In the May 2014 issue of Workboat, Joel Milton wrote an incisive article about Automatic Identification System Aids to Navigation (AIS ATON) entitled “Disappearing nav aids.” 

The lighthouse is a thing of the past — just like VOR navigation for airplanes — but now navigational buoys and markers could be made obsolete by the AIS ATON appearing on your ECDIS-equipped radar or GPS. After all, an electronic nav aid is nothing more than a traditional lat/long waypoint labeled as a navigational symbol. So the transition to ephemeral buoys and markers that exist only in the electronic universe seems a natural development. In an instant, the unforeseen becomes the inevitable. 

Joel is right that there will always be a need for physical marking of hazards to navigation, but many nav aids are positional references rather than cautionary markings. These could be replaced with electronic markers without compromising the safety of appropriately equipped vessels. Although Joel accepts the inevitability of electronic nav aids, he thinks the trend is “certainly not satisfactory,” and writes, “I don’t see any net gains coming from it, no matter how sweet the tech talk.”

I don’t entirely agree. If the money saved on physical nav aid maintenance was spent wisely on other marine infrastructure needs, there could be a net benefit to the mariner. Safe navigation of AIS ATON-only waters would require electronic equipment onboard, but widespread adoption of new technology almost always brings increased regimentation and lower costs. With mass production, the cost per unit could be minimal.

So the development of AIS ATON may well prove beneficial in the long run. However, no approaching dot on an electronic display will ever give the same satisfaction as glimpsing, after a long sea passage, the welcoming sweep of a distant lighthouse on the shores of home.

A collection of stories from guest authors.