AIS makes its presence felt

It’s one of the most revolutionary developments in marine navigation: the universal automatic identification system (AIS). The transponder broadcasts a broad range of information about a ship on VHF marine radio, including its position, speed, direction, cargo, classification and destination. An AIS unit transmits all this information in real time, ship to ship and ship to shore, without a central communications station.

John D. Leitch, a 730-foot bulk carrier, exits the Eisenhower Lock on the St. Lawrence Seaway near Massena, N.Y. The Seaway was one of the first areas to require ships to carry AIS.
   Image Credit: Photos courtesy St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corp.

There are numerous benefits from using AIS, according to pilots, captains and manufacturers.

“The true beauty in the usefulness of this thing will come into play when a captain or master is able to look at a radar screen and see the target,Ã.‚¬ï¿½ said Bill Haynes, assistant product manager for Furuno USA. “Instead of just a blip, they will now have the ship’s name; they will have real-time dynamic information in order to do what they need to do.Ã.‚¬ï¿½

(As of August, Furuno’s AIS unit was one of just five units that had received approval from the U.S. Coast Guard and the Federal Communications Commission.)

Adoption of AIS technology is accelerating because of intensified worldwide security concerns as a result of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. AIS is seen as a method to identify ships before their arrival in port as a means of screening for potential terrorists.

The St. Lawrence Seaway became the first inland waterway in the world to require AIS equipment on commercial vessels, with the start of this year’s shipping season on March 31. As of July 1, 2003, AIS equipment is mandatory on ships transiting the Panama Canal and passenger ships entering U.S. waters.

Under a U.S. Coast Guard interim rule published July 1, nearly all commercial ships of 300 grt or more will be required to carry AIS equipment by Dec. 31, 2004. (See sidebar for timetable on AIS installation.) The Coast Guard intends to make this rule final by Nov. 25.

Even though AIS equipment is appearing on the bridges of ships, captains and pilots interviewed for this story said the new timetable has meant that many mariners don’t understand the true value of AIS as a navigation aid, rather than just a security device.

“It’s a great tool, but you have to know how to use it,Ã.‚¬ï¿½ said Capt. Gorge Viso, vice chairman of the Tampa Bay Pilots Association.

Another problem is that the display screen on the minimum keyboard display (MKD) unit for AIS equipment is so small that it is not useful for navigation, according to pilots and captains. The screen can be as small as 4 inches wide by 2.5 inches tall.

The true benefits of AIS cannot be realized unless it is integrated with a vessel’s bridge navigation systems, such as electronic chart display and information systems (ECDIS) and automatic radar plotting aids (ARPA), according to pilots and captains. With full integration into the bridge, captains, masters and pilots can use AIS, along with radar and electronic charts, to improve navigation, avoid collisions and help with vessel traffic management. With AIS integrated into shipboard display, the mariner has AIS information available by clicking on the target on the screen.

AIS Market

Estimates of the size of the market created by the new Automatic Identification System requirements vary widely.

The U.S. Coast Guard states that about 4,600 U.S.-flagged SOLAS (International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea) and non-SOLAS vessels will need the units as a result of the new regulations. However, manufacturers believe the overall demand is much higher.

Mike Mitchell, vice president of sales and marketing for Klein Associates Inc., of Salem, N.H., said he heard an estimate at a meeting of the Comité International Radio-Maritime of a demand for 14,000 class-A units in the United States. Klein Associates is the U.S. distributor for Raytheon Marine GmbH.

Patricia Beth Barker, marketing coordinator for Japan Radio Co.’s (JRC) U.S. division, said she has heard demand figures of between 11,000 and 17,000 units. The majority of that demand, about 6,500 units, would come from the towboat and tugboat sector, she said. Worldwide, Barker believes that 80,000 vessels will need the AIS unit.

Regardless of the precise figure, the units are selling well. “They’ve literally been flying off the shelves,Ã.‚¬ï¿½ said Bill Haynes, assistant production manager for Furuno USA. As of July 30, Furuno had sold 400 units in the United States and over 4,000 worldwide. Barker would not reveal U.S. sales figures, but said JRC had sold 3,500 units worldwide.

The Coast Guard has estimated that the AIS unit would cost $7,000. Furuno is offering its unit for $6,995; JRC is offering its unit for $7,995. Because Raytheon had not received FCC approval at press time, the company was not allowed to disclose the price for its units.

Although the small size of the display screens of AIS units limits their usefulness, according to many in the industry, a single piece of equipment that might integrate an AIS unit and a radar system or electronic chart system is not expected any time soon. Current AIS units can be plugged into other bridge navigation units.

“I kind of wonder if there would be any value. It’s easy enough right now to connectÃ.‚¬ï¿½ to other bridge equipment, Haynes said.

“For retrofit, I don’t think you’ll see much of that for a few years,Ã.‚¬ï¿½ Mitchell said.

Because the AIS display unit is so small, Mitchell said that many mariners may end up purchasing new radar units or electronic chart systems, particularly since older systems may not be compatible with AIS units.

Older radar units may lack the graphic display capacity needed to display the wealth of information that can be provided by AIS. Mariners will have to call the radar manufacturers to see if the unit is AIS-compatible. “You will have to look at each and every radar,Ã.‚¬ï¿½ Mitchell said.

There is also potential to add specialized software that allows AIS to help vessels navigate under power lines or bridges with unusual accuracy. And ships will be able to receive up-to-the-minute information on weather, current and other conditions from the land-based system in ports and waterways. Vessel traffic systems across the country will have to install AIS base stations on land in order to communicate information about local conditions to mariners with ship-borne units.

U.S. Coast Guard-approved manufacturers

1. EuroCom Industries A/S, Aalborg, Denmark
Models: Sailor UAIS 1900 with KDU 1905; Skanti UAIS 2100 and KDU 2105*

2. Furuno USA, Camas, Wash.
Model: FA100

3. Japan Radio Co., Seattle
Model: JHS-180 AIS

4. Kongsberg Seatex A/S, Trondheim, Norway
Model: AIS 100

5. MX Marine, Torrance, Calif.
Model: MX531 with MX420 display unit

6. Nauticast AG, Vienna, Austria
Model: Nauticast X-Pack DS*

7. Simrad Inc., Seattle
Model: Simrad A170*

8. SAM Electronics (formerly STN Atlas Marine Electronics), Hamburg, Germany
Model: UAIS DEBEG 3400

9. Tideland Signal Corp., Houston
Model: AIMS MIV

10. Saab Transponder Tech, Linkoping, Sweden
Model: R4 AIS Vessel Transponder*

*As of Aug. 8, 2003, these models had not yet received approval from the Federal Communications Commission.

From the website U.S. Coast Maritime Information Exchange Approved Equipment at http://cgmix.uscg.mil/equipment. Click the search button and then scroll to Shipborne Automatic Identification System in the approval series name window.

The Coast Guard estimates that the interim rule will impact 4,121, non-SOLAS (International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea) domestic vessels, 438 SOLAS U.S.-flagged vessels and 70 non-SOLAS foreign-flagged vessels.

“AIS is a great tool for navigation. With display of other ships and that look-around-the-corner aspect, it’s a fabulous tool,Ã.‚¬ï¿½ said Capt. Jim Pound, director of operations for Algoma Central Marine of St. Catherine’s, Canada, which operates 25 vessels in the Great Lakes. Over the winter, the company installed AIS units on 23 vessels and integrated those units into the vessels’ chart systems. “What is equally important to the masters is the ability to see what currents, water levels and the weather is doing,Ã.‚¬ï¿½ Pound said.

AIS is now possible due to a breakthrough in technology called self-organized time division multiple access (SOTDMA). This technology allows the AIS transponder to handle about 2,250 messages per minute on a single VHF maritime radio channel and updates every two to 10 seconds while a ship is underway, according to the U.S. Coast Guard’s Navigation Center.

The AIS transponder usually works in an autonomous and continuous mode. Each station transmits and receives over two radio channels, avoiding interference problems, to allow channels to be shifted without loss of communications from other ships. The system also allows for automatic conflict resolution between itself and other stations.

Each AIS unit consists of an MKD for data entry and viewing, one VHF transmitter, two VHF receivers that use SOTDMA technology, one VHF digital selective calling receiver, a differential GPS receiver and a communications link to vessel display and sensor systems. Through this junction box, the AIS unit can connect to the vessel’s sensors, including gyrocompass, ECDIS, radar and GPS navigator, and other operational systems. In addition, there is a pilot plug so pilots can hook up laptops to the AIS unit.

The AIS unit broadcasts the following information about a ship every two to 10 seconds: ship identification number, rate of turn (right or left, 0° to 720° per minute), speed (one-tenth knot resolution from zero to 102 knots), position accuracy, longitude and latitude, course over ground, true heading and time the information was generated. Every six minutes, the unit broadcasts a ship’s IMO number, radio call sign, name, type of ship and cargo, dimensions (to nearest meter), type of position-fixing device, draft (from one-tenth of a meter to 25.5 meters), destination and estimated time of arrival.

One of the many advantages of AIS is that it allows mariners to track other ships at much greater distances, because they can receive AIS data long before an image appears on their ship’s radar screen. With a range of about 20 nm or more, AIS allows mariners to find out exactly who those ships are and what they are doing.

In addition to functioning as a navigation aid, it also becomes a method by which pilots can plan courses as they approach ports. And it gives captains the ability to foresee possible conflicts with vessels. “You can figure out in a minute whether you’re going to meet somebody who’s 20 miles away from you,Ã.‚¬ï¿½ said Viso, of Tampa Bay.

Viso, who is also the chairman of the American Pilots’ Association’s Navigation & Technology Committee, said the Tampa pilots tested prototypes of an AIS as early as 1996. As the Tampa pilots began using the prototype, they all went through a phase of checking it against their local knowledge. “We all went through that process of, Ã.‚¬ËœHey, does this thing really tell me where I’m at?’Ã.‚¬ï¿½ Viso said. After about six months, the pilots become confident of the prototype’s accuracy and began using the device for vessel traffic management, looking 10 to 15 miles out, and figuring out where other vessels were.

“This way, when you’re on a ship, and you’re inbound, you’ll see when a guy lights off his transponder, and you can start monitoring his movement away from the dock, even before you’re really in radio range,Ã.‚¬ï¿½ Viso said. Capt. Douglas Grubbs, in charge of the Vessel Traffic Services program for the Crescent River Port Pilots’ Association, in Belle Chasse, La., said that AIS is much more effective than ARPA for the Mississippi. “Using radar in a river is good for a mile and a half, two or three miles at the most,Ã.‚¬ï¿½ Grubbs said. “Around points and bends, you lose it; you change course more than a few degrees, you lose it.Ã.‚¬ï¿½ AIS, on the other hand, works at a range of 20 to 30 miles and is not affected by obstacles like river bends. “I know enough about AIS that it works in rainstorms. In a regular white-out on my 3-centimeter radar, AIS works,Ã.‚¬ï¿½ Grubbs said.

Timetable for AIS installation

1. All ships entering the St. Lawrence Seaway: March 31, 2003
2. All ships over 300 grt or at least 20 meters LOA transiting the Panama Canal: July 1, 2003

SOLAS requirements

All ships of 300 grt and over on international voyages, cargo ships of 500 grt and over not on international voyages, and passenger vessels, irrespective of size, must meet the following deadlines:

1. Ships built on or after July 1, 2002: July 1, 2003
2. Ships engaged in international voyages built before July 1, 2002: July 1, 2003
3. Ships built on or after Jan. 1, 2003: Jan. 1, 2003
4. Passenger vessels, irrespective of size: July 1, 2003
5. Vessels built before Jan. 1, 2003, that are passenger vessels required to carry a SOLAS certificate, tankers, or towing vessels engaged in moving a tank vessel: July 1, 2003
6. Tankers equipment on or after July 1, 2003: First survey for safety
7. Ships, other than passenger ships and tankers, greater than or equal to 50,000 grt: July 1, 2004
8. Ships, other than passenger ships and tankers, at least 300 grt but less than 50,000 grt: First safety equipment survey after July 1, 2004, or by Dec. 31, 2004, whichever comes earlier.
9. Ships not engaged in international voyages, built before July 1, 2002: Not later than July 1, 2008

Ships operating in specified VTS/VMRS areas

In addition to SOLAS requirements, the Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002 mandates AIS on the following vessels operating in specified Vessel Traffic Services/Vessel Movement Reporting System areas, by the dates specified: each self-propelled vessel 65 feet or more engaged in commercial service (including fishing vessels); each towing vessel 26 feet or more and more than 600 hp; each vessel of 100 grt or more carrying one or more passengers for hire; and each passenger vessel certified to carry 50 or more passengers for hire.

1. VTS St. Mary’s River: Dec. 31, 2003
2. VTS Berwick Bay, VMRS Los Angeles/Long Beach: July 1, 2004
3. VTS Lower Mississippi River, VTS Port Arthur, VTS Prince William Sound: July 1, 2004
4. VTS Houston-Galveston, VTS New York, VTS Puget Sound, VTS San Francisco: Dec. 31, 2004

Working with the Saint Lawrence Seaway Development Corp., Washington, D.C., and the St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corp., Cornwall, Ontario, to develop AIS, Pound, of Algoma Central, said his captains stressed the need for AIS messages not just to include security information to identify ships and to help protect ports, but also provide essential data for mariners, which was incorporated. “Part of that messaging format includes the weather, the meteorological data that is really useful to mariners,Ã.‚¬ï¿½ Pound said. “This was very important to the Canadian shipping industry and to the pilots, too. We needed that information.Ã.‚¬ï¿½


John B. Aird upbound in the Seaway’s Snell Lock.

So the Seaway’s traffic management system, with land-based stations and buoy-based AIS transponders installed all along the route, broadcasts information on water levels, visibility, wind speed and direction, ice conditions, and the availability of the next lock. In the past, for example, mariners had to call on the phone to access an automated water-level reporting system, Pound said. Now, that information is provided through AIS.

The Seaway has not had major problems with AIS so far, according to Carol Fenton, the Seaway Corp.’s deputy associate administrator. One issue has been that some vessels have not had the equipment. After Sept. 11, 2001, the Seaway increased its arrival notice time to 96 hours, and vessels are now asked in advance if they have the equipment. If not, the Seaway provides a list of suppliers in Montreal who can install an AIS.

The Panama Canal, which required AIS as of July 1, rents AIS equipment to vessels for $150, said Capt. Arcelio Hartley, manager of the Panama Canal Authority’s transit operations division. The canal has had problems with data entered incorrectly, Hartley said. Some AIS units are broadcasting ships’ dimensions that are wrong. In addition, some vessels are not transmitting heading information because the unit is not hooked up to the ship’s gyro. There are also problems with outdated computer programs on some ships, which cause some ship-borne AIS units not to respond to shore-station commands. Finally, some units have the pilot plug in the wrong location.

Some pilots are concerned about vessels that lack the proper AIS equipment, since that forces them to rely on the ship’s navigation equipment, particularly the GPS, which might be inferior to what the pilots have on their laptops, or pilot carrier boards.

In Tampa, the major cruise lines are outfitted with the latest equipment, so it’s not a problem, according to Viso. “You get on a bulker that’s going to meet minimum requirements for the IMO, and you may not have a quality positioning device,Ã.‚¬ï¿½ he said. Pilots would like to have the option to carry their own GPS receiver, just in case.

By far, lack of awareness of what AIS is able to do has been the most serious problem. “I’m not sure if the day-to-day mariner who’s out on ships is up to speed on what AIS is going to provide and how it’s going to integrate with the bridge system,Ã.‚¬ï¿½ Viso said. “I think there’s a lag between what regulatory groups and organizations are proposing to do with AIS and what the mariner’s knowledge base is.Ã.‚¬ï¿½

As a result, AIS is not often used for navigation, especially by oceangoing vessels. Even the display can end up in the wrong place. On the Seaway, display units are often not located near the conning position, according to Fenton.

“I noticed on a couple of tankers, they had an AIS, and the captain didn’t really know what it was,Ã.‚¬ï¿½ Grubbs said. “He had it way back with the chart table.Ã.‚¬ï¿½

“Before you start fooling with this, you really need training,Ã.‚¬ï¿½ Grubbs said. “It’s not difficult, but you need to know what the concept is.Ã.‚¬ï¿½

Algoma Central Marine held a daylong training course for its masters over the winter. And the Maritime Institute of Technology and Graduate Studies, in Linthicum Heights, Md., is already offering a one-week course for pilots.


Aird’s master, Capt. Douglas J. Ireland, views his ship’s ECDIS, which displays AIS data. The Vessel Traffic Control Center at Eisenhower Lock also uses AIS data to monitor ship movements through the Seaway.

Use of the new equipment has been complicated by the small-screen display size mandated by the IMO. “The minimum display is, for navigation purposes, useless,Ã.‚¬ï¿½ Pound said.

Grubbs goes even further. “An MKD without a proper display could be hazardous when you have a lot of traffic,Ã.‚¬ï¿½ he said. Even on the units that have a graphic, rather than text-only, display, it’s not big enough, Grubbs said.

The proper display size needs work, and may have to be adjusted based on the class of vessel, said Martha Grabowski, a professor of information systems at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, N.Y.

As a member of the marine committee of the Transportation Research Board, she helped prepare a May report on AIS display. Even though the display screen is too small, this report did not recommend a larger, separate AIS display. “It is important that the United States Coast Guard develop an integration strategy instead of working to proliferate another box that the mariner would have to integrate information from,Ã.‚¬ï¿½ Grabowski said.

However, the Coast Guard is waiting to issue rules on AIS integration with other bridge systems because the technology is evolving so quickly. “I think eventually, when integrated displays and electronic chart standards (other than ECDIS) become more mature Ã.‚¬” then I think the regulations for all navigation equipment are going to move towards integrated systems,Ã.‚¬ï¿½ said Mike Sollosi, chief of the Coast Guard’s Office of Vessel Traffic Management. Right now, when it comes to more specific AIS display rules, the response the Coast Guard received was, “There are too many questions that you need to address to do that,Ã.‚¬ï¿½ Sollosi said.

Cost is another big concern for small businesses that own vessels that require AIS. At a July hearing in Washington, representatives from domestic passenger ferry owners, fishermen’s associations and members of the marine assistance industry said the new rule could bankrupt many small businesses.

The cost of purchasing equipment and training for domestic vessels in the first year of the rule’s implementation is about $41 million, according to the Coast Guard. The average cost of purchasing and installing the equipment is expected to be $9,330 per vessel, with $7,000 of that figure being the price of the unit, $2,000 for installation and $330 for training. Annual maintenance of the unit will cost $250, according to the Coast Guard.

The rule is expected to affect about 1,491 small businesses, which own 2,360 non-SOLAS vessels affected by the rule, according to the Coast Guard.

Finally, the Coast Guard and the Marine Telephone Co. (MariTel) are engaged in a dispute over one of the VHF channels assigned to AIS. MariTel is licensed to operate channel 87, designated AIS 1 by the International Telecommunication Union. But MariTel officials claim that there is no agreement with the Coast Guard to allow that channel to be used for AIS. Sollosi, of the Coast Guard, said MariTel is required to provide some bandwidth, at no cost, to the government. “We’re continuing to work together,Ã.‚¬ï¿½ he said. “We’re trying to avoid litigation, but you never know.Ã.‚¬ï¿½

This is all part of working out the bugs of a new technology. While some have questioned the quicker implementation of AIS rules, Grubbs said it is needed, given today’s security threats. “I think it’s ready to be rolled out,Ã.‚¬ï¿½ he said. “Is it ready for prime time? It will grow into prime time.Ã.‚¬ï¿½

Fenton, of the Seaway Corp., agreed. “It’s a new technology; we’re all learning this together.Ã.‚¬ï¿½

Categories: Tugboats & Towing