Do I need AIS?

Automatic Identification System, or AIS, has been slow to proliferate the masses. The Oil Polution Act of 1990 directed the USCG to operate additional equipment, 
as necessary, to provide surveillance of tank vessels transiting Prince
William Sound, Alaska. That effort has been in place since 1994 through a system then
known as ``Automated Dependent Surveillance.'' Advances have taken
place with this technology, now referred to as AIS.

Based on VHF FM radio, AIS provides mariners with near real-time information regarding another vessel's identity, dimensions, speed over ground, course over ground, navigation status, and heading. It will aid mariners in identifying other vessels in restricted visibility, and those that would be indistinguishable in radar sea clutter. It displays the bearing and
range of other AIS-equipped vessels and provides another means of reliable communication by using ship-to-ship addressed text messages. This information can then further be displayed on a chart plotter or dedicated display to show the relative bearing from your own position. Some systems can be further integrated to allow DSC hailing directly from a chart display representation of the AIS target. In fact, the USCG believes that it is one of the most significant tools available to a helmsman for safety. It's just that not so many people have it.

That is all about to change with the final regulations set to go into effect next month. It will now be required equipment for all commercial vessels over 65' or those over 26' and towing. In addition, those dredging or carrying dangerous cargo will be compelled to carry a class A device. A class B device can be used on the following vessels if they do not have pilotage requirements; fishing industry vessels over 65', over 65' and carry less than 150 passengers and over 65' while not in VTS, and are slower than 14 knots. SOLAS ships have to carry a class A with a heading reference.

So, now that all commercial boats over 65', and any commercial boat carrying over 150 passengers, will be compelled to carry AIS by March 2016, maybe it will become a more useful tool for traffic avoidance.

The problem has been that not enough boats have had the transponders. In crowded harbors such as the east coast, or Seattle, you can see many AIS targets on tracking sites like Marine Traffic  or others. In Alaska, we have a severe abundance of wide open expanse and not very many AIS installations. I may only see a couple of AIS targets around if any at all. Those have mostly been large ships, but no more.

With the large amount of commercial vessel traffic we see during our brief boating season in Alaska, this transponder carriage requirement will make it easier for all navigators to identify and communicate with other vessels, as long as you can receive AIS messages. And if you were ever concerned about being seen by large commercial traffic, then installing an AIS device on your boat will make sure you show up in a large boat wheelhouse, even if your boat gives a weak radar signature.

The use of AIS systems for collision avoidance will only get better as more participate by carrying position reporting equipment of their own. But, as with all the high tech equipment in the pilothouse, always remember to keep a weather eye to the horizon and another on the radar.

Capt. Brett