By Bruce Striegler

Bill English, President of North Vancouver-based Xanatos Marine Ltd. says the company has won a $4.9-million contract from the U.S. Department of State to provide 19,000 AIS (automatic identification system) transmit-only transponders to an agency of the Secretariat of Communications and Transportation. The Mexican Maritime Authority recently issued a directive making AIS transmitting devices mandatory on any small vessel in Mexican waters. Automatic identification systems are shipboard broadcast transponders that continually transmit a ships’ identification, position, speed and course to other nearby ships as well as shore-based command centres, all broadcast on a common VHF radio channel.

Mr. English said that Xanatos Marine and the Mexican government had been in talks for some years regarding the AIS technology and the government’s desire to monitor smaller vessels. “The discussions had moved forward, but hit a snag when funding for the system was not available. Finally, it was determined that under the Mérida Initiative – a U.S. State Department response to the Mexican Government’s request for assistance with equipment, training and technical support in its war on drugs – we could proceed with the application for sale of the AIS transponders.”

The Identifier (I100) transponder, supplied by em-trak, offers the capacity to track the position of small vessels and provides information about the vessel and its owner. It is powered by an internal rechargeable battery and has integrated VHF and GPS antennas with an intelligent two watt transmitter. Captain Manuel Gutierrez, Mexico’s Port and Maritime Security Director said that once the project is completed, it will assist Mexico in protecting its citizens and secure its waters by increasing response times to incidents and preventing illegal activity originated at sea.

Automatic identification systems became mandatory for commercial shipping in 2004 following implementation of the International Maritime Organization’s International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) requirement that AIS be fitted aboard international ships with a gross tonnage of 300 or more tonnes, as well as passenger ships regardless of size. In 2007, a new Class B AIS standard was introduced, enabling the development of a generation of low-cost AIS transceivers. This triggered further national mandates for the systems from governments around the world.

Once installed aboard Mexican vessels, the identifier will provide Mexican command centres a comprehensive view of both coastlines adjacent to the U.S. border allowing the centre to locate and identify, in real-time, any small vessels cruising within its borders. Real-time AIS data will also be shared with the U.S. Narcotic Affairs Section and  U.S. Coast Guard.

AIS can be more than an anti-collision system

Bill English says, “Ironically, it’s the U.S. Government that’s holding this technology back, particularly the U.S. Coast Guard. AIS was designed and developed as an anti-collision tool, but it can be used for so much more. The Coast Guard has reluctantly accepted that it also is an effective vessel traffic system (VTS), but it has yet to concede it can be used for many other applications.”

Xanatos Marine’s international client list includes the Police and Navy of Thailand, Indonesian Police as well as the Ports of Hong Kong and Kaohsiung, Taiwan, and Mr. English says that Asian jurisdictions are utilizing AIS for many other purposes. He cites several examples including the monitoring of fishing vessels to ensure fleets aren’t working in closed waters, or fishing companies that have the system aboard the mother ship to monitor where their smaller vessels are, and are thus able to direct fleets to where the fish are.

English says the solutions to security are far more complex than merely adding AIS to vessels. He points out that, “AIS is not the end-all of technologies. You have to integrate it very tightly, with other technologies fused into it. You need to have everything running on the same screen, and highly automated. One can see AIS-equipped vessels on a monitor, but in most cases, you can’t actually see the smaller vessels – that’s where you need radar. In addition to radar, you need to be able to conduct a visual inspection that would require powerful CCTV capabilities. Moreover, one might want to add underwater sonar.”

The weak link in AIS systems

He observes that the weak link in the current generation of collision-avoidance electronics is the inability to identify any given radar target when multiple contacts are being tracked, especially at night or in reduced visibility. “It is impossible to verify a ship’s identity visually and this inevitably leads to confusion and is cited often as a contributing factor to many collisions or near-collisions at sea.”

Mr. English says that AIS will help resolve this difficulty by providing a means for ships to exchange IDs, positions, course, speed and other data with nearby ships and shore stations through a standardized transponder system. He notes that the data exchange is totally automatic and transparent to users. “The result will be dramatic improvements in situational awareness for officers of the watch who will have clear and unambiguous identification from all other AIS-equipped ships.”

Since AIS is a published standard, Bill English says the chances of more standards being added are quite low. “The difference is what applications may be developed inside of the technology that is already there. Xanatos Marine works with individual clients to develop AIS systems that are tailored to their specific needs.” The company has offices in Canada and Mexico, programmers in China and Thailand, while adding new agents across the U.S. and Caribbean. The company develops its own proprietary software applications.

Pioneering additional AIS uses

The company is a pioneer in testing and finding custom applications for AIS. In 2000-01, Xanatos Marine conducted studies on cruise ships well in advance of the final AIS standards announced by the International Maritime Orga­ni­zation. Three major cruise ships were equipped with prototype transponders connected to the ship’s Electronic Chart Display and Information system (ECDIS).

Xanatos has also worked with a range of Canadian Authorities on experimental or monitoring studies of AIS and custom applications. This included a Transport Canada study involving the movement of dangerous goods, the Canadian Coast Guard on a four-year AIS pre-implementation study in B.C., as well as other projects involving AIS systems for non-SOLAS ships and an environmental project monitoring wind speeds and current directions at Port Metro Vancouver’s Deltaport.

In late July, the company received word it had won a project in the Malacca Straits, the narrow 805-kilometre waterway between the Malay Peninsula and the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Bill English says the World Bank, IMO, Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia along with about 40 shipping companies contributed approximately $10 million for a pilot project to monitor tides and currents, winds and water depths as well as monitoring illegal vessel movements. “All of this is being brought together and displayed on our system. This has been years in the making and there were a 100 companies bidding for this, but we were the eventual winner”.