Over the last decade we have seen a complete transformation in Marine Electronic technology this has certainly been the case with the advance of Multi Function Displays (MFD’s). With the rise of Touchscreen Technology and processing power that puts computers to shame, these devices have changed how we can operate on the water in both pleasure and Commercial vessels.
MFD’s are now fast becoming the electronic heart of boats of all sizes and uses, their function way beyond just being an electronic chart. The biggest ability of the new MFD’s is the ability to overlay different information on to the electronic charts. Overlays are great at giving you extra information right in front of you in real time.
The most important overlay that you can have is without doubt the position of obstacles around you and when I say obstacles I mean other boats. There are two ways of getting this kind of overlay one being from a RADAR scan however this still needs to be interpreted correctly.
Now though we have a relatively new kid on the block and it is a real game changer that can improve the safety of everyone that uses boats. This kid is Automatic Identification System more commonly referred to as AIS.
AIS has been on commercial vessels for sometime, and is a compulsory piece of equipment on them. Now smaller boats can have this too. AIS works in two parts. You can receive data and also have the option with the right kit to transmit data. AIS is a marine version of what has been part of Aircraft Technology for a very long time and actually works in the same way providing the same sort of results.
AIS uses VHF to transmit and receive and what it provides is a very detailed set of information. AIS gives a Vessel Name its unique MMSI Number, the callsign and most importantly GPS information including current position, speed and course. Some can also send extra information like at anchor, diver in operation etc...
How is this information used?
If you have an AIS receiver the information can be overlaid onto an electronic chart which instantly gives a visual representation of the boats around you. You can also have it shown on some multi mode glass instruments like the Raymarine I70 and this is shown in a RADAR type configuration. With all the data coming into the MFD’s or instruments you can then have alarms set to warn of potential collisions and other risks. RADAR has had alarm setting for sometime but the information from it can be problematic, especially with weather affecting it. Also with RADAR you have to identify the targets you wish to monitor. AIS though, gives all the information automatically and with an MFD you can look deeper into the vessels information. Having all this information available allows you to be able to carry out a number of options if you are at risk of collision. Such as calling the vessel by name on a VHF if you cant move or if you can, then you can alter your course to avoid the risk in plenty of time.
As a small boat you can now not just receive information but transmit it too, this then means that you are also visible to everyone else that can receive your data which includes ALL commercial vessels very handy in areas like the Solent. Small boats are very hard to see on RADAR, even with a reflector fitted a small boat can still look like scatter, where with AIS you are an object of equal visible presence irrespective of size.
What do you need.
Firstly you need a way to receive the AIS Data, this can be through some VHF radios or a dedicated receiver, to send your boats details you would also need a transmitter. More commonly though you can have a transponder that both transmits and receives, some have what is known as a splitter built in that allows you to share the same antenna with your VHF.
You will also need a way of being able to interpret the data received. The best way is on an MFD as this gives you the best representation with Chart overlays.
If you just operate in local waters that have a mobile signal you can now get Apps for phones and tablets like Ship Finder. These are passive and rely on internet data they also only give you the receive information and not transmit data. This however is good if you like family and friends to be able to track you from the shore or land.
AIS is not just fitted to boats but also Navigation Marks and structures too, this allows the ability to use them as signal aids and also know where they are in bad visibility.
Could AIS of prevented past collisions?
This obviously is a contentious question, the best way to answer it would be very possibly, it certainly would have given any vessels involved a better chance to take avoiding action if an alarm was triggered or someone saw the AIS information on a screen.
We know that all commercial vessels must maintain a watch and we know that these vessels also have AIS. We also know that small boats can be very hard to see if they get too close to big boats or in bad visibility.
Last year in the Solent there was a high profile collision between the Southampton to Cowes ferry the Red Falcon with a small Pleasure Powerboat the Phoenix we know the Red Falcon has AIS but in the report by the Marine Investigation Branch AIS was not mentioned, just the description of how the Phoenix ended up where it did. If however the Phoenix did have a Transponder working onboard it certainly could of given both them and the Falcon a better chance of avoiding the collision. This of course is a personal viewpoint as AIS was never mentioned. It does however make you think that it is certainly better to have it than to not have it onboard, I certainly feel more comfortable knowing that I am just that bit more visible.
What will it cost?
The cost will depend on what you wish to have. I personally think that having an MFD at the Helm is key and for a 7inch Raymarine Axiom you will be looking at around £670 then I would recommend a Transponder with a built in splitter like the Raymarine AIS700 which would cost around £810 and finally have it fitted commissioned and tested this will cost about £360 for the labour.
Can I see it in use?
We are able to give demonstrations on the benefits of modern electronic equipment on our fully equipped Sailing Vessel Astrality which includes AIS. We believe in letting people have real world experience of the equipment rather than just in a corner of a show area of a shop as you can then fully see how everything can work.
Astrality has the following Electronic Equipment onboard and all networked together.
1 x 9inch Raymarine Axiom MFD at the Helm
1 x 7inch Raymarine Axiom MFD at the Nav Station
2 x Raymarine I70s Multi Display instruments at the helm
1 x AIS700 Transponder
1 x Ray70 VHF at the Nav Station
1 x EV1 Navigation Pilot system with P70s head unit at the Helm
1 x ICT-5 Data converter for wind speed and depth
1 x Fusion multi Zone Entertainment system BB-300
1 x Amazon Echo (Alexa)
1 x 4g router
For more information about this blog or to discuss what is possible for your own boat you can email firstname.lastname@example.org
Ian is the Co-Owner of Astrality Marine a Former RAF A Tech Avionics (EngTech) with 15 years on Aircraft like the VC10, Tristar and Tornado before civilian life took him to work within BlueChip companies as a Lead Engineer. living in the Torbay area with his Partner who runs the Business consultancy company Astrality Business Services.