When you can only see as far as the horizon, it’s easy to overlook what’s happening beyond it.

For a ship’s captain, the horizon might as well be the edge of the Earth – when in fact, at any given time, hundreds of thousands of ships’ captains are sailing the world’s seas.

To see them all, you have to go up – way up. That’s where you’ll find technology from a Cambridge, Ont. company called exactEarth, circling the globe on eight satellites the size of beer fridges, tracking as much of the world’s marine traffic as it can.

exactEarth’s Satellite-Automatic Identification System (S-AIS) provides full maritime surveillance, helping more than 150 government agencies in 47 countries manage:

  • Environmental monitoring such as oil slicks and bilge water spills
  • Anti-piracy and anti-terrorism efforts
  • Customs and immigration monitoring, including the prevention of disease spreading
  • Illegal fishing
  • Logistics
  • Vessels in remote areas such as the Arctic
  • Vessels with engine failure, which cost ports a lot of money if stranded

“It’s been amazing as to how many countries have no idea what vessels were in their economic zones,” says Peter Mabson, President of exactEarth. “They didn’t know because they had no way to know.”

Shipping is a huge industry that few of us see, but exactEarth’s eyes in the sky do.

“There’s about $12 trillion worth of goods a year [shipped] on about $300 billion in vessels,” Mabson says.

And exactEarth is now processing seven million messages a day and relaying them in real-time thanks to computing power that can handle 20 trillion calculations each second, which wouldn’t have been possible 10 years ago.

Mabson likens the process more to image processing than machine-to-machine communication.

“The satellite takes a very accurate spectrum photocopy of that signal, brings it to the ground and takes it to the brains of system, which is a data centre,” he says.

exactEarth’s voyage into a literal and figurative blue-ocean market, free from competition, began with a small seed team inside space hardware manufacturer COM DEV.

After seven months, a few million dollars and a close working relationship with the University of Toronto’s aerospace department, COM DEV launched a small satellite in April 2008.

“You can’t do it that fast and you certainly can’t do it that cheap,” Mabson says.

That initial satellite was meant to serve a three-month term; seven years later it’s still providing data to exactEarth’s network.

With proof of capability out of the way, COM DEV put in an initial $20 million, with, Spanish satellite communications operator HISPASAT matching the figure to set up exactEarth as its own entity.

“From the Canadian context, people often criticize our companies for not putting their money where their mouth is – and COM DEV absolutely did,” Mabson says.

exactEarth had an initial plan for commercialization of the new data, and started evangelizing it by testing the waters with potential customers, primarily government agencies.

The capability was well received, but it wasn’t all smooth sailing.

“These small satellites have to go as hitchhikers on to somebody else’s big rocket,” Mabson says. “And like any hitchhiker, you have to find a ride that’s going in your direction – in this case it’s a particular orbit that we want to go into.”

exactEarth faced launch delays ranging from 12 months to two years, because as Mabson says, “You can make small satellites, but you don’t make small rockets.”

It was all about timing; making sure that a satellite was ready at the same time as a rocket, which meant sometimes sourcing parts outside of COM DEV.

When exactEarth was initially spun out, it was to make decisions that were best for its business, and not be bound to only purchasing from COM DEV.

Each obstacle was an opportunity for exactEarth to show its resourcefulness.

“We did some deals that allowed us to access signals from some other satellites to recover some of that delay and still be able to produce our data,” Mabson says.

The next phase was figuring out what to do with the large amount of data, including how to deliver it, as not all customers had the capability to interpret and filter the raw data.

“We had to develop visualization tools and other pieces of software that allowed them to receive the data and display it,” says Mabson. “We now have ShipView [a web-based ship monitoring tool that shows vessel movement on a global map] and a whole portfolio of web-delivered products.”

exactEarth also started exploring other markets and applications outside of maritime activity during its partnership with the Communitech DATA.BASE project. DATA.BASE, funded by FedDev Ontario’s Technology Development Program, aimed to find new ways to commercialize big data captured by satellites.

“I think being able to work with Communitech and access the local community, some of the developers and other companies was a very positive thing,” Mabson says.

Creating a new market had its challenges, but it has paid off for exactEarth, which reported a 237 per cent increase in annual revenue in 2014. And the lessons learned along the way have set the company up for its next growth phase, as it looks to the rapidly expanding Internet of Things.

“I think there is a huge potential for satellite and mobile Internet of Things, because anything that moves, people are going to be interested in, either to track it or get tracking data from it.”

Photo: Peter Mabson, President of exactEarth, in the exactEarth NOC (Network Operations Centre).