Satellites and Transportation


On March 23, 2021, the Ever Given, one of the world’s largest container ships, wedged its bow into the banks of the Suez Canal, choking a major global shipping route for the following six days, eleven hours, and twenty minutes and ultimately delaying some 800 cargo vessels; this brought factories in far-flung countries and global commerce – depending on the just-in-time arrival of fuel, raw materials, parts, and goods – to a grinding halt. News reports and comments treated this as an indictment of a globalist production system with global dependencies, too dependent on a supply system driven by vulnerable transportation and information technologies. But at the same time, it showcases the importance of an international transportation system that transformed global economies and is unimaginable without sophisticated Earth Observation Systems: Satellites for weather forecasting and monitoring; GPS for navigation and route planning; vessel location and tracking systems like TimeCaster™ that allow precise status monitoring and prediction of arrival times.

The value of such a global transportation system is immense – the annual volume carried by oceangoing cargo vessels exceeds 11 billion tons. The Ever Given alone was carrying over 20,000 containers with nearly a billion dollars worth of goods – and using Just-in-time (JIT) management saves manufacturers and retailers billions in expenses for warehousing and inventory management. Satellite-based services like TimeCaster are crucial to keeping this tightly scheduled global supply chain moving; using the data from Automatic Information Systems (AIS), which are mandatory for all seagoing vessels, these services can track and forecast individual ship movements and can even assist in rerouting to avoid bottlenecks, like the one created by the Ever Given.

At its inception in the early days of the 21st century, AIS was conceived merely as a collision-avoidance system: The ship-based VHF transceivers broadcast an identification signal that would allow other vessels in the vicinity to alert others to their presence. But VHF signals have a horizontal range of only 20 nautical miles (37 kilometers), due to the curvature of the Earth’s surface and depending on the height of the deck where the transceiver is mounted. Yet it travels easily up into space, where it can be picked up by low earth orbit satellites; starting in 2009, a number of public and private operators, like ORBCOMM, SpaceQuest, and exactEarth, began launching satellite-based automatic identifier systems (S-AIS) that were capable of locating, processing, and tracking the signals of the tens of thousands of vessels broadcasting their signals simultaneously.

With this increased situational awareness through S-AIS, autonomous cargo shipping has become a foreseeable option for the oceangoing traffic; the challenge here is not only knowing where a vessel is at any given time but also where it will be in the near future: Any vessel must be able to stop within 20 ship lengths – for a super-freighter like the Ever Given, this translates to eight kilometers and a “reaction time” at full speed of more than ten minutes. That latency in reaction time does not leave much room for human error, especially in the densely traveled major international shipping lanes. It was human error that ran the Ever Given aground.

Satellite technology also transforms how we move on land:

GPS is now ubiquitous; every smartphone and almost every vehicle can access location information. Shipping companies can locate and track any of their trucks, any container, anywhere, which – again – makes JIT viable. GPS is reassuring for everyday drivers who will not only find the fastest way to any destination that they desire but also be alerted of traffic jams and re-routings for construction along the way; it is fair to say that GPS is the linchpin for the gig economy, allowing anyone with a car and a smartphone to offer their services, driving for Lyft or Uber, delivering Pizza or groceries, and thus turning private vehicles into a crucial transportation tool for entire economies.

GPS started as a military project but has been opened up for civilian use in the early 1990s. The current network of 31 satellites provides a location resolution of approximately 15 meters, but enhancement algorithms can boost the accuracy to three meters. It is thanks to this high resolution that urban bike and scooter sharing projects liberate their users from returning these individual transportation devices at fixed stations – which often would defeat the purpose of using these devices in the first place when the station is too far from the actual destination; these point-to-point bike and scooter services like Lime or VOI could eventually fill a critical gap between the environmentally responsible use of public transportation and the inevitable need for point-to-point mobility systems.

High resolution GPS signals will also be instrumental in autonomous driving:

The location information is accurate enough to determine the lane in which a car is traveling. Optical sensors and Lidar sensing may be indispensable to equip autonomous vehicles with the necessary situational awareness that will be fundamental for accurate Level 5 (= fully autonomous) car mobility – but without the larger context and the route-planning abilities afforded by GPS, and supported by accurate and up-to-date mapping, which is yet another application of satellite technology, these Level 5 cars would be limited to cruising their well-known (and programmable) neighborhoods.

The first autonomous road vehicles might not carry passengers. Still, goods – autonomous trucks, traveling driverless on highways, and delivering goods and products at a much faster clip (no driver breaks needed), are already being designed and tested. And unlike passenger cars, they might not have to negotiate crowded and chaotic inner-city street networks, but rather carry their loads long-distance between designated transfer stations, where the cargo is offloaded to smaller (and possibly still human-driven) delivery systems – systems like the surface-bound robots or airborne drones that Amazon and other large retailers are developing.

Controlling these unmanned aerial delivery drones, which are already being tested, poses a far more complex problem than autonomous driving: surface-bound vehicles only move in two dimensions and will not inevitably crash when they stall. Air space is already tightly controlled and managed; a control system called Unmanned Aircraft System Traffic Management (UTM), is already being developed by organizations like Airbus and NASA; a first field test had been conducted in Manchester (England) in 2018. Unlike typical government-run Air Traffic Management (ATM) systems, which rely on personal interaction between pilots and human Air Traffic Controllers, the UTM system will use a decentralized approach, and commercial and government entities throughout the world plan to contribute to this global system. This UTM system needs to provide specific situational awareness for autonomously moving aerial vehicles ¬ – and at the same time mesh with the existing ATM systems to ensure the safety of “normal” aviation, where even small incidents can have fatal consequences.

So whether they are flying, like airplanes and aerial drones; driving, like cars and trucks; or floating, like freighters carrying the goods of the global trade; whether they are controlled by people or moving autonomously; whether they are transporting cargo or people – modern transportation systems are practically unimaginable without the support of satellite navigation systems, their usefulness closely tied to satellite systems that are monitoring and tracking vessels and cargo, and their safety ensured by satellite-based weather monitoring and forecasting.