A navigation safety tool with a rapidly increasing number of applications – some appropriate, some questionable
The Automatic Identification System (AIS) was developed as a collision avoidance tool. It incorporates data from various onboard sensors, showing position, course, speed, etc. as well as the identity of the vessel, and transmits that information automatically and repeatedly in the VHF-FM bandwidth. The AIS transceiver also receives similar signals from other vessels in the vicinity and displays that data on the radar screen. Thus, the master or officer in charge of the navigational watch can readily identify other nearby ships and learn their name, course, speed, and closest point of approach (CPA). If a risk of collision exists, one ship may call the other ship by name and make appropriate passing arrangements. AIS seems to be successful in this regard, although there have been no good studies to date analyzing its impact on navigation safety since full implementation worldwide. The AIS signal, though, once thrown out into the atmosphere, is available to anyone with an appropriate radio receiver and software. Commercial interests are using it to keep tabs on vessels’ arrivals and departures, tying those to notices of readiness, pilotage, etc. Maritime security agencies are using the data to enhance maritime domain awareness (MDA) and potential early detection of security threats. Marine environmental protection groups are using AIS to identify polluters. Marine safety investigators are using AIS to analyze marine casualties and, increasingly, to spot potential problems in real time and issue cautions. There are even reports (to date unsubstantiated) that Somali pirates are using AIS to identify potential targets. Many in the maritime community bemoan the use of AIS for anything other than collision avoidance and strongly criticize those who monitor AIS signals and then post that information on the Internet, available for all to see. I would submit that: (1) we live in an interconnected world and information is almost impossible to corral; and (2) the aviation community has lived peacefully with similar information about commercial flights also being available on the Web. I would, though, make one suggestion. The ship’s cargo information should be excluded from the AIS transmission. The cargo has no bearing on collision avoidance. Government agencies have ready access to cargo information through other avenues. Most others monitoring AIS transmissions have no legitimate use for cargo details via the AIS process.