Vessel operators could be fined or cause an accident misusing AIS, while partnerships create more ship tracking applications
Ship operators who deliberately switch off their identification and tracking electronics could face fines and sanctions, while those not including the correct information could cause a fatal maritime accident.
Such is the importance of understanding and using automatic identification system (AIS) and long-range identification and tracking (LRIT) equipment on board ships. If these devices are switched off, international, regional and national authorities, traffic management systems and surrounding ships are unable to identify or track vessels.
This came to the attention of the Panamanian Registry in June, when it announced consequences for ship operators that switch off bridge communicators, particularly if this is to hide criminal activity.
Panama’s General Directorate of Merchant Marine (GDMM) will impose sanctions on ships under the Panamanian flag or ships in Panama waters if operators deactivate, tamper or alter AIS and LRIT equipment.
It is mandatory under IMO legislation that LRIT and AIS equipment continues functioning permanently and adequately. Operators should avoid gaps in transmissions of information about the identity and position of the vessel.
If Panama’s GDMM, which monitors the Panama merchant marine fleet, discovers deliberate deactivation of tracking equipment, its sanctions include fines of up to US$10,000 and/or the deregistration or deflagging of the vessel from Panama’s merchant marine fleet.
If AIS and LRIT signals stop transmitting, an automatic alert is sent to Panama’s Navigation and Maritime Safety Department’s fleet control and monitoring section, which will then initiate an internal investigation.
An alert is also delivered automatically to the vessel and GDMM will request a reason for this issue and an internal investigation will be initiated against the vessel.
On the safety side, there is evidence that transmitting incorrect information over AIS can lead to marine accidents. AIS is recognised as an anti-collision aid in navigation when used in conjunction with ECDIS, radar and VHF radio communications.
The US Coast Guard (USCG) alerted vessel operators to ensure they transmit accurate data following a deadly collision between two tugs pulling barge trains on the lower Mississippi River. That accident resulted in one tug capsize and crew fatalities because both towboats were transmitting incorrect AIS data, in particular, the wrong length of their tow.
In response, USCG urged towboat and tugboat owners to check their AIS information is correct and reminded owners of the importance of AIS data entry and display for safe navigation.
USCG’s Navigation Center also published the AIS Encoding Guide to provide instructions on how to populate all data fields in AIS, including the correct overall length.
In Q2 2020, the UK’s Maritime Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) highlighted navigation risks from incorrectly reading AIS data in its report into the collision between UK-registered container ship ANL Wyong and Italian-registered gas carrier King Arthur in the approaches to Algeciras, Spain.
ANL Wyong was stopped, having been given direction by Algeciras pilots to wait outside Gibraltar Bay. King Arthur was making its way towards a boat transfer position inside Gibraltar Bay.
MAIB determined the accident happened because neither bridge team appreciated the risk of collision in sufficient time to take effective action. Due to dense fog, King Arthur’s master could not see ANL Wyong so his assessment of the situation was primarily based on AIS data.
ANL Wyong’s AIS data indicated the container ship was under way, which led King Arthur’s master to turn the gas carrier to starboard to avoid collision. But that action put the vessels on a collision course. MAIB also identified that VHF radio conversations were a significant distraction on board King Arthur in the time prior to the accident.
In its report, MAIB said it was “unhelpful that the AIS navigational status data field did not have a descriptor for a vessel underway but not making way”. As a result, MAIB made a recommendation to the UK’s Maritime and Coastguard Agency to propose a review of AIS vessel status data to include a description for vessels underway but not making way.
When AIS is switched off, authorities could still track vessels using radio frequency (RF) spectrum. Kleos Space is investing in satellites for space-powered RF reconnaissance of ships. Its Scouting Mission satellites are in Chennai, India awaiting launch by the Indian Space Research Organisation.
This first cluster of four satellites will detect and geolocate maritime RF transmissions, enabling vessel tracking. They will be in a 37° inclination orbit, covering important shipping regions for defence and security customers including the Middle East, South China Sea, Australian coast, the Caribbean, Americas coastlines and the east and west African coasts.
In June, Kleos started collaborating with Canadian Global Spatial Technology Solutions to develop maritime situational awareness using artificial intelligence (AI) to detect and predict vessel activity to support defence, civil and commercial solutions.
In May, Spire Global formed a partnership with VesselBot to develop digital solutions combining AIS with weather data and AI technology. VesselBot has already introduced data analytics solutions for the dry bulk carrier market.
Spire Maritime has around 100 satellites in orbit tracking vessels. It offers terrestrial and satellite AIS services and dynamic AIS, which combines data processing and algorithms for more accurate vessel tracking in real-time without any gaps. It provides high frequency position updates and forecast data.
Satellite AIS data will also be used for the first autonomous vessel transatlantic voyage after exactEarth joined the Mayflower project. It will contribute two of its services to this endeavour enabling connectivity between the autonomous vessel and shore-based operations centre. In this partnership, exactEarth will supply live satellite AIS data into the mission’s operations centre, where this data will augment local AIS information collected by the ship’s onboard AIS transceiver. This will provide a real-time over-the-horizon view throughout the voyage.
In addition, exactEarth’s VHF-based machine-to-machine satellite communications service will upload sensor data in real-time from Mayflower’s onboard weather station via an exactEarth-supplied onboard transmitter.
AIS and sensor data will be transmitted from this autonomous vessel to shore over exactEarth’s exactView RT constellation of 58 operational payloads and seven orbital spares, built by Harris and hosted on Iridium Next satellites.
exactView RT tracks a population of more than 500,000 unique vessels worldwide and generates average global revisit rates and average latency rates of less than one minute.