Coast Guard gets satellite help

Coast Guard officials plan to use satellite signals to help track ships far from the United States.

At an oversight hearing held this week 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 receiver. They will install the receiver on an Orbcomm Inc. commercial satellite by the end of next year. It will be able to collect and process AIS data well beyond the U.S. coast more quickly and cheaply.

The Maritime Transportation Security Act requires Coast Guard officials to develop and implement an identification system that would report the location and identity of vessels to Coast Guard and other officials in real time. This system will enhance the Coast Guard's capabilities to target and track vessels. The safety of the maritime transportation industry depends on the accuracy of navigational charts and real-time information about weather, tides and currents in coastal and offshore waters.

"I am hopeful that these technologies developed by [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials] 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.), subcommittee chairman

After the hearing, subcommittee staff director John Rayfield said unlike with planes, "we don't really know where all the ships are." The receivers cause that problem. Now, NOAA technology and a satellite program will help.

AIS has been an international standard for safety even before current security concerns. With the technology, ships can receive information, such as radar-like images of other ships, updated weather reports and changes in waterway conditions.

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. Equipment to provide AIS capability in San Francisco; Puget Sound, Wash.; and Port Arthur, Texas is planned for installation by the end of the calendar year.

The AIS program cost $24 million in fiscal 2004. Coast Guard officials have requested $4 million for fiscal 2005.

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