Nanosatellites to the rescue for maritime patrol operations?


The SA Air Force’s (SAAF’s) 35 Squadron has the motto “Shaya Amanzi” (Strike the Water) in tribute to its major role – maritime patrol and surveillance.

Sadly, the general malaise befalling the South Africa armed forces has ensured the AFB Ysterplaat-based unit is flying 70-year-old aircraft, albeit modified ones. With acquisition a dream not to be realised in the foreseeable future, replacement of the C-47TPs will remain a wish list item. Some years ago the air force had a look at the C295 as a potential replacement for the venerable “Turbo Daks”. No money meant no new aircraft and so 35 Squadron “soldiers” on with, according to reliable sources, currently only two airworthy aircraft.

Maybe it’s time Defence and Military Veterans Minister, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, had a closer look at what her science and technology Cabinet colleague is doing in the maritime domain awareness (MDA) field. Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane’s department will invest R27 million over the next three years in the MDA satellite programme which has to date seen the successful launch of the ZACube-2 nanosatellite.

The satellite carries an automatic identification system (AIS) payload for monitoring the movement of ships along the South African coastline. Additionally, it will help monitor veld fires, providing near real-time information to ensure faster response by disaster management and firefighters.

According to the Department of Science and Technology (DST) ZACube-2 is a demonstrator for the technology that will ultimately be used in a constellation of nine nanosatellites to facilitate South African maritime domain awareness.  The MDASat constellation will provide cutting-edge data exchange systems for the maritime industry in support of Operation Phakisa, government’s oceans economy initiative.

Also in Kubayi-Ngubane’s stable is the CSIR where the SeaFar system, another MDA tool, is working. It takes AIS (automatic identification), VMS (vessel monitoring system) and other information the fisheries section of the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) uses to provide information on suspicious vessels in South African waters. These include those dumping pollution as well as illegal fishing.

South African has an exclusive economic zone in excess of 1.5 million square kilometres. This has to be protected by a small fleet of DAFF vessels with limited support from the air force and the SA Navy.

“DAFF’s fleet is tiny,” defence analyst Darren Olivier points out. “It’s not only expected to chase suspect foreign ships in South African waters but also has to conduct routine patrols and inspections of registered local fishing ships to ensure they’re not cheating, that their VMSs are accurately reporting and haven’t been tampered with and so on. It’s a huge task!”

The use of technology such as satellites and SeaFar appears to have been taken onboard by the defence minister.

“We (the SANDF) have reached a point where we believe we should not be moaning about the number of companies, the number of warm bodies on the borderline. We should now look at innovative ways, look at technology. For instance, South Africa is a big producer of unmanned aerial vehicles and we are now looking into that,” she said at a weekend news conference in Johannesburg. She was responding to questions on safeguarding South Africa’s land borders.