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AIS   -   2008/11/19Viewed 237 times this month, last update: 2009/08/24


Automatic Information System (AIS) is a digital packet radio system, similar to the ham-radio APRS system, but for (usually) large ocean-going vessels. AIS allows ships to transmit their position, speed, course, ship-type, and many, many other details, so that other ships in the area can have a better situational awareness, which is better for everybody!

AIS has many more functions than just positional data beaconing. AIS can be used for communication of almost any kind of information. AIS is used by draw-bridge operators, search-and-rescue teams, and the military. An AIS system is mandated for large ships, but even some smaller craft have AIS gear. my boat, even being just a 23 footer will have an AIS box, but it is likely to be one of the smallest craft transmitting!

Chris and I would like to use AIS on our boat to help in navigation and communication. So, we've got the radio hardware, and we're developing the software to make it work. To this end, I've written some data-handling applications, and I'm working on plug-in to the OpenMap program, to plot AIS data on a map. See the aislib and openmap-ais modules in my CVS repository!

Here's a screenshot of my OpenMAP AIS layer showing San Pedro harbor, with NOAA's harbor detail map overlayed on some Topo maps:

Here's a screenshot showing all the activity around Greece and Turkey:

And here's another screenshot showing San Pedro harbor, zoomed in with about 12 hours of trails:

Also check out MarineTraffic.com to see a great internet-connected AIS mapping system.

Update: 2009/03/22 Santiago Mountain AIS Coverage Maps
Yesterday Chris and I took the truck up Maple Springs Road out of Santiago Canyon up to Main Divide road on Santiago Mountain to see how well we could receive AIS messages from the mountaintop.
We took along one of Chris' SeaTex AIS transceivers, and my laptop with my OpenMap AIS layer running, so we could plot received position reports relative to our own position, and so get a rough outline of that position's AIS coverage.
We didn't get to go up to Modjeska or Santiago peaks because the roads were closed (probably from snow), but we did get to try it the more northern peaks, and got some VERY good results!

From Beat Flats, right at the top of Maple Springs Road, and with Modjeska Peak blocking much of the Southeast, we got this map. I know there is a transmitting AIS station right at San Diego harbor's northern point that we're not seeing here, but otherwise this shows a coverage of at least 150 miles to the South and about 100 miles to the Northwest. Not bad at all!
From Pleasant's Peak, which is about 1000 feet lower, but is less obstructed, we see a similar picture, but now two ships behind Catalina Island pop up. This shows we're actually seeing over the island, which makes the westerly reception as good as the southern reception: at least 150 miles!
From Sierra Peak the coverage extends more than 200 miles to the south, as far Northwest as Santa Cruz Island, but possibly doesn't see over Catalina Island.
I'm sure the coverage from Modjeska or Santiago Peak would be even better, but these show that even these lower peaks have extremely good coverage of not just AIS, but the entire Southern California region west of the mountain range!

Update: 2009/04/05 Santiago Peak AIS Coverage Maps
Last weekend we finally got up to the Santiago and Modjeska peaks to check for AIS coverage. As expected, the coverage was outstanding, perfect in places. From both peaks, we could see AIS stations INSIDE each of San Pedro, Newport, Dana Point, Oceanside and even San Diego harbors.

Absolutely perfect reception from Santiago Peak.
And perfect reception from Modjeska Peak.

Update: 2009/08/24 House Coverage Maps
This time the map is a similar area, but blue dots for position reports heard from my house, and red dots for position reports from Chris' house.

Click Here to view the first 1 comments to this article!

Erik (2008-11-25): Gersh,
Sorry about that, I didn't realize my CVS viewer program didn't allow directory-download. I've compiled packages for the two modules, for download until I get something more clean figured out:


ShipsMate (2009-02-22): Hi Erik,
AIS was brought in after 9/11 to give us MORE security. You should know that your sending of your AIS data to the web causes a security risk for us professional seafarers and it has been condemned by IMO. See under Maritime Security at the following link:

Erik (2009-02-22): ShipsMate,
Paragraph 2 of the article you linked to contains the following:

"In 2000, IMO adopted a new requirement (as part of a revised new chapter V) for all ships to carry automatic identification systems (AISs)..."

9/11 has nothing to do with AIS's introduction, and no changes to the AIS specification occurred as a result of 9/11.

AIS messages are a standardized, unencrypted broadcast format, able to be received by anyone who can tune a radio to channel 87/88. Rebroadcasting these messages in any form (including over the internet) is perfectly legal.

Clamping down on the dissemination of information is one of the least effective means of increasing security, and one of the most damaging to innovation.

Increasing use of technologies like AIS, through greater adoption is a great way to increase safety, and my software helps accomplish that.

ShipsMate (2009-02-23): Erik, the implementation Date for AIS was brought forward because of 9/11, so 9/11 has plenty to do with the introduction of AIS.
You are also conveniently ignoring the paragraph in the article which relates to Maritime Security and condemns people like yourself who publish AIS data onto the Internet, through the 'aishub.net' apparently in your case.
As professional mariners, we have worked hard to put in place the IMO ISPS code, only to find people like you trying to undermine it, for no good reason.
Your software is just reproducing ideas which are already several years old and by publishing our AIS data to the Web you are doing nothing but reducing our security.

Erik (2009-02-23): ShipsMate,
I'm not ignoring anything. I simply disagree with the IMO opinion, and I disagree with your assertion that I'm making anyone less safe. I think greater adoption of AIS makes people more safe. My software is free, published under the GPL, and so is much more accessible than $5000 hardware boxes.

Erik (2009-02-23): One more thing ShipsMate: I've been contacted by several people looking to use my software to track and map their own ship's location, which of course is what I do too. One person wanted to track their company's fleet of tug boats from their office base station. That they know better where their boats are is better for the company, and better for the crew, in case of an emergency. This use is a great example of how free software speeds technology adoption, which in this case, increases safety.

ShipsMate (2009-02-28): Erik, let us compare who has the most expertise in marine security then. On the one hand we have IMO, whose staff and advisers are specialists in the subject with a combined severl hundred years of experience and who administer the ISPS code around the World. On the other hand we have you, with absolutely no training in professional marine security. So a fair summary would be that you have no knowledge of the subject but that you are casually putting seafarer's lives at risks through making your data available to anyone on the 'aishub.net'.

You are indeed ignoring IMO and you are trying to use the example of your software being of interest to a tug operator to justify your totally insecure transmission of AIS data for ALL ships onward to 'aishub.net'. I am afraid that you do not have much knowledge of AIS in general either and that you are misleading people. No one needs a $5000 hardware box and the software for something as simple as a company wishing to manage their own fleet of tugs is already both widely and freely available and in a secure version too, much better than yours. I was ashore in a tug operator's office the other day and they have a brilliant system which is SECURE too!

Stop putting our lives at risk, there is no reason for you to do so. There have alredy been a number of deaths around the World this year due to marine terrorism and I ask you to consider how you will feel when the next crewman dies.

Erik (2009-03-01): ShipsMate,
I appreciate that you are concerned for the welfare of sailors around the world. I understand your point of view that open dissemination of ship positional data is a security risk.

However, as I have already stated, my point of view is different and in my mind fully justified, as I have already described. I fundamentally disagree with the concept of information restriction being the correct way to implement security. I see that view point as short-sighted:

Clamping down on information only hurts innovation and less-well-funded individuals. A terrorist organization will not be hampered by such tactics, as they could easily buy an AIS transceiver at any marine store, and from miles away see any ship's position they want. Showing people where ships are that are thousands of miles away makes no one less secure, but restricting the technology to do so does damage innovation, creativity, and open information exchange.

Clear sailing.

MindOpen (2009-03-08): Erik, i strongly agree with your points made. AIS stays in public domain, reception and viewing of signals hurts nobody. What we are talking here is Fear, which is restricting our lives anyway more and more. Producing knowledge is a good way to overcome pointless arguments.
Lars, digital-seas.com

Erik (2009-03-08): Thanks MindOpen, Fleetmon looks awesome! It's unbelievable to me what people like you are doing with the html and javascript these days!

Peter Stoyanov (AISHub) (2009-03-10): IMO admits that "...AIS is the broadcasting device and information will be made available for everyone without any discrimination..." and "...AIS itself is a tool used in an information collection system and we can not prevent people misusing that information..." (URL http://www.imo.org/Newsroom/mainframe.asp?topic_id=897#aisworry ).
Why we are talking about security when unencrypted information is available for everyone? Everybody can purchase AIS receiver and receive the information without leaving his "footprints" on public web sites and web server logs. AIS provides no security at all!

gersh (2009-03-13): more about AIS, I know that the American Navy pushes to open up AIS data... for security reasons. NATO has his own AIS network (using MSSIS) that is opened to (almost) everybody. Also several websites serves AIS (aislive or marinetraffic) some for free.
Moreover AIS had nothing to do with 9/11. It is a safety regulation (to prevent collision. It just happened that people with an atenna on the coast can gather a good picture of the surroundings.
Now there are even satellite to gather AIS (such as the one launched by luxspace) and only in Europe, 10 satellites will be offering services to get AIS by the end of the year.

The thing is that IMO did not expect this misuse of AIS.

As for terrorist, the main concern is not about AIS, it is more about ships not having AIS.

that is why IMO have released a new regulation (LRIT) to address 9/11 concern

Kindigulous (2009-03-24): "As we look at maritime security now, we can see that the ISPS code, and the fitting of AIS and reporting systems to alert on piracy attacks are in place. This demonstrates that the maritime industry has been proactive in making the maritime domain safer for vessels and seafarers." - Violence at Sea by Peter Lehr.

Conclusion: wider adoption = better security; public contribution contributes to wider adoption. ShipMate's concerns are fear-based and not forward thinking. Keep up the good work Erik!

Paolo (2009-03-30): Hey Erik!
I write from Italy, I'm using your layer to displays AIS data of my classB device.
One question: why does it not displays positions of AIS ground stations? I know there's one installed on a hill a couple of Km far from me, but I can't see it on the Openmap display.


Erik (2009-03-30): Paolo,
Can you send me a file with the NMEA output of your device? An hour or so would be fine, and I can re-run it and see if messages are being rejected or mis-interpreted. Just email it to erik@erikburrows.com

Peter Stoyanov (2009-04-02): I am very glad that you guys support Erik's work. Our team began AISHub AIS data sharing project to help all people who develop AIS related software and I'm very happy that Erik was one of the first contributors to our server.

L.Azevedo (2009-04-15): Hi
I am broker and consultant working in shipping for over 30 years in Lisbon, and would like to comment only the following: AIS is very important for the seas and maritime activities being integrated in society where they belong. It is not by hidding info from the public and various stakeholders that ships are protected from terrorists, it is cheap and easy for any terrorist to buy an AIS receiver and a cheap PC, and track traffic if they so wish. Therefore, invoking security to restrict AIS info is ridiculous and may very well be an attempt to cover unlegitimate interests, of monopoly or abusive control of public data.

Capt.Tore (2009-07-25): Clamping down on the dissemination of information is one of the least effective means of increasing security, and one of the most damaging to innovation.

"Increasing use of technologies like AIS, through greater adoption is a great way to increase safety, and my software helps accomplish that." Here.. here.. couldn't agree more.
Next we'll be expected to douse our lanterns and abandon radio transmissions. Come on guys.. The advent of AIS is of more security to the good guy than the pirates. This kind of protectionistic attitude only benefits the extortional charges by the commercial network operators.
It's like banning knives or other utensils which can,in the wrongs hands cause damage. You can not stand in the way of progress,"Do not cover up your lamp"

Dennis (2010-01-02): ShipsMate,
Get over yourself.

Mike (2010-12-21): Guys,
I realize this discussion is a bit old, but I am making my 2cents. First off, I run my own tracking site at www.ve7prt.bc.ca/ais/aismain.htm. I have been razed by my co-workers on this as well (I am a Canadian Coast Guard Officer, so I know the value of AIS data). If anyone has read the regulations on AIS, then they should know full well that if the master of a vessel feels he/she is in an area where the vessel's security is in doubt, then he/she can switch off the AIS, or at least put it into receive-only mode, until the ship has sailed out of the doubtful security area. Also, and I have seen this many times, if a Coast Guard or Navy vessel doesn't wish to broadcast their location on AIS they simply switch it to receive-only mode. This is done when performing Silent Ops or law enforcement duties. When those duties are complete they simply allow the AIS to transmit again. ShipsMate does have a point about ship's security, but I think he has it backwards. I think the more people watching the shipping along their coasts the better the security for those ships and it is more likely someone will spot something unusual and report it to the nearest maritime authority.

See also: Sensornet, AISlib, OpenStreetMap


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