When the maritime automatic identification system (AIS) was developed by the Radio Technical Commission for Maritime Services (RTCM) and the U.S. Coast Guard, it was intended at first blush as a ship-to-ship anti-collision system. But now AIS is being applied to a wide variety of tasks. AIS technology is following a similar path as GPS. Just as GPS has found its way into a wide variety of products (GPS-equipped shoes by GTX Corp., for example), many electronic products are also adding embedded AIS capability.
One of the first obvious uses of AIS beyond one-on-one ship-to-ship collision avoidance is in vessel traffic services (VTS). A harbor pilot or a Coast Guard VTS watch stander equipped with AIS data about vessels in a harbor has a much better sense of what is happening around him or her than simply relying on radar.
Beyond the VTS application, AIS has also found its way to such uses as tracking vessels for security purposes; a way to both electronically identify physical aids to navigation and a way to create virtual aids to navigation where no buoy or light exists; and for tracking vessel movements in accident investigations and for search and rescue.
A recent example of a search and rescue AIS application is a new product by U.K.-based Kannad Marine called the SafeLink R10 SRS. The R10 SRS is a personal AIS device. Instead of being associated with a vessel, the R10’s task is to give an individual who has fallen overboard, for example, the status of a vessel and put them into the AIS system so the person can be found and rescued. In this way, AIS is joining emergency position indicating radio beacon (EPIRB) technology in offering a different class of objects — going from the vessel-centered EPIRB to the individually-centered personal locator beacon (PLB). (And, of course, ubiquitous GPS is right there, too; EPIRBs, PLBs and the R10 are all equipped with embedded GPS receivers.)
The R10 SRS is designed to be worn on a life jacket and is activated manually by the man overboard (MOB) victim. The R10 SRS can also be set up so that a life jacket inflating will trigger the R10 SRS (only some inflatable PFDs are authorized by Kannad, others require manual triggering of the R10 SRS). On activation, the R10 SRS’s antenna pops up and the unit transmits AIS information from the MOB, including structured alert messages, GPS position information and a unique serialized identity number. According to Kannad, the 6-volt battery on the R10 SRS can transmit continuously for at least 24 hours and has a seven-year battery storage life.
Vessels within roughly four nautical miles will see the signal from the R10 unit on their chartplotter or laptop as a round symbol with an “X” though it. This AIS target will display data just as if it were a vessel, including the MOB’s GPS position and its range and bearing. The R10 SRS retails for $319.99.
AIS has become such a popular and useful concept that there is even a shadow, Internet-based version that runs on smartphone and tablet apps and distributes target data not via VHF radio, but via Internet connection. One example of this is a $10 iPhone/iPad app called Boat Beacon by Electric Pocket in the U.K. Boat Beacon gathers AIS-type position data such as speed, course and GPS location, closest point of approach (CPA) of other vessels and more. Other Boat Beacon users can see your position and you will see theirs. Also provided are other Boat Beacon boat’s MMSI numbers so you can call them via VHF DSC. And if you have an MMSI number and you enable it, your boat (actually your iPhone or iPad!) can also appear on live AIS traffic sites such as AIS Hub, Marine Traffic and Ship Finder. One interesting outgrowth of this approach is something called “over-the-horizon collision avoidance.” Whereas the range of VHF radio limits the distance at which you can pick up other vessels and calculate their CPA, the Boat Beacon system sends your AIS data to an online server. You download the AIS data of Boat Beacon users in your area from that same online server. But what if you wanted to see all users in the North Atlantic? You could get AIS data for a vessel across the ocean that was theoretically on a great circle course to collide with you! That would be true over-the-horizon collision avoidance!
An important point about Boat Beacon is that it isn’t “real” AIS. Vessels using marine VHF DSC AIS will not “see” you on their screen. And you won’t see them unless you are using one of the live AIS traffic sites mentioned above. This system is more of a monitoring system of your fellow Boat Beacon users than true AIS. But it is an example of how the AIS concept is finding new applications, much as GPS did before it.
From iPad to chartplotter
If you own an early Wi-Fi-only iPad or an iPod touch, you have a device that does not have a built in GPS. While Apple didn’t include a GPS in these devices, it did make them ready to accept GPS position information if provided by an outside source. That’s where some aftermarket GPS companies are seeing an opportunity (there are reportedly tens of millions of Wi-Fi iPads and iPod touches in the U.S. alone). The products from these firms gather GPS position data and transform an iPad into a GPS plotter. One such device is the Bad Elf BE-GPS-1000. This unit plugs into your iPad and provides GPS data. The BE-GPS-1000 is little more than a GPS chip set wrapped in a patch antenna and encased in plastic. It doesn’t require a battery as it draws its power from the iPad or iPod touch. A similar plug-in type unit is the Emprum UltiMate GPS receiver.
The Dual XGPS150 takes a different connection approach. Rather than plug into the iPad’s data port like the BE-GPS-1000 or the Emprum, the XGPS150 connects to an iPad or iPod touch using Bluetooth wireless. The splash proof XGPS150 base station provides about 33 feet of Bluetooth range. All three of these units are available for about $100.