AIS AtoN Delivery - The Virtual Challenge
Robert McCabe and Steve Burrows
AIS Now An Established Tool
The five year period from 2002 to 2007 saw the introduction of the Automatic Identification System (AIS) as a mandatory carriage requirement on all vessels over 300 gross tons. In the same period a significant number of leisure and fishing vessels have voluntarily fitted AIS.
At its simplest level AIS automatically provides important information such as the identity, position, course and speed of a ship to other AIS equipped ships and shore stations. AIS uses vhf so the range is typically about 50 kilometres.
The requirement to carry AIS opened up the opportunity to use the system to provide a range of additional services. These include text based services such as Short Safety Related Messages (SSRM), AIS Aids to Navigation (AIS AtoN), AIS Search and Rescue Transmitters (AIS SART), automatic reporting, Vessel Traffic Management Services (VTMS) and traffic analysis.
In this article we will consider the role of AIS as an Aid to Navigation and, more particularly, a Virtual AIS AtoN. In Irish Lights, due to funding from the EU Interreg Programme, we were able to take a lead role in developing AIS AtoN and AIS network solutions. This experience allowed us to make an important contribution at the International Association of Marine Aids to Navigation and Lighthouse Authorities (IALA) in the development of international standards and guidelines for AIS AtoN. AIS AtoN data is visible on the ship's bridge in alphanumeric form on the Minimum Keyboard Display (MKD) and, if the vessel is so equipped, on Radar and Electronic Chart Display and Information System (ECDIS) in the form of a diamond with position crosshairs. The AIS AtoN can confirm the actual position of the AtoN, confirm that the light, Racon or other system is working correctly and provide details of the status of all AtoNs in the area. A further advantage is the provision of real time meteorological and hydrological data.
The General Lighthouse Authorities of the UK and Ireland (GLA) are now advanced on a programme rolling out AIS AtoN to deliver these advantages to our user community. In Irish Lights our Priority 1 roll out programme includes 37 buoys and 31 lighthouses with 26 of these stations providing meteorological and hydrological data.
While there are still significant issues to be resolved relating to display of AIS AtoN on the bridge the provision of this service for appropriate AtoN is now an accepted utility.
The Virtual Challenge
The next challenge facing us is to fully utilise the advantages offered by Virtual AIS AtoN.
AIS AtoN can be provided in three ways; Real, where the AIS unit is on the AtoN itself; synthetic, where the AtoN is monitored by some other means and the AIS message is transmitted from another locations; or Virtual, where the AtoN does not physically exist but the AIS message transmitted from another location is displayed on the bridge.
The advantage of an Virtual AIS AtoN is that it can be established in minutes, is unaffected by the elements, and needs no power, access or maintenance. In addition Virtual AIS AtoN offer us the option of marking locations where it is not physically possible or feasible to put a real AtoN. The most obvious example for Irish Lights is the immediate marking of new wrecks or dangers.
The wreck of the Tricolor in December 2002 brought about a fundamental re-examination by the GLA of the manner in which we mark wrecks. Within three weeks of the sinking, despite safety broadcasts and full marking, two vessels struck the wreck. As a result of this and similar incidents IALA introduced on a trial basis, the Emergency Wreck Marking Buoy (EWMB) which featured a blue and yellow flashing light. The first time a blue light was permitted in the IALA buoyage system.
The EWMB will make a difference but Virtual marking offers a significant additional measure. Consider the situation where a dangerous wreck occurs on the opposite coast to the Granuaile area of operations. At present our response is to divert Granuaile with her on board stock of Emergency Wreck Marking Buoys and to arrange additional buoys if required. It may take in excess of 24 hours to get to the area and, depending on the weather, a further period before the wreck can be marked. In the meantime the mariner must rely solely on Maritime Safety Information such as RNW broadcasts and Navtex for information on the wreck. With Virtual AIS AtoN we can mark the wreck almost immediately and AIS equipped ships in the area will see the AtoN on their AIS MKD and, if so equipped, on their Radar and ECDIS. The Virtual AtoN symbol is the AIS symbol with a V below the position crosshairs. In most cases the wreck will be subsequently marked with physical AtoN but the immediate marking with Virtual AIS AtoN can make a significant contribution to maritime safety.
For ten days in January 2008 ILV Granuaile attended as guard ship at the wreck of the Ice Prince in the English Channel. In what is their first known use in a real life situation the French authorities established four Virtual AIS AtoN around the site of the wreck. The Master of the Granuaile reported that this action had an immediate positive effect on shipping approaching the site. While Virtual AIS AtoN have been used to effect there is still work to be done to deliver the full potential from this aid. The range of potential uses extends beyond the marking of new dangers and includes:-
Baily Virtual AIS AtoN Trial
The challenge for Irish Lights and our sister GLAs is to match the potential of this aid to the user requirement and to ensure that the service can be provided to the appropriate level of availability and integrity. To this end a number of research projects and trials are being undertaken. Our gla Research and Radionavigation Department are conducting simulation workshops and developing the required standards. In Irish Lights we have established a Virtual AIS AtoN test site some 20 miles east of the Baily Lighthouse.
On 7 September 2009 we established two Virtual AIS AtoN at the convergence of the main north/south and east/west traffic routes. There was no building, loading, lashing or steaming involved in establishing these AtoN. From the comfort of a desk in Dun Laoghaire the names and details were entered onto the Baily server and the AtoN appeared on the AIS displays of all receiving ships.
As this is a new tool we chose Safe Water Marks as the type for these AtoN and we are broadcasting a RNW so as not to alarm any mariners who may think they are real. A detailed questionnaire is being circulated to relevant users and the results will be analysed when the trial is completed in March 2010.
The key issues to be analysed will be the extent to which users can display these aids and the user view on their usefulness. Display is a critical issue and there is justifiable user frustration with the limitations of the MKD and the limited availability of AIS displays on Radar and ECDIS. Even where such displays are provided our experience to date is that their reliability and consistency is questionable. We will report on these issues in detail and use the trials data to inform our input into the international regulatory and standards framework for AIS.
Building for the Future
AIS is an important tool for improving safety at sea. However, it must be used correctly and the fact that many users will not have AIS and therefore will be invisible on our AIS systems must be foremost in our minds. Used as part of the mix of systems AIS will provide important additional information to the mariner but, like all systems, its limitations must be understood. The watchword continues to be check, check and check again and use all available means.
Efficient and cost effective rollout of AIS in Ireland requires cooperation between AIS providers and regulators. Irish Lights have a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Irish Coast Guard (IRCG) which provides for sharing of AIS data and ensures that we can, if required, provide AIS AtoN in areas where we do not have Base Station coverage.
While AIS AtoN require Merchant Shipping Act Statutory Sanction from Irish Lights in the same way as all other Aids to Navigation, a radio licence is also required from Comreg. A joint MOU between Comreg, IRCG, DoT Maritime Radio Affairs Unit and Irish Lights to ensure a coordinated approach to licensing and approval is at an advanced stage of preparation. Partnerships such as this will see advances in radionavigation being delivered efficiently to the user.
AIS is a key enabler of e-Navigation. It is worth remembering that the real beneficiary of the work being done in Irish Lights today is still in primary school. On these issues the mariner of 2020 is as much our customer as the mariner of today.