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Radar satellite deal to spot oil spills and illegal fishing

Illegal fishing boats can be detected by satellite Shutterstock/Richard Whitcombe
Illegal fishing boats can be detected by the radar satellite systems Iceye is launching in the UAE
  • Agreement for 5 satellites
  • Able to scan 10 sq km at a time
  • First to launch in 2024

A partnership between Finnish radar satellite company Iceye and two Emirati space industry operators could be used for a range of services, such as preventing oil slicks, clamping down on illegal fishing and monitoring coastal changes.

Iceye in May signed an agreement with Abu Dhabi satellite operator Yahsat and artificial intelligence and cloud computing company Bayanat to create what they describe as a constellation of at least five low Earth orbit satellites.

Unlike conventional optical satellites, Iceye’s are based on synthetic aperture radar (SAR) technology. This can take images in all local conditions including at night and through clouds and fog. The satellites create high-resolution images by beaming radar signals to earth, which are reflected back.

In the Gulf, such technology is ideal for identifying and quantifying oil slicks, assessing illegal fishing, and monitoring landscapes and seascapes over time. Iceye says a single satellite can scan up to 10,000 sq km in a single sweep.

An estimated 150,000 tonnes of crude are spilled into the sea annually, which is the equivalent 65 Olympic swimming pools of oil, according to Iceye.

Oil slicks alter the radar’s reflected signal, showing that crude is present on the sea’s surface, so Iceye can spot even small spills; most are less than seven tonnes, said Jamil Kawar, Iceye’s vice-president of missions in the Middle East and North Africa.

“We can be very quick to respond, especially when we’re looking at specific areas,” he added, noting oil companies hire Iceye to monitor offshore drilling in order to alert them to any spills.

Iceye’s main business in the Gulf is what it describes as “missions”, in which the company builds a fleet of satellites for a buyer, rather than providing ad hoc services to a particular customer. This is the form the Bayanat-Yahsat partnership takes.

“It’s the biggest mission sale within the SAR industry ever … so it’s putting them straight up in the top leads within the SAR industry,” Kawar said.

The first of this partnership’s satellites will launch in early 2024 as part of what the companies hope will create national satellite remote sensing and earth observation capabilities in the UAE. The five satellites will be launched over a period of about three years.

Iceye provides what it calls a “turnkey solution”: it designs, builds and launches satellites on behalf of a buyer who then – after extensive training – assumes ownership and control of the equipment. Similarly, Iceye will set up the ground stations from which the buyer operates the satellites.

“From there, you can then download your data and you can use it as you wish,” said Kawar.

Abu Dhabi sovereign fund Mubadala is the majority owner of both Yahsat and and Bayanat, the latter through its subsidiary G42.

According to Yahsat, annual revenue from remote sensing data – largely via conventional and SAR satellites – will reach $400 million in the Mena region by 2027, $100 million of which will be generated by customers in the UAE alone.

Creating an industry

“The plan is to generate an industry,” said Kawar. “So, from their own missions they can sell data to other departments, ministries, whatever it might be internally or equally to other (countries) within the region.”

The partnership with Bayanat and Yahsat will create skilled, high-tech jobs for Emiratis and ultimately should lead to SAR satellites being manufactured in the UAE, he said.

“By using their own constellation of satellites, they then have the downstream opportunity to develop their own use cases, their own solutions, to sell from the Middle East to the Middle East,” said Kawar.