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Gov’t developing system to detect suspicious ships with AI technology

The government has begun developing technology to use artificial intelligence (AI) to detect suspicious ships. This is aimed at reinforcing maritime surveillance capabilities in waters surrounding Japan in order to monitor North Korea’s ship-to-ship transfer of goods in international waters, for instance. The goal is to start test operations by the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) by FY21.


The government is developing a system to analyze data from radio waves emitted automatically by the automatic identification systems (AIS) installed on most ships. AI will be developed to learn comprehensive data on the positions and speeds of ships, the direction their bows are pointing, and so forth, thus automatically detecting ships that are deviating significantly from normal routes, cruising in the opposition direction, or otherwise behaving abnormally.


The SDF will check such data against data from surveillance radars to identify suspicious ships to alert destroyers, reconnaissance planes, and others to start surveillance and monitoring. Information on suspicious ships will also be shared with the Japan Coast Guard (JCG) and other relevant government offices to enable speedy response.


Technical design for this system started last June after the Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics Agency signed a contract with Hitachi, Ltd., which possesses such AI technology. The plan is to establish the technology in three years. In the future, additional data, such as track charts captured by artificial satellites, will also be included in analysis to improve detection capability to deal with suspicious ships switching off their AIS temporarily.


There has been rampant smuggling of petroleum products by North Korea through ship-to-ship transfer in the East China Sea. Chinese government ships and fishing boats have been intruding into waters near the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa, and a South Korean marine research ship was suspected of conducting unauthorized survey activities in Japan’s territorial waters near Takeshima, Shimane Prefecture, on Aug. 1-2.


The AI system for detecting suspicious ships will supplement the SDF’s and the JCG’s surveillance using ships and aircraft. It is hoped that this will facilitate efficient monitoring of the vast waters surrounding Japan.


It its Third Basic Plan on Ocean Policy drawn up in May, the government called for enhancing the capability to “accurately grasp the maritime situation,” which includes maritime surveillance. It intends to introduce new technology, such as upgrading the radar systems installed on artificial satellites, to strengthen maritime surveillance capabilities.

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