We Turn Private Boat Owners into Private Boat Captains
Vincent Pica Chief of Staff, First District, Southern Region (D1SR) United States Coast Guard Auxiliary
AIS – An Update
Back in December ’11, we ran this column on AIS as a follow-up to the prior column from June 9, 10 (see The Independent, “Electronics & Comms - AIS - Say What?”) Well, here is another update – and the US Coast Guard isn’t happy. Or are they?
AIS is what? AIS is the Automatic Identification System, operated by the US Coast Guard here in the United States. The International Maritime Organization's (IMO) International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) “requires AIS to be fitted aboard international voyaging ships with gross tonnage of 300 or more tons, and all passenger ships regardless of size.” It is estimated that more than 40,000 ships currently carry AIS class A equipment. Clearly, by the prior description, it is and has been intended for the “big boys.” What does it do? It links all AIS-equipped vessels together via satellite/GPS technology.
Well, doesn’t my radio do that essentially? Not unless you or the opposing skipper see each other and decide to open up a channel. AIS broadcasts continuously. And it broadcasts plenty – directly on to your radar screen, or chart plotter or GPS screen. It will tell you, for any AIS-equipped ship within VHF-radio range, its speed and heading, which is critical in understanding if there is a threat of collision. It will also tell you when and where it will happen if both of you maintain your present course and speed (that’s when the “CPA” , i.e., Closest Point of Approach, is zero...)
courtesy USCG - click to enlarge
The US Coast Guard has noted that AIS might replace RACONs, or radar beacons, currently used for electronic navigation aids. And, if buoys and beacons can transmit their data, it will be a further aid when aid is mostly needed – poor visibility and crowded seaways. And don’t be surprised if you hear about Virtual AIS. In one example, an AIS transmission describes the position of buoy but the signal itself originates from a transmitter located in a USCG station miles away and on land. For example, an on-shore base station might broadcast the position of a string of channel markers, each of which is too small to contain a transmitter itself. In another example, AIS could transmit the image of a marker which does not exist physically but now marks a transient situation, like a sunken vessel or channel that had shoaled over. Although such aids would only be visible to AIS-equipped ships, this would be a lot cheaper – and faster – than physical markers.
The US Coast Guard Is Unhappy – or Are They? Recently, social media has been full of notices like this one:
Specifically, the U.S. Coast Guard is unhappy with the pace of mariner compliance when it comes to the regular and timely updating of a vessel’s navigational (nav) status (anchored, moored, underway using engines, etc.). Typically, AIS units are set to “underway” and then left on that setting permanently. The problem is a technical one. AIS units broadcast updates over VHF-FM radio every two to 10 seconds when set to “underway,” versus once every three minutes when set to anchored or moored. There’s only so much bandwidth available for any given radio frequency and with most workboats and ships leaving their nav status setting the same when they anchor or moor, the “pipe” has gotten clogged.
And because “AIS users are compelled to properly operate their AIS at all times,” the Coast Guard is nonetheless threatening mariners and operating companies with civil fines of up to $40,000 for failure to comply. With all the talk about reducing the federal budget deficit, I hope this doesn’t become the equivalent of an end-of-the-month parking ticket blitz by the local police department.
Well, the USCG has been warning mariners at least since 2005 (earliest reference I could find), that they need to use the AIS system properly. Of note, despite all the recent traffic in Facebook and Twitter, the USCG has not issued such a reminder in 2012’s Local Notice to Mariners. As such, I would characterize the periodic reminder as just that, akin to saying, “look both ways when you cross the street.” Which you should do…
BTW, if you are interested in being part of USCG Forces, email me at JoinUSCGAux@aol.comor go direct to the D1SR Human Resources department, who are in charge of new members matters, at DSO-HR and we will help you “get in this thing…”
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