The start-up detects smugglers, illegal fishing and clandestine meetings at sea
A Kiwi startup helps monitor the Pacific Ocean for signs of human and drug trafficking, illegal fishing and clandestine meetings at sea.
Most New Zealanders will never have heard of Xerra, but it has 26 employees working remotely across the country and a low-key office in Alexandra that’s usually occupied by a few staff.
The company’s product, Starboard Maritime Intelligence, uses satellite data to identify suspicious vessel behavior at sea, catalogs it and automatically reports it to law enforcement agencies.
If a ship appears to encounter another, a red flag signals this to analysts. If it appears to be fishing, it is given a pink flag, any missing movement data from an off transponder is marked with a dotted line, and any wandering vessels are marked in gray.
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Andy Hovey, head of product and design at Xerra, said this information dramatically reduces the time it takes for agencies to detect suspicious behavior.
Established in 2017 with funding from the Department of Business, Innovation and Employment, Xerra now counts among its clients the Department of Primary Industries (MPI), New Zealand Customs, the Australian Fisheries and the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency.
Hovey said Starboard has undoubtedly created some exciting work stories, but sadly its users keep them quiet.
“It’s one of those things where we’d like to tell you these really exciting stories of crazy things that happen on the high seas, but for obvious reasons most of the things our customers do, like customs or MPI in the fishing space, it kind of stays in that information realm,” he said.
“They don’t necessarily want to publish how things are done.”
Hovey said that even if a ship turned off its automatic information system transponder, it could still be tracked via the radio frequencies of its navigational radar.
Another detection method used satellites that could beam energy back to Earth and tell if a ship was in the area by the way the energy was reflected back to the satellite.
Hovey said discussions were underway with Maritime New Zealand to see how its technology could be used at its rescue coordination centre.
“Where it is used in search and rescue is to identify where the last message was last sent from a vessel, then they look at vessels in the area and determine who is closest and if they can send a ship to the event,” Hovey says.
Starboard could also report ships from foreign ports that may be carrying invasive pests, even if those ships left that information off their documents.
“It looks at whether a vessel has been in risk areas during risk times and possibly caught a gypsy moth or brown marmorated stink bugs – those are the two insects we are reporting at the moment.”
Any vessel identified as high risk will be subject to further inspection by MPI.
“There have been several instances where a port visit was intentionally or mistakenly unreported.”
The system could also detect vessels entering marine protected areas.
Hovey said the company has focused on the Pacific Ocean, but hopes to expand globally.
Heather Deacon, Xerra’s business development manager, said the company’s original name was the Center for Space Science Technology, but the company has refocused on using Earth observation data.
The company’s majority shareholder is the Space Science Technology Trust, whose mission was to use dividends or returns to reinvest in science, technology, engineering, and math programs.