Coast Guard gets satellite help

Coast Guard officials plan to use satellite monitoring to track ships at sea, creating a maritime equivalent of an air traffic control system.

At an oversight hearing held in October by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee's Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Subcommittee, Coast Guard officials said they have entered into an agreement to track vessels with an automatic identification system (AIS) receiver. They will install the receiver on an Orbcomm Inc. commercial satellite by the end of next year.

AIS is a shipboard broadcast system that transmits vessels' identifications and positions to aid navigation. The AIS equipment looks like a radar screen. The satellite acts as a receiver, while the systems on ships and ports both transmit and receive information, such as ship names, cargo and registration.

Unlike airplanes, vessels have traveled without a system to prevent collisions, navigate ships and monitor security. Now, with AIS, change is imminent.

The seas will become safer for vessels in a post-Sept. 11, 2001, world, officials said. Sailboats will be aware of cruise ships looming on the horizon. Vessels will be able to chart paths, considering information such as weather patterns and ocean currents provided by systems developed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

And Homeland Security Department officials will be able to better gauge when ships enter U.S. waters. The satellite acts as an eye in the sky, officials said.

The Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002 requires Coast Guard officials to develop and implement an identification system that can report the location and identity of vessels to Coast Guard and other officials. This system will enhance the Coast Guard's capabilities to target and track vessels.

"I am hopeful that these technologies developed by NOAA can be combined with Coast Guard systems, including AIS, to produce a common platform that can be used to improve navigation and vessel security," said Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-N.J.), the subcommittee's chairman.

Unlike with planes, subcommittee staff director John Rayfield said after the hearing, "we don't really know where all the ships are."

AIS was an international standard for safety even before current security concerns. Whereas radar has problems with debris and clutter, AIS presents a clear picture of a ship's name, cargo, direction and speed, among other variables.

Airplane identification systems differ because their transponders do not transmit until contacted. As a more advanced system, AIS automatically transmits position information. Solar-powered transmitters and receivers on NOAA data buoys also will send position information.

"These things are very technical," said Dana Goward, chief of programs and architecture for maritime domain awareness at the Coast Guard. "They involve a bunch of contractors. It really is rocket science."

"Oftentimes, ships cannot see the length of the full ship," said Ross Norsworthy, one of the developers of AIS. "The ships' radar falls short of the mark on completing the safety picture. If I'm a cruise ship, it tells you how large the [other] ships are, so navigation safety at sea is greatly improved."

But AIS is not a substitute for radar, said Mark Johnson, president of Shine Micro Inc., an AIS manufacturer. "There could be small boats that don't have AIS, [such as] a lot of Coast Guard auxiliary boats," he said. His company is working on AIS for smaller ships.

Near ports, AIS draws ships to scale for Coast Guard officials from data gleaned from electronic nautical charts on boats, buoys, lighthouses and Coast Guard aircraft. Next, AIS penetrates the seas, Norsworthy said. "We expect AIS to be installed on tall radio towers along ports, and that's Big Brother watching you," he said.

The satellite should be launched in 2005, said Jeffrey High, the Coast Guard's director of maritime domain awareness. He said AIS is carried aboard thousands of ships worldwide. The Coast Guard has AIS in the Vessel Traffic Service ports of New York; New Orleans; Berwick Bay, La.; Houston/Galveston; Los Angeles/Long Beach; Prince William Sound, Alaska; and Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.

Automatic identification systems

Officials at Orbcomm Inc. are working with the Coast Guard to add an automatic identification system receiver to one of the company's satellites to enable Coast Guard officers to better track commercial vessels for safety and security.

The satellite will act as a receiver. Systems on ships and at ports will transmit and receive information, such as the names of ships, their cargo and registration details.

— Aliya Sternstein

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