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AIS: New uses on the horizon

Implementation of AIS—Automatic Identification System—has had a broad impact globally since its introduction in 2001, and the technology continues to advance and expand into many marine-related areas beyond its original intent to identify and possibly avoid nearby vessels. Some of these new uses may well be coming to a body of water near you. The information below is excerpted from a report written for MEJ by AIS expert Lee Luft about current AIS development and where the technology is heading in terms of new applications.
By Lee A. Luft

AIS technology is mature with respect to meeting the performance standards and three objectives established by IMO (International Maritime Organization) in 1998 for SOLAS (Safety of Life at Sea)-class vessels: collision avoidance; coastal state monitoring; and vessel traffic management tool.  However, AIS deployment and success since 2001 are responsible for the suggestion of new applications beyond the original IMO objectives.

The ongoing challenge has been to upgrade the technical capabilities of AIS to accommodate new functions without negatively impacting either the functionality and integrity of existing AIS equipment or compromising the original three IMO objectives.  The upgrade process involves a coordinated international procedure that decides and documents AIS changes prior to manufacturing and deployment. A number of AIS upgrades are in development to support:

• Unmanned autonomous vessels
• Markers for "things in the water” such as fishing nets and contraband
• Marking ocean-based wind farms
• Oceanographic and meteorological systems
• Iceberg, oil spill and weather buoy locations

In addition to expanding the breadth of AIS use, the AIS radio communications structure is being upgraded to better support the reception of AIS information by satellites.

Possible new features

There are several new AIS features being considered for an upcoming revision. One is the addition of AMRD—Autonomous Marine Radio Device—a low-power mobile station operating at sea and transmitting independently of a ship station or a coast station for the purpose of enhancing safety of navigation. A catalyst for an AIS-based AMRD is the current illegal use of AIS units as beacons for marking items such as fishing nets, baited long lines, etc. This use compromises the integrity of AIS as a collision avoidance tool.  On navigation displays showing AIS vessels, these AIS fishing beacons appear as valid vessels, which are not there and not picked up by radar.  Trust in AIS as a meaningful collision avoidance tool is being eroded in parts of the world where this illegal use is allowed.

One potential solution on the horizon is to define a valid MMSI (Maritime Mobile Service Identity) value that could be used for these devices.  Another is unique and meaningful symbols (IALA—International Association of Lighthouse Authorities—guidance) for representing these AIS fishing beacons on electronic charts and displays, so as not to be confused with actual vessels.  In addition, new AIS messages may need to be developed to avoid confusion in existing mariner software designed to current standards.

AIS AMRD uses under consideration include: fishing net indicators; oceanic observation data transmitter; towed unpowered object; derelict object; free floating object marker such as floating ice; object marker such as oil spill; aquaculture net indicator; and more. AMRD could be used to mark autonomous platforms such as wave gliders, which may be wave or solar powered, that provide unmanned platforms for instrumentation and a variety of applications.

Another new AIS feature under consideration is broader identification of the "electronic position fixing device” types to include GNSS (Global Navigation Satellite System), e-Loran, BDS (BeiDou), multiple PNT (Positioning, Navigation, Timing) system, inertial navigation system, and terrestrial radio navigation system.

Yet another possibility is expansion of the "Type of ship and cargo” table to include: scientific, research or surveying vessel; training ship; production ship; ice breaker; buoy (aids to navigation) tender; AIS dynamic navigational marker; self-propelled autonomous watercraft; self-propelled remotely operated watercraft; non-propelled watercraft; additional towing vessel types with identification of cargo types; and towing vessel not engaged in towing.

Finally, a new Aid to Navigation (AtoN) status information message has been proposed, covering radar beacons and navigation lights, mobile AtoNs (buoys), status of bridge openings over waterways (open, closed, inoperative, etc.) and more.

USCG R&D Center

The characteristics of the next generation of AIS technology are being actively addressed at the US Coast Guard’s Research and Development Center.  Here’s a brief description of a small part of that research:
AIS is used in many countries to monitor marine traffic navigating in their coastal waters.   Recent research considered methods for extending AIS surveillance coverage through the deployment of remote equipment where both AIS channels are used to acquire AIS messages and relay those messages to existing shore facilities and ships. Added to the relayed messages were separate measurements of each AIS message to improve the integrity of the contained information and improve cyber-attack resistance, maintain AIS channel integrity, and reduce overall coverage costs.

VDES: Boosting AIS functionality

AIS is now an independent element of the broader VDES—VHF Data Exchange System—concept.  The VDES operates in the Marine Mobile VHF band.  It includes the AIS (AIS1 and AIS2) channels, Application Specific Message (ASM1 and ASM2) channels, and several VHF Data Exchange frequencies with much higher data capacity.

VDES standards are in development, with VDES equipment expected to be truly multi-channel to reap the benefits of this technology. The multi-channel VDES equipment will include AIS capabilities. Among the potential future functions are coordinating Search and Rescue (SAR) operations and sharing search areas and patterns between ships, shore and aircraft involved in SAR cases; being able to track a vessel anywhere in the world, not just when in range of shore-based receiving stations; and high-bandwidth two-way communications with vessels for safety, weather information, rerouting, piracy notifications and more. 

About the author

Lee Luft has served as the Coast Guard’s expert on maritime systems’ digital interfaces for almost 40 years. He played a major role in the development of Differential GPS, AIS, USCG’s Nationwide AIS, and interface standards for shipboard equipment compatibility, among other tasks related to marine electronics and information technology standards. Luft currently chairs both NMEA 2000 and NMEA 0183 Standards Committees.

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