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Wireless Tracking System Prevents Terrorism at Sea

Wireless Tracking System Prevents Terrorism at Sea

It could help improve the safety of vessels at sea. It could help with fighting terrorism. Doug Cline is a man with a mission: to introduce wireless vessel tracking to the maritime world. Here WBT talks to Cline and his associates on the Foresight Project and learns that, while it may seem pretty straightforward technically, there are major political roadblocks ahead.

Off the southern coast of the Arabian Peninsula, an unidentified freighter slows to minimum control speed and lowers a ladder as a supply boat pulls alongside. Despite the inky blackness, no lights are used as a shipboard hoist lowers a cable and returns a rectangular crate into the waiting hands of a work gang on the darkened deck. It has already disappeared below before three men make their way up the ladder and hurry aft. Within minutes, the ship has accelerated back up to speed and continues its journey through Singapore and on to Los Angeles with its legitimate cargo of manufactured goods. But now its voyage has assumed a whole new purpose not suspected by its owners.

Nearly a month later, the ship approaches the California coast, aware that the chances of being searched by the greatly overtaxed U.S. Coast Guard are extremely low with so many incoming ships and so few inspection cutters. Surprisingly though, the ship is hailed by an approaching Coast Guard vessel well before sight of land, and instructed to heave to for boarding. Still, the captain is confident that even if he has been so unlucky as to draw a random search, it will be nearly impossible for the inspection team to take the time necessary to ferret out the illicit cargo now safely hidden behind the massive crates of industrial cargo in the main hold.

Thus he is more than willing to muster all of the crew for processing on the quarterdeck ­ including the three falsely documented imposters. But his cooperation turns to outrage as he is presented with a notice of seizure, and well-armed boarders confine all ship personnel. They inform the bewildered captain that they know all about his brief stop in the Red Sea, but that he can improve his situation by confirming details. As more U.S. military vessels arrive and provide additional search and law enforcement personnel, it is only a matter of time before the dangerous cargo is found and the three stowaways identified.

With no way out, the captain confesses that he was bribed to smuggle in a shipment of drugs and some refugees seeking political asylum in the U.S. So he is understandably horrified when informed that the crate holds a nuclear device, not drugs, and that his imposters are known terrorists.

The Technology Is There
A fictional account? Possibly, but one that could become a reality in the near future if the wireless vessel tracking system proposed by the Foresight Project is implemented. Doug Cline, general partner of the project, explains that the system utilizes existing position and communications equipment already required by international treaty to be carried by all ships over 300 tons.

"GMDSS (Global Maritime Distress and Safety System) depends on ships being able to send GPS position and velocity data over INMARSAT (International Maritime Satellite) channels in case of emergency," he says. "Foresight proposes to simply incorporate software controls that trigger the transmission of these reports automatically whenever the heading or speed of the vessel changes appreciably. That lowers the cost and channel loading immensely while providing a remote tracking center with a complete picture of the ship's movements. Then our monitoring software analyzes these received reports to determine if boarding opportunities have occurred."

It sounds pretty simple ­ and in many ways it is ­ but Cline and his associates have spent over a year and a half refining the approach to use very low data rate channels and have filed some strong patent claims on their technology. "In these times of mega-and-gigabit per second transmission rates," he quips, "referring to this as 'wireless technology' is a bit like going to a Porsche rally with a horse and buggy and asking to be entered as a sports car. But we need to be able to use transmission rates as low as 600bps (INMARSAT C) because so many smaller vessels use much cheaper, lower power consuming units and can mount their non-gimbaled, hemispherical antennas." (Much higher rate INMARSAT channels are available on larger ships.)

Political Roadblocks Ahead
While it may seem pretty straightforward technically, there are major political roadblocks to surmount. But Cline appears pretty realistic about these. "Since the GMDSS implementation many years ago, it has always been possible to poll (interrogate) a ship automatically and frequently so that we can know exactly where it is. But there are two major hurdles to such polling reports: first, ship owners are reluctant to participate since they don't want authorities to know too much about their comings and goings; and second, the cost of communication over the INMARSAT network to frequently poll each ship is very significant."

At about a nickel per INMARSAT transmission, it adds up to several thousand dollars per year with no perceptible direct benefit to the user. In fact, seagoing nations and littoral states (those with borders on oceans) are always at odds over maritime issues like trash dumping, bilge pumping, and costly safety requirements. Some countries always seem to be trying to add more regulations and costs while others are resisting such increased control and expense. Even an agreement on clearly promising new technologies with significant benefits like the anticollision system known as UAIS (Universal Automatic Identification System) can take more than a decade to gain.

"The history of the sea has been one of great independence and autonomy," says Cline. "Ship captains are already chafing under the greatly increased oversight and direction from the home office made possible by satellite navigation and communication technology ­ and that is only inside their companies. Why would any commercial vessel voluntarily pay so that some destination country can know where they've been?"

New Reasons to Monitor the Sea
Maybe we now know why: September 11 created numerous changes for the maritime world as well as for the aviation world. Suddenly, the fears of a few "fringe" authorities who had worried for years over the vulnerability of American ports to terrorist infiltration or attack became mainstream. Overnight, barges were moored next to high-rise buildings bordering harbors as a defense against vessel-borne bombs, and much more restrictive procedures were put into force for entering vessels. The Coast Guard, which had for years faced continuous budget reductions and the requirement to do the same (or more) with less, was immediately charged with carrying out a new doctrine of "Maritime Domain Awareness" (knowing where everything and everybody is within 200 miles of the U.S. coastline).

All at once, everybody became aware that there were far too few Coast Guard cutters and personnel to interdict, board, and inspect even highly suspicious vessels ­ much less conduct enough random routine inspections to assure any semblance of coverage. Homeland Defense authorities need new methods and processes if they are to have any hope of keeping up with the inflow of traffic while operating under the imposed requirements for greater caution and security.

Cline believes Foresight's continuous vessel tracking offers the opportunity for huge improvement. "Of course no terrorist vessel is going to knowingly carry a beacon around with it all the time ­ and that's what Foresight really is," he explains. "However, by providing U.S. authorities with a verifiable track for all Œhonest merchants' ­ including the assurance that they had not made any unknown stops along the way ­ our law enforcement resources could be released to interdict and inspect those vessels whose tracks were not available."

He contends that the vast majority of vessel owners would quickly agree to provide this position tracking if they were offered a significant cost-saving opportunity easily available from the Coast Guard: "Head-of-Line" privileges for port clearance procedures ahead of nonparticipants. "I'm told that it costs in excess of $25,000 per day for a ship to swing at anchor awaiting clearance for entry into port," he says. "If the tracking service costs $200 or so per month per ship, the owner will recoup costs many times over through expedited clearance, while the Coast Guard is unburdened at the same time."

Moreover, Cline maintains that implementation would be relatively easy, and his confidence is borne of experience with commercial airline fleets. Prior to the Foresight Project, he spent a career in aerospace and has served as the president of three successful aviation electronics companies, most recently for seven years as the president of Sony's in-flight electronics subsidiary (sold to Rockwell Collins in 2000).

"You would need to work with existing GMDSS equipment manufacturers to modify a stock of units for exchange with incoming ships, then use field teams in major ports to replace the old units as they arrived in port," says Cline. "My teams have carried out dozens of similar types of programs for incoming commercial airliners within much tighter time and control constraints. You ought to be able to equip and track nearly the entire merchant fleet less than one year from the first installation."

A Personal Passion
The Foresight Project grew out of Cline's hobby following retirement from Sony. He began sailing again, something he had not actively pursued since childhood, and soon heard a story of a Newport Beach, California, family whose cruising sailboat had been run over by a merchant ship at night off the coast of New Zealand. Three of the four family members were killed, including two young children.

Cline was so troubled by the story that he began to pursue technical avenues to prevent such tragedies. He settled on communicating GPS positions over INMARSAT satellites to a central tracking and alerting facility. Over the next couple of years, he formed the Foresight Project and, in working through operational and economic issues, he moved the approach toward a commercial vessel-tracking service (with a side benefit of collision avoidance). He began contacting port authorities and shipping companies promoting the service. Then came September 11, 2001.

All at once, the opportunity to know, at all times, precisely where commercial vessels were and how they were maneuvering, took on immense new significance. With all of the physical assets already in place, there was an opportunity to move quickly to gain vital information from incoming ships. It seemed as if the defense establishment would immediately seize the approach.

Indeed, Cline says he received a strong positive response from each operational Coast Guard officer he briefed on the technology. But he also readily admits that gaining entry into the higher levels of the Homeland Defense organization has proven much more challenging. "You have to remember that defense authorities are currently being deluged by major defense companies with massively complex and sophisticated system proposals with huge price tags," he says, "and decision-makers are spending long hours just trying to assess those.

"Despite Foresight's substantially higher benefit/cost ratio, it is still a tiny program compared to most others they are looking at, so it's pretty challenging to get senior management consideration. But we continue to bang on every door and pursue every lead because we really believe this is a simple answer that would greatly increase the security of American ports.

"After all," he says grimly, "wouldn't it be a lot better if we really did intercept that terrorist or nuclear bomb-carrying freighter a hundred miles out at sea rather than let it slip into our harbor unimpeded?"

SIDEBAR:
Innovator Profile
J. Douglas Cline has spent a career in and around airplanes. Upon graduation from UCLA's engineering school in 1966, he joined the U.S. Navy as a bombardier-navigator in A6 Intruder aircraft, serving in both Vietnam and the Middle East. After leaving the Navy, he obtained an MBA from the University of California at Irvine in 1975 and joined a small aviation electronics manufacturer, Global Navigation Inc., becoming president three years later. He left in 1986 to found the Cline Corporation, a manufacturer of airborne communications security systems. After selling that company in 1990, he joined Sony Corporation's aviation electronics subsidiary, Sony Trans Com Inc., and served as its president from 1993 until its sale in 2000. He holds patents in aviation information and encryption systems.

More Stories By Robert Diamond

Robert Diamond is the founder and editor-in-chief of BroadwayWorld.com, the premiere theater site on the net now receiving over 100,000 unique visitors a day. He is also the owner of Wisdom Digital Media - a leading designer of entertainment and technology web sites. He is also the lead producer on BroadwayWorld.com's consistently sold-out Joe's Pub concert series, and Standing Ovations benefit concerts. Diamond was also named one of the "Top thirty magazine industry executives under the age of 30" by Folio magazine. Robert holds a BS degree in information management and technology from the School of Information Studies at Syracuse University. Visit his blog at www.robertdiamond.com.

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