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.
However, GPS provides such accurate positioning that ships are trying to get on to the waypoint and with a number of vessels aiming for the same point a number of near misses have been reported.
However, this is forgetting the primary reason AIS was introduced in the first place to aid security, making it easier for ships, ports and other authorities to identify approaching targets.
Today this AIS data is easily accessible by anyone with a receiver, and now ports and other industries are able to watch and use it in conjunction with their VTS systems, which again highlights how AIS can be a great help when used alongside radar-based tracking.
Ports such as Rotterdam and London, case studies at the vessel tracking conference, have successfully implemented their AIS systems, making their data more dynamic and accessible.
The global collection of this data is a commodity that services such as Seasearcher are using to good effect. A service from Lloyd's Marine Intelligence Unit, this provides optional real time data to subscribers who have an interest in knowing when certain ships are in port, close to ports and where they are bound.
Clearly the knowledge that a ship is coming into port over the next few hours is useful to many different kinds of person. LMIU has rolled out an AIS network to complement the Lloyd's agents around the world. They are assured that they do everything to prevent this data reaching the wrong hands.
But the threat of an attack does not just come from large ships. The threat from small vessels was proven when the Limburg and the USS Cole were attacked. It is for this reason that one of the largest ports and busiest stretches of water is pursuing a system to track every small vessel in its waters.
Singapore sees thousands of vessels pass through the straits every year, many calling for bunkers, provisions or cargo operations. They are serviced by thousands of small craft, which according to Kum Chee Meng of Singapore Technologies Electronics are vital to the smooth operation of maritime services
'These smaller vessels remains a constant major security concern,' he says. 'They are important, but the danger continues to lurk. Six years ago terrorists used small boats to attack the USS Cole in Aden and again the tanker Limburg off Yemen in 2000. The aim was to cause as much disruption as possible.'
That is why Singapore Technologies Electronics and the country's Maritime and Port Authority have been working on a system where smaller craft can also be tracked. That means that in the waters off Singapore about 5,000 craft will have to be monitored daily.
The new proposal is for an AIS B systems which is a cheaper, less robust version of the existing system. The proposal is that it transmits less data but can at least allow a small vessel's identity to be seen as well as other key data, allowing the Singapore port authority to identify radar targets swiftly and accurately eliminate the craft as a risk.
However, Hakan Lans, the inventor of the key functional technology that became AIS Sotdma, or Self-Organising Time Division Multiple Access, which prevents transmissions overlapping thinks that using a new AIS system, AIS-B, will cause huge problems
'It is strange that there is a proposal to increase the number of boats using the new class B AIS system and changing to a technology which some see has a hugely reduced capacity,' he says. 'AIS-A uses a technology that allows sharing of transmission slots, which AIS-B will not. These systems are not compatible.'
But the opportunity for a port to monitor and identify rapidly all its traffic is a benefit that many will see as outweighing any problems, and if this goes ahead the right solutions will be found.
But spare a thought for Southampton Water in Cowes week and imagine what even the most detailed AIS integrated radar picture will look like.
The next debate being raised is how to introduce global tracking. AIS is VHF-based and limited in range. Long Range tracking is a proposed total satellite based tracking system.
In its simplicity this is nothing new. Shipping companies have been requiring the masters of their vessels to report noon positions through Inmarsat for many years. Many companies even pass this information on to search and rescue services such as Amver (Automated Mutual Vessel Emergency Response).
It was originally set up to provide a database of merchant vessels at sea in the wake of the Titanic, when it was highlighted that some of the ships in the region could have rendered assistance if they had been made aware of the sinking.
A key question is what role the ship owner or manager will have in providing this information and then who has access to it. A recent IMO committee decided that if long-range tracking became compulsory, the ship should not have to pay and the data should be available to the flag state and next port of call.
However, the discussion continues as to when the port state receives the data and, more controversially, whether the countries that a ship is passing, but not calling at, gets the identity and position of vessels off its coast. Often called the 'state of innocent passage', some claim that for environmental and security reasons they should be able to monitor them.
The commandant of the Norwegian Coast Guard, Geir Osen, believes these so-called states of innocent passage should have access, adding: 'Coastal states have national and international responsibilities in the EEZ and on the continental shelf in relation to safety, security and the environment.
'Countries like Norway have, for example, a number of offshore oil and gas installations more than 100 nautical miles from its coastline and would therefore benefit from being able to track all ships which may be a threat to such installations.'
The cost of this information should be borne by all, contends Gunnar Stolsvik, head of the Norwegian Coast Guard's Legal Section.
He says: 'If coastal states have a need for such information, and we believe many states will feel that way, they will have to pay for it. Unless states are willing to pay for such information, an international LRIT system will probably never be established.'
What has yet to be determined is who manages this data, coming from every vessel at sea. Who will manage this mass of data and how will the IMO ensure the data is kept secure?
In fact, should there be an oversight body an approved independent organisation capable of enforcing the rules and ensuring the data is given to the right organisation? Some think the International Mobile Satellite Organisation should take this role, others say it should be a consortium or shared between nation states.
Valeriy Bogdanov, director-general of Russian satellite provider Morsvyazsputnik, says: 'Oversight for LRIT requires very exact definition and delineation with the LRIT Co-ordinator.
'I think that the LRIT Co-ordinator function as defined in the Comsar document will be enough to cover co-ordination and oversight and reporting to IMO. Otherwise the system becomes too bureaucratic and costly.'
In today's world, where one can go online, download Google Earth and see an aerial picture of vessels entering harbour, where almost any data is available though there may be a price tag in a world where the concern from the US authorities, or any authority with the fear of a national threat, is that of a rogue ship with a crude intercontinental ballistic missile, the IMO has every reason to take this argument seriously.
But is this integration of AIS and long-range tracking, the provision of a completely global ability to track and position every ship, a step towards totalitarian data control? The control and access to this data will have many uses.
Data is power, but is complete data, complete power, completely corruptible or trustworthy? The proof will come only when all members of the IMO agree on who should have access to the data and when they should get it.