MAST iconMaritime Archaeology Sea Trust

Press release: Historic England harnesses satellite technology

In the 50th year of the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973, Historic England has been looking to the future of heritage protection at sea. Shipwreck sites located offshore are particularly difficult to monitor. Historic England has been working with the Maritime Archaeology Sea Trust and OceanMind to explore the potential of satellite technology to monitor sites at risk of uncontrolled salvage and other potentially damaging activity.

This summer they funded the Maritime Observatory to undertake a pilot project to monitor historic wreck sites in the Goodwin Sands, the renowned “ship swallower”, off the east coast of the UK and also in Poole Bay on the south coast. Both areas are rich in history.

The Observatory, a partnership between the Maritime Archaeology Sea Trust (MAST) and OceanMind, conducted a historical risk assessment of the year 2022 using a combination of advanced satellite technologies, artificial intelligence (AI), opensource intelligence data and investigations into vessel identities using multiple databases, to understand vessel behaviour and associated risks.

On the Goodwin Sands, activity was assessed around seven shipwrecks, including the Northumberland, & Restoration, both lost during the Great Storm of 1703, and the Dutch East India Company (VOC) ship Rooswijk, lost during a storm in January 1740.

The Poole Bay study area comprised three protected wrecks, the 13th century Mortar Wreck, the 16th century Studland Bay Wreck and the Swash Channel wreck, believed to be the 17th century Dutch Armed merchantman Fame. The assemblage of seven Valentine Tanks lost during Exercise Smash in 1944, and now Scheduled Monuments, were also assessed as part of the project.

Heatmaps over the two Areas of Interest

Thumbnail - Poole Bay Wrecks Map
Thumbnail - Goodwin Sands Wrecks Map

How the Observatory works

Whilst OceanMind uses its analytical power and AI to identify irregular patterns in vessel activities, cross-referencing with thousands of rules, regulations and records to identify signs of suspicious activity, their finds create alerts for MAST's maritime heritage experts to investigate the issue in more detail, tapping into its specialist knowledge of wreck sites, known salvage players and robust intelligence networks. The teams' combined unbiased intelligence is then provided to the relevant authorities and law enforcement bodies to action.

What systems we used

The Observatory uses vessel Automatic Identification (AIS), a maritime identity and collision avoidance system. However, as AIS is not tamper-proof - it can be turned-off to hide activity - other technologies are used to detect these 'dark' activities: electro optical (EO) satellite imagery to monitor activity conducted without transmissions, and, during times of cloud cover, Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) imagery.

What we found

In Poole Bay a local boat skipper reported that one of the Valentine tanks was badly damaged between September and October last year. The damaged tank had been the last of the 7 with its turret intact. As a result of the damage the tanks were added to Historic England's Heritage at Risk Register, and archaeologists from Bournemouth University were commissioned to undertake work to mitigate the damage. The results of the project undertaken by the Observatory will be used to inform the ongoing Police investigation. In Poole Bay as a whole, the remote sensing analysis showed that not all vessels transmit on AIS. Vessels on AIS were observed peaking in July and August. But the total number of vessels operating is likely higher due to the 'dark' vessels the Observatory logged in both EO and SAR.

In the Goodwin Sands wrecks are thought to be at risk from unauthorised salvage and fishing damage. In total 4 vessels were responsible for 7 incidents that were assessed by the Observatory as high-risk. This represents 0.5% of the 801 vessels detected.

This project shows just how innovative technology has become. Perpetrators now know they are being watched.