensures trade compliance by monitoring vessel movements, identifying potential violations, and enforcing compliance measures with the support of MCS.

✉️ We're inviting readers of our newsletter to participate in our beta user access program for testing the Maritime Custody Service (MCS).


Sign up through the form below: Limited spots available. Join us today and contribute to the advancement of real-time vessel tracking and surveillance and help combat illicit shipping and sanctions evasion practices.


🗓️ Deadline for submissions: July 15th 2023



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