A long, confusing course for AIS

I have been involved in the evolution of the Automatic Identification System (AIS) for quite a few years now.

As a member of the Passenger Vessel Association’s Regulatory Issues Committee, I took part in early discussions with the Coast Guard about the introduction and intended use of AIS technology and commented on related rulemakings. I have seen the price of AIS units drop from five figures early on to the relatively affordable price of around $1,000 today for some units. However, I am still confused about why we are using AIS. Is it for security or is it mostly a navigation tool?

Before 9/11, AIS was actually viewed as a navigation aid, but it never really caught on in the maritime industry or with government regulators. After 9/11, everything changed, with AIS promoted as a security tool to enhance Maritime Domain Awareness. Now it appears we have come full circle as mariners are using AIS for navigation.

As an interesting aside, the Coast Guard’s AIS regulatory process has not been finalized, so AIS is still not required on most domestic passenger vessels.

Nonetheless, this past month I voluntarily installed complete AIS, satellite compass, radar, and an electronic chart system on my vessel, the Belle of Cincinnati . I am still unsure what benefits I will actually receive from all of this. Will vessel security be improved? Will the security of my community be enhanced because my vessel will be digitally tracked? Or will navigation safety be improved because others with similar technology can keep tabs on my movements?

While I am impressed with the seemingly endless stream of information at my fingertips, I find myself looking down at the equipment more than I should, when my attention should really be focused on what is occurring outside the window of my pilothouse. This concerns me. I am afraid that mariners will become too reliant on AIS instead of time-proven techniques to navigate. As a result, safety may suffer.

Since the security aspect of AIS appears to have taken a backseat to navigation, the time and energy we put into the AIS regulatory process in the name of security seems to have been misplaced, and AIS’s security benefits appear to be minimal.

Now that we have AIS on the Belle of Cincinnati , I like it. But it’s not because of security reasons. The question is, where did we lose our direction and why did we need an expensive and time-consuming regulatory process to get to where we are today on AIS?



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