Thursday, October 11, 2012

New Signs at Sea - Synthetic or Virtual?

For over 700 years humans have been using various forms of waterborne signs to assist mariners to make safe passage.  These signs, or Aids to Navigation (AtoN) as they are known, include impressive lighthouse structures built centuries ago through to simple floating buoys that passively mark boating channels.

From the beginning governments and more lately international organizations such as IMO and IALA have worked to implement and manage standards that have continuously improved construction, shape, size and colors used by all Aids to Navigation.

Aids to Navigation design has come a long way in 700 years from simple anchored casks floating on the water’s surface to solar powered lights mounted on buoys constructed from plastic.  In the 1930’s a major step was taken in the use of technology when radio beacons were used to transmit from a buoy, allowing mariners to calculate a bearing to the buoy using a radio direction finder. This enabled them to set a course based on the known position of the buoy.  Other innovations even included the trial of an atomic powered light installed on Baltimore Harbor in 1961; it didn’t last!

With over 80 percent of world trade carried by sea and approximately 165,000 to 200,000 AtoN’s being relied upon  globally to “show the way”, efforts will continue in our search to find innovative ways to improve safety at sea.  Some of these improvements to the design and technology used for AtoN’s include the addition  of AIS (Automatic Identification System) mounted on buoys and more recently the transmission of synthetic and virtual marks to indicate the location of a remote AtoN or hazardous location.

A synthetic Aid to Navigation indicates the position of a physical marker, e.g. channel markers, lateral marker etc whereas a virtual Aid to Navigation indicates the position of a location where no physical marker exists, this could be a submerged rock or virtual shipping lane.

These synthetic and virtual marks are transmitted from a platform or shore based AtoN transmitter.  This transmitter allows multiple marker signals to be sent, each mark is created by sending a unique signal from the transmitter’s location.  These transmissions are received by existing AIS equipment installed on all large commercial vessels and many recreational vessels. They are then displayed as a navigational hazard on a ship’s chart plotter or other AIS receiving equipment.  When used to mark a hazard, an AtoN transmitter can alert a ship’s crew that they are on a collision course with the hazard well before they come into visible contact with it.

An AtoN transmitter addresses the need to make physical AtoN and hazards at sea more visible when costly, environmentally unfriendly, physical infrastructure is not appropriate or is impossible to deploy. There are many examples of where a synthetic or virtual mark can be used to protect the environment and improve safety, these include;

  • Marking visible and invisible hazards, including; bridges, marinas/piers, reefs, shellfish beds, underwater pipelines, power and communications cables
  • Marking areas where navigation conditions change frequently, including; sandbars, overhead clearance, ice, water levels, yacht race courses, etc
  • They can even be used to “throw up” temporary cordons around events such as no-go areas, hazardous spills, marine protected areas, etc
We have developed a range of devices designed to help vessels avoid collisions and in 2011 we extended our product offering by developing an innovative new AtoN transmitter called the Virtual AIS Beacon™.This is a natural extension for Vesper Marine as we are a marine electronics designer and manufacturer of safety devices based on the Automatic Identification System (AIS) standards. 

The Virtual AIS Beacon electronically marks hazards at sea in a low cost, environmentally friendly and easily deployable way.  Port authorities, oil and gas companies, offshore wind farms or any organization needing to protect their environment by making shipping hazards or AtoN more visible on ships chart plotters and AIS displays will be the main users of the Virtual AIS Beacon. A case study about how we are helping to protect marine environments in New Zealand can be viewed here or a video can be seen here.

Because of the relatively low cost and simple deployment of systems such as the Virtual AIS Beacon, these innovative products have enormous safety and environmental benefits to the world’s coastlines. Systems like the Virtual AIS Beacon are not a replacement for physical Aids to Navigation but a way to augment the safety and environmental protection infrastructure that is already in place. 

Between 2000 and 2010 there were over 1500 losses of commercial vessels alone. Nearly 20% of these losses were as a direct result of stranding.  This has come at an enormous cost to life, the environment, wildlife and commercial interests over the past decade; with technologies such as AtoN transmitters deployed it’s possible to have a positive impact on this situation.

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