The emerging world of vessel tracking



Captain Ed Page, U.S. Coast Guard (Retired), President, Maritime Information Services of North America, Juneau, Alaska, USA


For ages, the allure of going to sea, has been the ability to cast off all lines, escape all ties with civilisation and sail the oceans blue. Similarly, years ago aviators flew the skies free as a bird. Regrettably, those carefree days are behind us! The high stakes of an aviation or maritime incident, and the demand for greater efficiencies in our transportation systems, have led to the evolution of tracking technologies, which to date, have been slow in coming for the maritime community.

The aviation community has had a comprehensive aircraft tracking and control system in place for years through the use of radars and aircraft transponders. The maritime community is now finally moving in the same direction through the use of new satellite and line of site VHF communication technologies that are providing worldwide vessel tracking.

The need for vessel tracking

The one watershed event that accelerated vessel tracking was the 9/11 attacks on the U.S. Authorities quickly realised a terrorist incident involving vessels could have even greater impacts, and some opined the maritime transportation sector was the least secure and most vulnerable. U.S. Coast Guard Commandant, Admiral Tom Collins highlighted the importance of tracking vessels when he stated “with regard to Maritime Domain Awareness, which is the centrepiece of our maritime security strategy, we believe that the installation of Automatic Identification System (AIS) and Long Range Tracking Devices will aid enormously in providing the necessary information on in-bound maritime shipping, long before ships reach our ports.”

These concerns led to a series of U.S. and international regulations and treaties to bolster security. In 2002, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) passed the International Ship and Port Facility Security (ISPS) Code requiring a suite of enhanced security measures. These included the installation of worldwide satellite tracking equipment, Ship Security Alert Systems (SSAS) and a line of site VHF radio vessel tracking devices, AIS on vessels sailing the oceans to aid the monitoring of vessels’ present positions, past port calls and transits. The IMO also passed a resolution which in part stated that the IMO “urges contracting governments to take, as a matter of high priority, any action needed at national level to give effect to implementing and beginning the longrange identification and tracking of ships.” Clearly, the U.S. and the international community are poised to implement systems that track the approximately 60,000 vessels that ply the seas. For the U.S. alone, some 8,000 deep draft vessels call on U.S. ports annually making vessel tracking a daunting challenge.

While vessels have been installing these new communications technologies to provide a worldwide vessel tracking system, the equipment and processes required to receive, evaluate and disseminate this surge of information is years off from being fully implemented by governments. The biggest challenges are building and operating the shore based receiving stations around the world to process the vessel information transmitted by vessels AIS transponders and determining the systems to be used in collecting and sharing this information.

The role of MISNA

Recognising vessel tracking is the wave of the future, several commercial and non-governmental entities are developing the systems needed to receive and process vessel position data today. One organisation, the non-profit Maritime Information Services of North America (MISNA), comprised of a network of Maritime Exchanges in U.S. and Canada, has developed the capability to bring in both AIS and satellite generated data into a hybrid vessel tracking system called the Automated Secure Vessel Tracking System or ASVTS. MISNA advocates information on vessels’ positions when shared with government and commercial maritime interests can aid “safe, secure, efficient and environmentally sound maritime operations.” In most cases MISNA’s vessel tracking system uses existing on board satellite and VHF communications systems to economically track vessels around the world for a US$3 a day, a cost every shipper should be able to easily absorb. MISNA has also built a network of AIS receiving stations around the U.S. which report a vessel’s position every minute when in an AIS covered area. When a vessel is outside an AIS area, which is 95% of the time, position reports are provided every few hours by the satellite tracking systems.

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