It was about 2:30 in the afternoon, October 1, 2015. Several colleagues and I were at a series of meetings with our partners at Harris Corporation in Melbourne Florida. We had been asked to provide a demonstration of what our Generation 1 satellite constellation is able to do using our web based product, ShipView. This would help Harris employees understand the value of what we will achieve together with exactViewRT powered by Harris. Peter Dorcas, Sr. Director of Business Development for exactEarth, was making the presentation to a group of about 30 Harris employees. He had ShipView projected on the big screen and was going through a fairly typical demonstration of both the exactView Generation 1 satellite AIS data and the capabilities of the ShipView product.
Since ShipView is an Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC) compliant platform we are able to link in other OGC compliant data sources such as weather maps. With Melbourne being on the Atlantic coast of Florida, everyone in the room was aware of the hurricane not far off the southern coastline. Peter overlaid a real-time weather map of the hurricane with the current ship positions to show how the ships were changing their course to avoid the hurricane. All but one. We zoomed in on this one ship near the center of Hurricane Joaquin and identified it as the El Faro. Its position was last reported via exactView satellite AIS at 7:56 AM on October 1, 2015.
At the time, the ship El Faro was nothing special to anyone in the room. It was the only ship in the midst of the hurricane which raised a few eyebrows, but large ships have been known to pass through hurricanes before. It was not until the next morning that we realized that what we had been looking at was the last known position broadcast via AIS of the ship before it went missing.
exactAIS® tracking of El Faro’s last position (coloured track) and the Navy tug, Apache searching the area for the black box on Oct 15, 2015 (black track).
As soon as we realized that we had information that might prove helpful to those searching for the El Faro, both we and our colleagues at Harris reached out to the various government agencies involved in the search and offered them the information we had and any other aid we might be able to provide. Unfortunately for the El Faro and its crew of 33, we were too late to prevent what we later learned was the sinking of the ship.
Could exactViewRT have helped the Search and Rescue effort for the El Faro? exactView and exactViewRT can only tell you about ships that are actively transmitting their AIS signals. Since the El Faro had sunk, its AIS was no longer active. What exactViewRT can do is tell you about all the ships that are, or were, anywhere near the last known position of the El Faro. These are the ships that can and should be assisting in the search for the ship and any survivors.
exactViewRT also has another potentially more important role to play than identifying who should help in the search and rescue efforts after a vessel is lost. We may be able to help prevent such a disaster in the first place or at least give Search and Rescue a head start.
Some might say: “Wow that is a pretty bold statement! How can that be?”
Let’s take a look at what we know.
- From the website http://elfaroincident.com/ we know:
Thur., Oct. 1 – 7:20am – El Faro’s last communication. The Captain reported:
Vessel had lost propulsion.
Vessel experienced water ingress into a cargo hold through a scuttle (small opening to allow crew access into a hold).
Crew had secured the scuttle and was successfully pumping out the water from the hold.
Vessel was experiencing a 15 degree list but it was unknown whether it was a result of water ingress or the weather conditions.
- exactEarth reports a last known position for the El Faro at 7:56 AM on October 1. Forty minutes after the captain’s communication.
- Hurricane Joaquin was covering the area.
Knowing the position of a ship at a point in time, while interesting in this case, does not help other ships that could be at risk in a similar situation. With exactViewRT, however, we will have a stream of real-time continuous positions for all of the ships in the world. A vessel that has “lost propulsion” exhibits very distinctive characteristics in its AIS position reports. By examining a series of real-time continuous AIS position reports we can easily identify that a ship is no longer under propulsion. A ship not under propulsion is not that unusual, even in the middle of the ocean. A ship not under propulsion in the middle of a hurricane is!
The challenge is that this particular scenario is only one of potentially hundreds or even thousands of scenarios that could be the prelude to a disaster at sea. To prevent something like this from happening, each of these scenarios must be monitored across all of the various ships and weather conditions and myriads of other variables to find that one case where something could be done to prevent it, if only someone knew in time. Having more data is simply not enough. This is a daunting task. You have to know what you are looking for and have the means of monitoring it. That is where exactEarth’s services can help.
Along with our partners Larus Technologies, we have developed a unique big data analytics capability that ingests the real-time vessel position data from exactViewRT. In real-time, this capability can expertly process and fuse the raw data and perform sophisticated analytics to deliver information that will facilitate monitoring of limitless scenarios, across a region or across all the ships in the world. When it finds one that meets the right criteria, an alert can be initiated to both systems and people who may be able to do something to help.
Just days ago the black box of the El Faro was finally returned to land and investigators hope that what they find on the recording device will shed more light on the ship's final moments. We can’t know if we could have helped the El Faro if exactViewRT had been in place at the time. But it is clear that we could have provided insight into the fact that the vessel was adrift and in a hurricane, a very dangerous scenario, well before the captain sent his last known communications via the radio. The sooner the knowledge of this scenario could be delivered to people who can help, the better the chance of preventing something like this from happening again.
exactViewRT powered by Harris and the value added services derived from the data we collect and turn into actionable intelligence will go a long way towards making the seas safer and aiding search and rescue operations, ideally even before they become search and rescue events.