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October 1, 2003

New Thales system solves maritime security headacheThales TRACS-SSAS

The SSAS (Ships Security Alert System) specifications have been created by the International Maritime Organization to help protect seafarers and their vessels against piracy and acts of terrorism. Between July and December 2004 all SOLAS registered vessels must be fitted with a SSAS unit that automatically transmits an alarm message via Inmarsat-C from anywhere in the world when a button is pressed.

Once activated, the SSAS unit will continue to transmit the vessel's GPS location so that it can be tracked and, hopefully, intercepted by the security authorities.

The Tracs-Ships' Security Alert System (SSAS) launched by Thales Navigation Ltd. is based on a well-proven Thales Inmarsat-C tracking unit that has been refined to exceed the IMO specifications for SSAS units. As a result, the Tracs-SSAS introduces a unique feature that can provide land-based security organizations with ship movement information that has been unobtainable until now.

The Thales Tracs-SSAS exceeds the IMO specifications by tracking and storing the vessel's location continuously, regardless of whether an alarm button has been pressed. As with conventional SSAS units, the vessel location information will only be transmitted to the designated authority when it has been activated. However, the stored information can be called-up and made available to the shipping company for its own management purposes and, more significantly, it can also be called-up by a Coast Guard or security organisation wanting to verify the ship's port of origin.

The Tracs-SSAS unit functions continuously without any operator input and maintains a continuous record of the ship's position and speed for up to two years. The download facility now means that a port authority can check the previous activity of a visiting ship without requiring any input from its crew or even their knowledge that it is happening. This information has not been available to port authorities until now even though it is regarded as being crucial to verifying the security status of a visiting ship. Deviations from predicted route, unusual changes in speed and other forms of erratic behavior revealed by the data will draw the attention of the interrogating security authority and highlight the ship as a target for closer investigation.

Although considerable emphasis is being placed upon the introduction of the Automatic Identification System (AIS) by the end of 2004, its usefulness for national security purposes may be more limited than often supposed. Designed as an anti-collision device, the AIS does not contain any record of the ship's movements prior to its activation by another interrogating AIS unit. The AIS may declare a port of origin but this could be difficult to verify and give no indication of the route taken after departure.

Until now, the only equipment capable of providing a record of sailing activity has been the Voyage Data Recorder. These installations are becoming widely used with the installation timetable due for completion at the beginning of 2004. They store very large amounts of data relating to all aspects of the ship's operation. And while some models offer the capability of remote data downloading for in-house management or training purposes, the volume of information supplied far exceeds the requirements of a port security officer.

The Tracs-SSAS is most likely to be used in conjunction with the ship's AIS which will provide the first contact with the port's shore-based security. The identification data provided by the AIS will enable the port controllers to decide whether additional information is required from the ship and to download route data from the Tracs-SSAS if necessary.

The Thales Tracs-SatC unit that forms the basis of the new SSAS is already well proven, being widely used around the world for military use and for monitoring fishing fleets subject to Economic Exclusion Zone (EEZ) management. Compact and suitable for covert installation, it is contained within a robust tamper proof housing. By offering two way text and data communication it is suitable for users seeking the economy of SSAS capability plus a conventional global asset tracking and fleet management capability in a single unit.

When the Tracs-SSAS is activated by an alarm button, it will transmit the vessel's identification, GPS position, speed and heading. In standard tracking mode numerous additional reports can be produced that include maximum speed measured, vessel performance figures and details of any zone violations. Zones can be defined by the control centre so that an alarm is sounded if the vessel deviates significantly off route, as might occur in a hijacking, or if it enters a prohibited EEZ. The IMO requirement for the covert installation of two alarm buttons can also be supplemented by wireless key fob buttons that can be carried by ships' personnel and used to activate the alarm from anywhere on the vessel. A wireless version can also be used to relay email messages to the user and to enable the transfer of specific information such as catch reporting details for fishing vessels.