Unseenlabs Maritime RF Monitoring System
Unseenlabs, a startup commercial company of Rennes in northwestern France (in the east of Brittany), is developing a constellation of about 20 satellites to monitor maritime traffic, using orbiting sensors to track ships that turn off their AIS (Automatic Identification System) transponders. The company, is building its own payloads, while relying on GomSpace of Denmark and Sweden for six-unit spacecraft platforms. 1)
The founders of Unseenlabs are Clément Galic, CEO (Chief Executive Officer) and Jonathan Galic, CTO (Chief Technology Officer). The overall objective of Unseenlabs is to operate a spaceborne technology to identify, recognize and track a broad range of radio emitters and to collect & process proprietary data for maritime surveillance. The radio frequency (RF) detection system was developed entirely in-house (hardware and software), to detect and characterize with unmatched accuracy and in near real-time the passive electromagnetic signature of any ship (cooperative or not), anytime (day or night), anywhere on the globe, regardless of weather conditions. The ability to locate and monitor vessels is essential in the fight against pollution and illegal traffic and contributes to the safety on our oceans.
Figure 1: The technology of Unseenlabs produces a new type of data that supplements and synergizes with current technologies (AIS, SAR, Optical) to bring vessel monitoring and tracking to a whole new level of precision (image credit: Unseenlabs)
Created in 2015, Unseenlabs is an innovative company of France, leader in Europe in RF satellite geolocation of ships at sea. Its proprietary on-board satellite technology allows to geolocate any ship at sea, in near-real time, to the nearest kilometer, from a single nanosatellite. Unseenlabs provides a wide range of maritime players with accurate and up-to-date data on ship positions, enabling better monitoring of activities at sea. Whether it is to meet the data needs of maritime companies, or to help institutions and organizations fight against illegal and anti-environmental behavior, such as illegal fishing or illegal dumping, Unseenlabs is intended to be a tool at the service of the oceans. In 2018, Unseenlabs welcomed BPI, the Brittany region and Hemeriain its capital for an amount of 7.5 M€. 2)
• August 10, 2021: French startup Unseenlabs is set to fly its next maritime surveillance nanosatellite on an Arianespace Vega rocket in mid-August, instead of launching with Rocket Lab as it did for the first three BRO spacecraft the venture has launched since mid-2019. 3)
- The Breizh Reconnaissance Orbiter-4 (BRO-4) is joining Arianespace’s second Vega rocket mission of 2021, slated to lift off from French Guiana Aug. 16 at 9:47 p.m. Eastern.
- Vega’s primary mission is to deploy the Pléiades Neo 4 optical imaging satellite for builder and operator Airbus. Three European Space Agency CubeSats are also joining the launch.
- The upcoming Vega mission will be the 19th time that Arianespace has launched the small launch vehicle, which made its maiden flight in 2012.
- It is also the first since returning to flight April 28, following a Nov. 16 failure that destroyed its payloads.
- Unseenlabs said it booked the mission with Arianespace in part to contribute to Europe’s launch sovereignty.
- “Beyond the technological and commercial considerations, I think it is a great opportunity to test a new launcher that will help guarantee and accelerate our access to space,” said Jonathan Galic, Unseenlabs co-founder and chief technology officer.
- Unseenlabs said BRO-4 expands a constellation that has been operational since U.S. and New Zealand-based Rocket Lab launched BRO-1 in August 2019, followed by BRO-2 and -3 in November 2020.
- The startup is building out a radio-frequency geolocation constellation that enables customers to monitor and track signals from ships at sea.
- Applications range from providing maritime companies up-to-date data on ship positions to giving governments more tools for tackling illegal fishing.
- Unseenlabs said April 27 it raised 20 million euros ($25 million) to help grow its constellation by 2025 to between 20 and 25 satellites, up from the four it will have in orbit with a successful launch of BRO-4.
In the summer of 2017, Unseenlabs SAS signed a contract with GomSpace ApS of Denmark, a subsidiary of GomSpace Group AB of Sweden, to develop and deliver a system based on nanosatellites to provide disruptive spectrum monitoring services from space. The system will operate innovative payloads developed by Unseenlabs, including unique hardware and software. 4)
Figure 2: BRO-1 (Breizh Recon Orbiter-1) is a 6U CubeSat designed to supply spectrum monitoring services from low Earth orbit. The monitoring spectrum payload is designed by Unseenlabs (image credit: GomSpace)
Launch 1: The BRO-1 CubeSat was launched with an Electron vehicle of Rocket Lab from Launch Complex 1 on New Zealand’s Māhia Peninsula at 00:12 NZST on 20 August 2019, corresponding to 12:12 UTC on 19 August 2019. Rocket Lab named the launch ”LuckMa, No Hands.” 5) 6)
Mission management and rideshare aggregator, Spaceflight, also manifested three satellites on its second rideshare mission with Rocket Lab. Among the rideshare payloads was:
- BlackSky’s Global-4 Earth-imaging satellite.
- The final spacecraft manifested on the mission were two experimental satellites for the United States Air Force Space Command (named Pearl White-1 and Pearl Wite-2, 6U CubeSats), designed to test new technologies including propulsion, power, communications, and drag capabilities for potential applications on future spacecraft.
Orbit: Near-circular orbit, altitude of 540 km with an inclination of 45º.
Launch 2: Two 6U CubeSats, namely BRO-2 and BRO-3 of Unseenlabs, were launched on Rocket Lab's 16th Electron mission 'Return to Sender', at 02:20 UTC, 19 November 2020 (corresponding to 13:20 NZDT on 20 November), from Launch Complex 1 on Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand. 7) 8)
Orbit: Sun-synchronous orbit, altitude of ~500 km, inclination = 97.3º.
Thirty small satellites were deployed on this flight of 'Return to Sender.'
• DragRacer of TriSept Corporation: The DragRacer mission will test the effectiveness of new tether technologies designed to accelerate spacecraft reentry and reduce orbital debris at the conclusion of space missions. TriSept has completed the integration of a pair of qualified Millennium Space Systems 6U CubeSats, one featuring the tether drag device and one without.
• BRO-2 (Breizh Recon Orbiter-2) and BRO-3 satellites of Unseenlabs, Rennes, France: BRO-2 and BRO-3 are the second and third satellites in the French company Unseenlabs’ planned constellation of about 20 satellites, dedicated to maritime surveillance.
• Swarm picosatellites of Swarm Technologies, Palo Alto, CA, USA: Swarm launched the latest 24 (each 0.25U) SpaceBEE satellites to continue building out its planned constellation of 150 satellites to provide affordable satellite communications services to IoT devices in remote regions around the world. Swarm’s uniquely small satellites enable the company to provide network services and user hardware at the industry’s lowest cost and deliver maximum value to customers across a range of industries including maritime shipping, agriculture, energy, and ground transportation. The SpaceBEEs were integrated into two of Rocket Lab’s 12U Maxwell CubeSat dispensers for orbital deployment.
• APSS-1 (Auckland Program for Space Systems) of the University of Auckland, Australia: The student-built Waka Āmiorangi Aotearoa APSS-1 satellite, a 1U CubeSat, is designed to monitor electrical activity in Earth’s upper atmosphere to test whether ionospheric disturbances can predict earthquakes. The data from this mission will deliver deeper knowledge of these hard-to-access altitudes and drive understanding of how phenomena such as solar wind and geophysical events affect this atmospheric region.
• Gnome Chompski of Valve's Gabe Newell, New Zealand: Manufactured with support from multi-award-winning design studio Weta Workshop, the unique space component is additively manufactured from titanium and printed in the shape of Half-Life gaming icon Gnome Chompski. The mission serves as a homage to the innovation and creativity of gamers worldwide, and also aims to test and qualify a novel 3D printing technique that could be employed for future spacecraft components. The 150 mm gnome will remain attached to Electron’s Kick Stage and will de-orbit with it when the stage burns up on re-entry to the Earth’s atmosphere.
Figure 3: Artist's illustration of the deployed BRO satellites (image credit: Rocket Lab) 9)
Launch 3: BRO-4 (Breizh Recon Orbiter-4) a 6U CubeSat of Unseenlabs, was launched on 17 August 2021 at 01:47 UTC as a secondary payload to the Pleiades Neo-4 primary mission of CNES/Airbus on a Vega launch vehicle (VV19) of Arianespace from Kourou in French Guiana. 10) 11)
Orbit of secondary payloads: Sun-sunchronous orbit with an altitude of 551 km.
The 19th mission of Europe’s Vega light launcher also injected four CubeSats on a sun-synchronous orbit, three for the European Space Agency (ESA) and one for the French start-up Unseenlabs. The three ESA payloads were under contract with SAB Launch Services. In order to meet their clients’ needs and to ensure them a quicker access to Space, Arianespace and SAB Launch Services set up a collaboration to integrate all four auxiliary passengers in two PSL6U Deployers installed on the Payload Adapter.
• LEDSAT, an educational project (1U CubeSat) from the University of Sapienza, Italy, participating in ESA’s Fly Your Satellite! program, that has been conceived to investigate the performances of a technology based on Light Emitting Diodes for optical Low-Earth Orbit satellites tracking.
• RadCube, a 3U CubeSat from C3S, Hungary, to demonstrate miniaturized instrument technologies that measure in-situ the space radiation and magnetic field environment in Low Earth Orbit for space weather monitoring purposes.
• SUNSTORM, a 3U CubeSat from RSL, Finland, with an innovative solar X-ray spectrometer to detect the X-ray pulses produced by coronal mass ejections – massive eruptions of many millions of tons of material from the Sun’s surface.
• BRO-4, fourth 6U CubeSat from Unseenlabs, France, of the constellation BRO (Breizh Reconnaissance Orbiter), a spectrum monitoring and electromagnetic intelligence service for maritime surveillance.
• May 20, 2021: ORBCOMM Inc., a global provider of Internet of Things (IoT) solutions, today announced that it has entered into a global commercial reseller agreement with Unseenlabs, a French company that specializes in the geolocation of ships at sea and a European leader in satellite Radio Frequency (RF) detection from space, to offer its unique, space-collected RF services for maritime surveillance applications to ORBCOMM’s government and commercial Automatic Identification System (AIS) customers. 12)
- Leveraging a dedicated, state-of-the art satellite constellation, Unseenlabs’ RF emissions detection services enable maritime surveillance of “dark” vessels at sea, which turn off their AIS transponders or cooperative beacons to engage in illegal activities and evade authorities. Using its proprietary, on-board RF technology based on the identification of electromagnetic waves emitted by ships, Unseenlabs is able to geolocate any vessel at sea from space, in near-real time and regardless of weather conditions to within a kilometer, from a single nanosatellite. Unseenlabs supplies a wide range of maritime stakeholders with accurate, up-to-date data on vessel positions, using a unique electromagnetic fingerprint, to enable unfalsifiable identification of the emitter and provide significantly enhanced tracking of activities at sea.
- ORBCOMM will distribute Unseenlabs’ value-added RF data, along with ORBCOMM’s industry-leading AIS service, through ORBCOMM’s established government and commercial maritime channels to provide an enhanced picture of vessel activity around the world. Unseenlabs’ data supplements and synergizes with ORBCOMM’s AIS data to take vessel tracking and monitoring to a higher level of reliability and precision. By offering AIS customers the ability to locate and monitor “dark” vessels, ORBCOMM and Unseenlabs can play a valuable role in the fight against unlawful and anti-environmental behavior, such as illegal fishing or dumping of hydrocarbons, to greatly improve the safety and security of the world’s oceans.
- “We are excited to work with Unseenlabs to pursue new opportunities for their space-based maritime surveillance services through our partnerships with maritime information providers as well as our key government customers,” said Greg Flessate, ORBCOMM’s Senior Vice President and General Manager of Government, AIS and Business Operations. “Unseenlabs’ unique RF emission detection technology is a critical tool to identify and report bad actors turning off their AIS devices while engaged in illegal activities at sea such as unregulated fishing, violating trade sanctions, environmental pollution and drug and human trafficking.”
- “ORBCOMM’s leading AIS service is an ideal complement to Unseenlabs’ innovative electromagnetic technology and unmatched coverage, enabling customers to locate and monitor any vessel, anywhere and at any time, even when they have cut their embedded active beacons and have vanished from surveillance screens,” said Clement Galic, Chief Executive Officer and Founder of Unseenlabs. “In partnership with ORBCOMM, we are able to deliver a comprehensive, tamper-proof maritime surveillance service to ORBCOMM’s customers, which is essential in ensuring maritime safety and creating a sustainable future for our oceans.”
- ORBCOMM’s pioneering AIS data service has provided the most comprehensive and reliable global coverage in the market over the last decade. ORBCOMM continues to advance its AIS business by enhancing its satellite AIS service with two new, next-generation AIS CubeSats that feature advanced software defined radio receivers and unique multi-antenna implementation, and are expected to expand coverage of ORBCOMM’s constellation, increase visibility to smaller Class B ships and extend its polar footprint with launches planned within the next year. In addition, ORBCOMM is working with AAC Clyde Space and Saab to develop a next-generation, spaceborne VHF Data Exchange System (VDES) satellite, expected to launch in 2022, which will enhance maritime communications by providing more extensive global coverage and increased bandwidth and versatility.
• March 29, 2021: On March 1st, 2021, Marubeni Corporation of Tokyo, Japan, and Unseenlabs SAS signed a commercial partnership agreement to provide the entire Japanese market with Unseenlabs’ high added-value maritime data. 13)
- In November 2020, Unseenlabs, a French company that specializes in the geolocation of ships at sea, and a European leader in satellite RF detection from space, deployed its constellation dedicated to the geolocation of ships at sea with the launch of two new satellites, BRO-2 and BRO-3. Thanks to its embedded proprietary technology based on the identification of the electromagnetic signal emitted by ships, Unseenlabs is able to geolocate from space any ship at sea, even those whose cooperative beacon is turned off.
- Marubeni is a major Japanese integrated trading and investment business conglomerate that handles products and provides services in a broad range of businesses across wide-ranging fields. Through this commercial partnership agreement, Marubeni aims to provide various commercial support for the Japanese market, including a wide distribution network for Unseenlabs’s maritime data.
- “This agreement with Marubeni fits perfectly with Unseenlabs’ commercial development plan and will enable us to answer many clients’ growing need for a better knowledge of human activities on their waters. We are delighted with this partnership and the great perspectives it opens for us in Japan.”, commented Clément Galic, Cofounder and CEO, Unseenlabs.
- “We are very excited to work with Unseenlabs, to pursue new opportunities for space-based geospatial services in Japan. Through this collaboration, we are confident that our team can offer full support to explore the Japanese market, especially in the national security sector.”, commented Michimoto Asano, General Manager, Aviation, Space and Defense Dept., Marubeni Corporation.
• November 20, 2020: This morning at 3:13 (UTC), Rocket Lab's Electron launch vehicle successfully deployed the BRO-2 and BRO-3 nanosatellites (6U CubeSats) to a sun-synchronous orbit of 500 km altitude. The launch of BRO-2 and BRO-3 marks the beginning of the deployment of the Unseenlabs constellation, which will comprise between 20 and 25 nanosatellites by 2025. 14)
• November 12, 2020: While waiting for the upcoming launch of our two new satellites, here’s an example of what Unseenlabs’ maritime monitoring system can achieve with just our first satellite BRO-1. Unseenlabs’ innovative technology is currently the only one on the market that allows for each satellite to be an independent measurement point. Our three satellites will thus be able to monitor three different areas of interest simultaneously, while guaranteeing the best revisit time available on the RF detection market. 15)
- Over a few weeks we monitored a large fleet operating very close to an EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone), and by crossing our RF data with AIS positions we found that a significant proportion of these ships kept their AIS beacons turned off, most probably to avoid detection while operating in a restricted area ....
Figure 4: Uncover potential illegal activities in South America (image credit: Unseenlabs)
• November 9, 2020: The French company Unseenlabs, a specialist in the geolocation of ships at sea and the European leader in space-based RF satellite detection, announced the signature of a support agreement with the Norwegian company KSAT, the world leader in satellite communication ground services, for the operation of its network of ground stations around the world. 16)
- Thanks to the integration with KSAT, Unseenlabs will now have potential access to all 25 KSAT Ground Station sites, and its entire fleet of 200 satellite dishes, around the world. Subscribing to the KSATLite service will enable Unseenlabs to benefit from high-speed data transmission and thus reduce the delivery time of geolocation data to its customers by a factor of 3.
- Jonathan Galic, co-founder and CTO of Unseenlabs commented: “In addition to the many upcoming Unseenlabs nano-satellite launches that reinforce our constellation for the best revisit time worldwide, this integration with KSAT multiplies our data recovery capabilities on the ground and will also allow us to get the best information age available on the market.”
- ”It’s great to see that our network of ground stations enable our customers to minimize the latency from data is captured at the spacecraft until it is usable for applications on earth” said Kristian Jenssen, Director KSAT Lite “We are looking forward to start supporting and to grow our relations with Unseenlabs”.
Figure 5: Svalbard is the world's largest ground station of KSAT and uniquely located at 78º North. KSAT, Kongsberg Satellite Services, is the market leader in providing communication services between spacecraft and launch vehicles and Earth. Supporting a total of 50,000 satellite passes a month, its extensive global network of over 200 antennas at over 25 global locations, (including Pole to Pole coverage from Antarctica to the Arctic), ensures 24/7, responsive access to satellite telemetry, data, and communications. Furthermore, KSAT provides a variety of products derived from both Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) and high-resolution optical satellite data. The key focus is maritime situational awareness, which includes Near Real-Time (NRT) vessel detection and oil spill monitoring, ice monitoring and land-based services (image credit: KSAT)
• November 3, 2020: The launch of BRO-2 and BRO-31nanosatellites will take place in mid-November at the Rocket Lab launch complex on the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand. 17)
- Unseenlabs' technology is the only one today that allows to geolocate a ship so precisely and quickly from a single nanosatellite. With the launch of BRO-2 and BRO-3, the Unseenlabs constellation will now include three satellites. Each one will be a different measurement point, allowing to monitor 3 different areas of interest simultaneously. The objective over the next five years is to create a constellation of 20 to 25 nanosatellites, which will make it possible to increase the system's responsiveness and the speed at which ships can be tracked.
- Marketed since January 2020, the Unseenlabs service is gaining in identification accuracy with each satellite launch.
Figure 6: Unseenlabs ready to launch a satellite constellation dedicated to ship geolocation (video credit: Unseenlabs) 18)
• August 19, 2020: Today, Unseenlabs celebrates the first anniversary of the BRO-1 launch. 19)
- The name BRO-1 ( Breizh-Recon-Orbiter-1) is a tribute to the Brittany region, but also to the Galic brothers, founders of the company.
- The satellite was injected into its nominal circular orbit with an altitude of 550 km and inclination of 45°, making Unseenlabs the first French privately-owned company to go to space.
- BRO-1 has proven to be operational ever since, successfully gathering and delivering unique data for maritime surveillance.
• June 6, 2020: Five years ago, Jonathan Galic and Clément Galic founded Unseenlabs to bring a new type of data to the maritime surveillance market. 20)
- Last year the company announced the launch of its first satellite dedicated to maritime surveillance from space: Mission BRO-1. In August 2019, Unseenlabs became the first French privately-owned company to go to space. In October 2019, the company launched its commercial service. The first data was delivered to the first clients worldwide.
- In the next two years, Jonathan Galic and Clément Galic want their satellite constellation reinforced to make their maritime surveillance system faster and more precise.
”Unseenlabs accelerates its commercial development and signs a
support agreement with KSAT,” Unseenlabs Press Release, 9
November 2020, URL: https://unseenlabs.space
Jason Rainbow, ”Unseenlabs lines up Vega flight for fourth
maritime surveillance satellite,” SpaceNews, 10 August 2021, URL:
”GomSpace selected by Unseenlabs for the turn-key delivery of a
disruptive spectrum monitoring system,” GomSpace, 20 June 2017,
5) ”Look Ma, No Hands,” Rocket Lab, 19 August 2019, URL: https://www.rocketlabusa.com/missions/completed-missions/to-be-announced/
6) Jeff Foust, ”Rocket Lab Electron launches four smallsats,” SpaceNews, 19 August 2019, URL: https://spacenews.com/rocket-lab-electron-launches-four-smallsats/
7) ”Return to Sender - Mission Overview,” Rocket Lab, 20 November, URL: https://www.rocketlabusa.com/missions/completed-missions/flight-16/
8) ”Return to Sender Press Kit,” Rocket Lab, November 2020, URL: https://www.rocketlabusa.com/assets/Uploads/Return-to-Sender-Press-Kit-RL-Final3.pdf
”Unseenlabs announces the launch of nano-satellites BRO-2 and
BRO-3 and the deployment of the constellation dedicated to the
geolocation of ships at sea,” Unseenlabs Press Release, 3
November 2020, URL: https://unseenlabs.space/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/
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11) ”Vega launches Pléiades Neo and CubeSats,” ESA Enabling & Support, 17 August 2021, URL: https://www.esa.int/Enabling_Support/Space_Transportation
”Unseenlabs Partners With ORBCOMM to Provide Maritime
Surveillance Service for Government and Commercial AIS
Customers,” ORBCOMM News, 20 May 2021, URL: https://www.orbcomm.com/de/company-investors/news/2021/
”Commercial Partnership Agreement between Marubeni and Unseenlabs
for the Japanese Market,” Unseenlabs, Marubeni, 29 March 2021,
”Successful entry into orbit for BRO-2 and BRO-3, the two
nanosatellites of the French start-up Unseenlabs,” Unseenlabs
Press Release, 20 November 2020, URL: https://unseenlabs.space
15) ”Unseenlabs Operational Use Case,” Unseenlabs, 12 November 2020, URL: https://unseenlabs.space/2020/11/12/unseenlabs-operational-use-case/
16) ”Unseenlabs accelerates its commercial development,” Unseenlabs Press Release, 9 November 2020, URL: https://unseenlabs.space/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/Press-release_UnseenLabs-x-KSAT-1.pdf
”Unseenlabs announces the launch of nanosatellites BRO-2 and
BRO-3 and the deployment of the constellation dedicated to the
geolocation of ships at sea,” Unseenlabs Press Release, 3
November 2020, URL: https://unseenlabs.space/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/
18) ”Unseenlabs - operation constellation,” 2November 2020, URL: https://unseenlabs.space/2020/11/02/unseenlabs-operation-constellation/
19) ”BRO-1 first anniversary,” Unseenlabs, 19 August 2020, URL: https://unseenlabs.space
20) ”Unseenlabs celebrates its 5th anniversary!,” Unseenlabs, 6 June 2020, URL: https://unseenlabs.space/2020/06/06/unseenlabs-celebrates-its-5th-anniversary/
The information compiled and edited in this article was provided by Herbert J. Kramer from his documentation of: ”Observation of the Earth and Its Environment: Survey of Missions and Sensors” (Springer Verlag) as well as many other sources after the publication of the 4th edition in 2002. - Comments and corrections to this article are always welcome for further updates (firstname.lastname@example.org).