U.S. Coast Guard begins testing synthetic aids, virtual buoys

Jul 31, 2014 01:26 PM

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(Alan Haig-Brown)

Virtual aids may be used to make bridge transits safer on Western rivers, such as the Snohomish River.

As for Virtual AIS ATON, Madden said, “this aid would appear to have limited use, as it is dependent solely on the continued transmission of the signal, has no physical presence that can be viewed and is not viewable by all. Potential uses might be for marking newly found dangers, temporary security areas or other temporary markings.”

Madden and others say security is a concern as is an area’s capacity to handle multiple signals.

“How many AIS transmitters can be handled in a given area?” he asks. “We have already seen issues in the Persian Gulf where ECDIS units will ‘freeze’ due, we believe, to an overload of AIS signals. Before rolling out huge numbers of AIS-equipped buoys in an area such as New York or Long Island Sound, it should be ensured that the original function — vessel identification — is not adversely affected. As a mariner, I would much rather see small vessels such as sailboats equipped with Class B AIS units than see an AIS transmitter on each buoy.”

“Particularly with the synthetic and virtual ATON, the hackability of the network has to be tested before a large-scale rollout of the system,” Madden said. “The AIS system has already proven to be vulnerable to attack, with Trend Micro Inc. of Tokyo amply demonstrating the vulnerabilities.”

Robert Meurn, a retired professor from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy and the author of the “Watchstanding Guide for the Merchant Officer” said, “I think AIS is great if it’s used properly. The big problem, just like when radar came, is that the people are not using them.”

He mentioned a collision in the North Sea in 2005 where “both ships had each other with AIS. Both masters were on the bridge. They had the name of the ship, the course and speed, their country, and they had each other visually on the radar and the AIS, and they didn’t even contact one another,” Meurn said. “The problem is not the equipment — the equipment works fine — it’s that the mariners are not familiar on how to use the equipment and using it to its full capability.”

He said it’s critical that captains and pilots get proper simulator training with the new technology.

“The key is education,” Meurn said. He said courses including use of AIS should be mandated by the Coast Guard and IMO.

Andrew McGovern, vice president of the United New York and New Jersey Sandy Hook Pilots Association and chairman of the Harbor Safety, Navigation and Operations Committee for New York Harbor, called synthetic AIS buoys “a good thing” and an improvement over unreliable racon buoys that return a Morse Code signal when hit by radar waves. “It would be more reliable and cheaper,” he added.

“The virtual AIS buoys have their pluses and minuses,” McGovern said. “If the boat sinks in a channel and the Coast Guard doesn’t have time to get out there and put a buoy marking the wreck, they could put a virtual buoy there so commercial vessels could see there is something there and avoid it.”

Like Madden, he said security against hacking “is one of the downsides.”

“There have been rumors that because buoys are expensive to maintain that the Coast Guard and other governments would like to go to just virtual buoys,” McGovern said.

Dr. Lee Alexander, of the University of New Hampshire’s Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping, said the Coast Guard’s testing “is definitely needed. Any new development or ‘improvement’ in maritime navigation safety needs to be carefully evaluated before it is implemented.”

Alexander said the new technology could befuddle those on a bridge. “Referring to ATONs as ‘real,’ ‘virtual’ or ‘synthetic’ can be confusing,” he said. “Rather than call something a ‘virtual ATON,’ perhaps it would be better to refer to it as a ‘virtual’ navigation aid.”

He added that virtual ATONs raise several troubling issues. “While most AIS transceivers are capable of receiving AIS ATON broadcast messages, if the ECDIS (or ECS) does not receive (or cannot recognize) the ‘Virtual AIS ATON’ data being broadcast, how will the mariner know that it exists?” he asks.

Current approved ECDIS do not have a requirement to receive or portray AIS ATON information. Alexander said this may not change until after 2018 when the mandatory carriage implementation for SOLAS vessels is completed. “In the interim, will there be a requirement for mariners to have another external display for virtual ATONs?”

And, he said, “if a virtual ATON is only electronically charted and displayed (e.g., on radar, ECS or ECDIS), how will the mariner ‘identify’ it as being different than charted ATONs that physically exist — and are already shown on paper chart or electronic chart displays? Ideally, these are the kinds of issues that will be addressed during the USCG AIS ATON testing program.”

Lewald said he has heard the concerns.

“I’ve heard about the AIS spoofing,” he said. He added that while hacking is possible, the benefits far outweigh that risk.

As for the training issue, “right now the target audience is the commercial mariner,” Lewald said. He said he believes that “if this tool is made available, they will learn how to use it.” He expects training courses around the world to reflect the new technology.

As for the criticism that “this is just a ploy to remove physical ATON, that’s not the case. This is an enhancement,” he said.

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