Freedom and Security: The Dilemma of Vessel Tracking

Improved vessel automated identification systems can help avoid collisions, prevent attacks

IS THE new generation of global ship tracking technology to be the scourge of marine terrorists? Or is it a potential threat to the security of shipping as the location of just about every vessel becomes available to all?

On April 24 and 25, leading experts in the use and development of compulsory Automated Identification Systems and the impending use of long-range tracking of vessels convene at the Crowne Plaza at St James's in London to discuss how we are best providing the security and freedom of the seas rather than just overburdening ships, officers and airwaves to meet the demands of bureaucrats and politicians.

No matter who you ask in the industry, they will have an opinion on what has become one of its most sensitive issues. International Maritime Organization secretary-general Efthimios Mitropoulos is due to set the scene on the issues surrounding the introduction of improved AIS and the equally sensitive introduction of compulsory satellite-based vessel reporting and tracking.

There seems to have been general consensus on the need to track vessels as they sail the oceans, but as yet there is no complete consensus on the political, legal or financial direction.

AIS was introduced as a mandatory prescription to the shipping industry's fear of terrorism. It was hailed as a great step forward in securing safe ships and navigation but was promptly derided as being poorly set up, badly explained and, by many a navigating officer, seen as yet another piece of hardware set in another remote corner of the chartroom.

Since then, shipping companies have battled through the obligatory installation of AIS transponders and the often loathed minimum keypad device.

'In general the seafarer now likes it,' says David Patraiko of the Nautical Institute. 'It improves awareness of the surroundings, but it has severe drawbacks. Poor inputting, poor installation and incorrect data, along with improper training, made for huge inaccuracies and a lack of faith in this new technology.'

Andy Norris of the Royal Institute of Navigation concurs: 'It was introduced in a rush, but things are getting better. The next level of regulation that came in this month makes it compulsory for new radars to have a built-in AIS display. This will be a great help to bridge teams.'

However, the problems in using these technologies on board accurately have been echoed by companies such as Marico Marine which have been called in over the past five years to give advice on AIS installation and operation along with traffic monitoring.

Marico consultant Dennis Barber believes the discussion goes further and says: 'There is a plethora of instances where we have seen poor installation of the equipment, the vessel's heading being wrongly inputted, the antenna being shrouded by the vessels structure and the signal being lost.

'There is no doubt that AIS provides a simpler solution for tracking and monitoring, but there remains the issue that many think they can install and forget it, that it does not require the attention that radar or even the eyeball requires.'

Increased reliance on this rapidly improving system, especially as it becomes an integrated part of the bridge navigation system, is having its own impact.

In a recent incident, a watch officer used AIS to send a message to another vessel asking it to alter course, rather than applying the rule of the road and reports of a new type of collision risk are emerging, the 'waypoint collision'.

Traffic separation schemes have revolutionised the avoidance of collisions in congested waters, but there are stories of vessels travelling along a TSS aiming for the same waypoint, a centre point in a TSS or similarly easily navigable point.

Previously this convergence has been mitigated by inaccuracy of navigation a half-mile inaccuracy from a series of compass bearings was considered acceptable and the navigator's knowledge that an alteration can begin with that distance from the waypoint.

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