AIShub, how you too can put AIS targets online
At the end of Wednesday’s discussion about cell-based mAIS — which only works via the Internet instead of direct VHF radio transmissions — I mentioned how I’d set up a real AIS receiver in my lab to forward real AIS target info to those same Internet services. In fact most all the actual AIS targets shown in those screen shots came through my basement. The set up turned out to be very easy and cost nothing as I already had an AIS receiver, a computer, and an Internet connection. The key is the free program AISdispatcher seen in the foreground above, which is offered by AIS Hub data sharing center. That’s their Web site in the background, showing the data I’m contributing along with that of other volunteer stations. But there are lots of holes in the coverage and I’m hoping that more coastal residents and particularly marine businesses will volunteer, and I think that the new mAIS concept could make the effort especially worthwhile…
But before theorize about the brave new world of mAIS and AIS on the Internet, I’ll explain more about AIS Dispatcher and my lab setup. The status screen below left shows approximately a full day’s output, which goes to AIS Hub, MarineTraffic, and ShipFinder without any more setup than registering with AIS Hub. Note the Output Bandwidth use of 0.004 KB/s; my location and antenna situation, and the season, results in a paltry average target count of about 3, but you could “dispatch” hundreds of targets without denting your Internet connection.
I also like how AIS Dispatcher parses the NMEA 0183 VDM strings and counts the individual AIS messages they contain. For instance, the ratio of Class B dynamic and static data messages — #18 and #24 — jibes with the reality that the one Class B I’ve been seeing is mostly tied up at Wayfarer Marine; since message 24 is fixed at six minute intervals, most of the time the boat was sending #18 messages at the under 3 knot rate of every three minutes. To better understand what those message counts mean see the USCG NavCen’s message detail and this Panbo about Class A & B dynamic data rates.
But I digress. While I think it’s good for boaters to understand how the AIS works, it’s not necessary for setting up an AIS listening station. Aside from registering with AIS Hub I only had to tell AISdispatcher which com port the receiver was on (as seen below right), type in the output address they emailed me, and that was it. Well, I also set up GpsGate Express — the green icon lower right and another freebie — so that I can still access the AIS receiver with other software, but that too just took minutes, not hours…
It also happens that my AIS receiver doesn’t have USB output and the computer doesn’t have an old style serial input but a Keyspan 19HS adapter takes care of that issue. And today there are AIS receivers with USB output, like the Comar AIS-2-USB, and even receivers designed for dispatching without having to leave a computer running, like the Digital Yacht AISNet Base Station, which I wrote about in 2010. There’s a good run down on all this at Marine Traffic, which also has its own free dispatcher software.
These online AIS services also have sophisticated monitoring of their volunteer stations, as you can see by turning on More/Stations on MarineTraffic’s Live Map or going to this AIS Hub page. In either case you can get a graph of a station’s performance and much more. Thus you can see how paltry my feed is, which is due to the season — no visiting yachts yet — and especially to my poor antenna and antenna location. But all this is really just an experiment with one goal being to persuade some locals with better locations and even more motivation to become volunteer AIS stations…
Like how about Wayfarer Marine? Note how their site already offers an online weather station, which appears in more detail as a Weather Underground Station (and was set up largely by Panbot Allan Seymour of the good tug Sally W). That station is great for locals and Wayfarer customers and probably especially staff who are home but worried about what’s happening at the yard during storms. An AIS receiver would co-habitat nicely and easily with the dock house PC that’s hosting the weather station and I think that many customers, not to mention me, would like to see their AIS-equipped vessel online when it’s in the area. Wayfarer could even put up a ShipFinder or MarineTraffic widget like I’m testing at the bottom of the Panbo About page.
Now think about how mAIS might fit in. Customers, visitors, and locals without regular AIS could also show up on the Web widget, iPad apps, etc. Wayfarer staff delivering boats down the coast could be monitored on the same office screen as real AIS targets. Remember that mAIS doesn’t need a shore receiver to be seen online, just a cell connection. And when the Penobscot Bay Regatta fires up in August, all the sail races and powerboat cruises off Camden could be tracked as long as the vessel has a real AIS or a smartphone running mAIS. Ships and ferries too, though they will not be bothered by the mAIS unless they choose to look. (By the way, I’m going to be the “powerboat guide” for this year’s PBR; more on that soon, but do consider signing up.)
Yesterday I got an email asking about setting up an AIS shore station from Captain Ethan Maass of Sea Tow South Shore and it seems to me that there’s tons of useful and just plain interesting information the combination of mAIS and an AIS shore station can provide his customers and community, and his business. Heck, I wonder if SeaTow won’t eventually add mAIS tracking and online AIS viewing to its already useful app. I know it’s confusing, but obviously I’m enthused about the possibilities here.
And, by the way, there can’t be too many shore stations. As this map showing the output of one AIS Hub station in Seattle shows, the servers can see and handle duplicate target reports. If you have a good antenna view toward navigable water, and especially if you’re a marine business, please consider joining the global and publicly available AIS listening network.