Horizon Technologies is promoting its FlyingFish airborne satellite monitoring system for monitoring of satellite phone signals for humanitarian, search and rescue and law enforcement/anti-terrorism purposes. FlyingFish can be used to turn a wide range of aircraft into signals intelligence (SIGINT) collection platforms.
FlyingFish is based on dual-use technology, not covered by International Trafficking in Arms Regulations (ITAR), although a UK commercial export licence is required. More than 30 FlyingFish systems are currently in operation, mainly with NATO nations and contractors, including on Marseilles-based Air Attack Technology’s Cessna 550 Citation II (N2734K), which was expected to come to Le Bourget but suffered minor damage in a ground-handling incident and was under repair during show week. Air Attack has a number of government contracts, which also take precedence over air show appearances.
Air Attack’s Citations are ex-US Department of Homeland Security aircraft, supplied as surplus military equipment with mission kit stripped out. Aeromecanic in Marseilles is currently refurbishing and upgrading Air Attack’s Citations, with the second one nearing completion.
Horizon is partnered with L3 but has found the US market a harder one to crack, according to Horizon director John Beckner. Most services in the USA already have their own technology, but a demonstration, together with L3, is being held later this year for special operations forces, Beckner adds.
Horizon’s newest product is the Xtender – a small processing module designed to extend the range of FlyingFish, which is currently under test on an unmanned platform. With its small size – each module weighs less than 500g (1lb) and is about as big as a USB stick – even the smallest UAVs are now capable of being used as SIGINT platforms. Xtender is suitable for everything from Predator/Reaper down to the small AeroVironment machines. “Practically every UAV manufacturer we talk to says: ‘we want to see a demo’,” says Beckner.
In the humanitarian sphere, the system is used to locate refugees crossing the Mediterranean in flimsy craft. They are often cast adrift off the Libyan coast by traffickers with only Thuraya phone pre-programmed with the number for a Mediterranean Coast Guard. When they get in trouble they call and FlyingFish is able to obtain the GPS location of the phone and pass it on to a command centre, which co-ordinates rescue assets. “Our systems are saving refugees every night” with this technology, says Horizon director Gary Goodrum.
Satellite phones are the communications method of choice for terrorists, smugglers and other bad actors in many parts of the world. Thuraya phones are the most commonplace in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, but IsatPhone handsets are used worldwide and cover the Americas, which Thuraya does not.
Somali pirates would fit and modify cheap radar warning radars on their mother ships to detect the search radars of approaching patrol aircraft and then conceal their boarding ladders and other gear so as to resemble fishing vessels. Being a passive system, FlyingFish was able to detect pirate sat phones and locate ships, thwarting attacks.
The worst bad guys use disposable “burner” satellite phones and often swap between the two service providers, says Beckner. The latest FlyingFish version is able to receive both networks simultaneously, and identify users, allowing monitoring to continue when the users change phones. Onboard linguists on the ISR aircraft listen to calls of interest, using the information to track down terrorist networks and pre-empt attacks. Beckner adds: “As our customers say: ‘if it’s worth a mission, it’s worth a FlyingFish’.”