Using a Dragon to Go after Illegal Fishing

How a traditional defense company unintentionally pivoted to combat illegal fishing

By Ariella Knight

It is not easy for a defense company serving the US Navy and Air Force to one day say, “hey, let’s do something we have never done before, how about we start combating illegal fishing?” But that is exactly what Technology Services Corp, or TSC, did a few years back. As it turns out, finding new value for its aerial platforms – to include protection of marine parks on the world’s oceans – was easier than expected. The company’s Sea Dragon platform – a package of radars and sensors installed onto an airplane to see further than the pilot’s perspective and to collect data – have been deployed to Palau and Micronesian waters and is now looking to scale throughout and beyond the Pacific Ocean. Here is how a traditional U.S. defense contractor, located a stone’s throw away from the Pentagon, is using Navy and Air Force technology to combating illegal fishing on the world’s largest crime scene. 

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The Airforce Research Lab wanted TSC to go from conception and design to full deployment in 12 months – a process that often takes years.

The Phone Rings

In 2013, TSC Vice President Steve Kilberg got a call from the Air Force Research Lab. As part of President Barack Obama’s policy of pivoting to the Pacific, the U.S. government granted TSC a grant to design a low cost solution for increasing Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) in the Pacific. For the uninitiated, MDA is military talk for understanding who is out on the seas and what they are doing there, explains TSC engineer Mike Lee. It is a cornerstone to protecting territorial waters from illegal activity. So far so good, but then came the kicker. The Air Force Research Lab wanted TSC to go from conception and design to full deployment in 12 months – a process that often takes years.

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Sea Dragon improves a government’s ability to "see a target on the blank canvas of ocean." - Mike Lee, TSC Engineer.

A Challenge Accepted

Treating this opportunity as a side project and a fun challenge, TSC put their five decades of customized engineering to the problem of increasing MDA. Twelve months later the Sea Dragon was born. You can read more about the Sea Dragon technology here, but essentially it is a low cost package of radars, sensors and cameras installed underneath an airplane that gathers data on illegal activity on the seas far beyond the sight of a pilot. It improves a government’s ability to “see a target on the blank canvas of ocean,” said Lee. TSC assumed that when the 12-month government grant concluded, the company would return to business as usual. Not so.

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Palau was one of the best places to do testing, due to its emphasis on maritime enforcement. - Mike Lee, TSC Engineer.

The Sea Dragon in the South Pacific

 A year and a half later in mid-2014, Lee and fellow TSC engineer Josh Gullet found themselves disembarking a plane in Palau in the South Pacific, where TSC was invited in partnership with US Pacific Command to test the Sea Dragon’s capacity to combat illegal fishing in Palau’s expansive Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). “Palau was one of the best places to do testing, due to its emphasis on maritime enforcement,” according to Lee, because the remote island nation has very limited resources – a couple of planes and patrol boats – to protect hundreds of thousands of square miles.

TSC’s project in Palau had landed them squarely in the middle of the growing global conversation on illegal fishing and its connections to global security (read Stimson’s report Secure Oceans to learn more). In fact, TSC was early on the scene to Palau right after the country outlawed any fishing in its entire EEZ by declaring it a 230,000 square mile marine sanctuary – the first of its kind in the world today.

As the new kids on the illegal fishing block, TSC dove head first into fully understanding the scope, specifications and operating environment of combatting illegal fishing. Over the course of eight weeks, and in close partnership with the government of Palau’s Marine Enforcement Center, TSC flew test flights to determine if the Sea Dragon was the right solution for the operating theatre.

ENRIC SALA/Courtesy of National Geographic Society
During these eight weeks TSC learned invaluable information about their new adversary – the illegal fisherman.

Learning and Adapting

During these eight weeks TSC learned invaluable information about their new adversary – the illegal fisherman. They familiarized themselves with the behavior patterns of bad actors and adapted the Sea Dragon’s tools to better match this challenge. Notably, they created a heat map tool that allowed them to detect locations where ships are lingering, as well as those where illegal fish aggregation devices were being deployed.

TSC successfully used this heat map to detect illegal transshipping activity during testing in Palau – when two ships meet mid-ocean to offload illegal catch, a method commonly used to avoid detection for illegal fishing. TSC also built up the capacity of the Sea Dragon to analyze emerging patterns and suspicious behavior – such as loitering by a larger vessel more commonly used for transiting, or certain zig zag patterns that show fishing activity. Information from the heat map and the pattern analysis informs more targeted patrols and smarter allocations of resources.

After successfully completing a proof of concept in Palau, TSC began looking for additional testing grounds to take the Sea Dragon to the next level. They did not have to look far. By invitation, in 2015 TSC conducted another round of testing in the nearby Federated States of Micronesia (FSM). Within the span of six weeks, TSC covered 20 percent of FSM’s 1.2 million square mile EEZ. To cover this same expanse from a boat would take approximately two to three months. They trained three new operators on the Sea Dragon system and built a process for training that has new operators flying within two weeks. Lastly, they successfully worked with the FSM government to decrease interval times for receiving VMS data from once every six hours to hourly, demonstrating the importance of private-public partnership during these missions.

ENRIC SALA/Courtesy of National Geographic Society

On the War Path

After the testing in Palau and FSM, TSC was hooked. They better understood the scope of illegal fishing and its devastating impact on the region, and the serious need for immediate solutions to combat this threat. This is why, in the words of Mike Lee, TSC went “on a war path” to get the Sea Dragon recognized as a critical contributor to increasing MDA as a part of the antidote to illegal fishing. The only problem, explained Lee, was that “we haven’t done something like this before, it’s really different understanding the real needs and requirements of the customer” on everything from budget lines to policy in these new environments.

TSC’s experience working with developing nations on security issues as integrated and nuanced as illegal fishing pales in comparison to their experience working with big defense in the US. However, their experience in Palau and FSM instilled in them a clear understanding that the future of maritime security will rely on creating lower cost, fast deployment solutions like Sea Dragon, and they are determined to deploy Sea Dragon to fight the threat of illegal fishing to its fullest extent. 

A huge hurdle to expanding efforts in this new area for TSC has been to connect with customers, something that is more established in the traditional defense sector. “We need direct access to the costumer, to sit down and talk to them and understand what their problems and needs are,” said Rob Donnelly, VP of Finance at TSC.  Without this access, TSC struggles to know exactly what upgrades or changes to invest in for Sea Dragon and overall what their customer’s priorities are. Similarly, the rapid proliferation of technology solutions to marine enforcement muddies the waters for those countries in need of making smart technology decisions for protecting their maritime domain. Part of the solution to this problem is www.secureoceans.org, which catalogs marine enforcement technologies available – like Sea Dragon – and presents them in a digestible manner.

TSC is currently developing more on the ground relationships with Sea Dragon and is looking for new partners for testing. They have launched a website specifically for Sea Dragon as part of their outreach efforts, and continue to support upgrades and alterations to the platform with internal resources as they look for where they can most add value.  In other words, stay tuned for more battles between criminals at sea and the Sea Dragon. The best is yet to come.

ENRIC SALA/Courtesy of National Geographic Society
Stay tuned for more battles between criminals at sea and the Sea Dragon. The best is yet to come.

Technologies Used


Sea Dragon

Originally designed for the US Military's Pacific Command and to specifically to target illegal fishing in the Pacific Ocean, Technology Service Corporation (TSC)'s Sea Dragon is an adaptable intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) mission. The system can be adapted for a variety of different aircraft, with a payload that is also customizable to suit different mission needs.

Product Details Manned Sensing Packages

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