Disappearing nav aids

Now you see it, now you don’t. Virtual reality will soon become a daily part of the working lives of mariners across North America as the U.S. Coast Guard and other federal agencies deploy and begin to test the latest brainstorm in navigation technology: Automatic Identification System Aids to Navigation (AIS ATON).

The VHF-FM radio-based vessel AIS system that we’re now all well accustomed to will be expanded to augment the existing physical ATON system of buoys, lights, etc. AIS ATON will consist of three types — real, synthetic and virtual — within two categories called on location and off location. Real AIS ATON, where the AIS unit is physically located on the navigation aid and broadcasts from it, will be the only type in the on location category. Synthetic AIS ATON, where the signal coincides geographically with an existing aid, and Virtual AIS ATON, where the signal represents an imaginary aid, are both broadcast from remote base stations. Thus, these AIS ATONs are in the off-location category. I predict we’ll see few of the former and lots of the latter.

Why? Because real buoys, lights, day marks and other physical aids cost a lot of money to build, install and maintain. And it just so happens that funding is in short supply these days. Virtual substitutes, on the other hand, are extremely cheap, which makes them very attractive to cash-strapped government agencies whose future budgets are in dire jeopardy of being subject to steady, long-term cuts.

So don’t be surprised when AIS augmentation of ATON gradually transforms into AIS replacement of ATON. Though certainly not satisfactory, it’s an understandable and predictable course of action given the circumstances. As for navigation safety, I don’t see any net gains coming from it, no matter how sweet the tech talk.

So sit back, look out the pilothouse windows, and enjoy the show. Like magic, watch as the buoys begin to disappear. The results are likely to get very interesting.

About the author

Joel Milton

Joel Milton has worked aboard fishing boats, pilot boats, Coast Guard cutters and small boats, dredge tenders, offshore crewboats and supply boats, towing vessels, a small container ship, and a wide variety of small craft including an inflatable yellow “ducky” The Piker.

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