Boat Beacon & MarineTraffic mAIS, yipee or yike?


At first Boat Beacon may look like yet another iPad or iPhone app for viewing online AIS tracking services like ShipFinder, but in fact it’s a very new and slightly disconcerting form of AIS transponder. In other words that “Panbo BoatBeaconTest” target seen above is not the test transponder I sometimes run in the lab but simply my iPad running Boat Beacon and using its online connection to send my position, MMSI, and “boat” data to a central server where it’s also getting the regular AIS data for those various vessels in the Bay. The concept doesn’t really have a name yet — except maybe for mobile AIS or mAIS, as I’ll get to — but I think it’s going be huge, and also confusing… 

What’s confusing is trying to understand all the moving parts in a semi-integrated mAIS system. For instance, those vessels out in Penobscot Bay can not see my Boat Beacon target on their AIS displays (which might also be considered a good thing as mAIS will not mess with regular AIS at all). Then there’s also the fact that Boat Beacon would not be showing those vessels unless there’s a volunteer local shore receiver delivering AIS target info to MarineTraffic, ShipFinder, or AIShub, which are the three global AIS data servers that Boat Beacon shares info with. Plus of course your iPhone or iPad has to be online for any of this to work…


But if you are boating in such circumstances, Boat Beacon really is designed to be a collision avoidance tool. In fact, the developer — Steve Bennett, CEO of ElectricPocket — sails a 30 foot catamaran in the Bristol Channel with lots of ship traffic, serious tidal currents, and extensive sandbanks. And he’s written compelling story about how Boat Beacon helps him underway. That’s why Boat Beacon can overlay a bearing compass (Electric Pocket also offers a neat augmented reality bearing app called Compass Eye) and also why it can send you Closet Point of Approach (CPA) notifications, as seen below…


Yes, my CPA alarms are rather goofy as I’ve been testing Boat Beacon ashore, but if you were underway on, say, the Bristol Channel, you could be alerted about a fast ship situation that was developing so far away that even a regular AIS receiver wouldn’t have caught it. And Boat Beacon only costs $10.
   Now notice that one of those alarms is for an “AIS target” named Panbo mAIS Test. It turns out that MarineTraffic is also supporting what it calls “position self reporting” or mAIS. Well, actually the free Android and iOS apps that “transmit” your “AIS info” are titled iAIS but maybe they changed their mind on that because it’s already used as a Digital Yacht brand (or was it Apple?). At any rate, mAIS works fine too and is especially appropriate if you’re just interested in the other use of mAIS, which is simply to get your boat on MarineTraffic so your friends and family can see where you are…


As shown below, both mAIS and Boat Beacon positions, and tracks, show up on the MarineTraffic web site (or its viewing apps), and remember it doesn’t take a local AIS receiver to get them there. I’ll experiment soon but I suspect that I’ll be tracked almost anywhere Gizmo cruises along the Maine Coast and certainly further south, thanks to improving cell coverage. But mAIS only shows up on MT while Boat Beacon is also tracked on the ShipFinder web site and apps, and I’m impressed with how SF has evolved…


For instance, I like the way ShipFinder can show show, and even play back, a fair bit of track history. On the screen below, it’s a quick way to understand exactly what the Maine State ferries — which just got AIS, finally! — do. Note though that SF has “ship estimation” DR function that you might want to disable, or you’re apt to see a vessel motoring up hills like the Isleboro ferry at top. And, by the way, the real AIS traffic seen on these screens is coming from a new AIS receiver setup here at Panbo HQ, which I’ll write about soon.
   But how about this whole concept of mixing “AIS” target info from cell phones and pads with the real thing? What could go wrong? Will the folks who issue MMSI numbers object? Will apps like this encourage more volunteers to put up receiving stations? Will the authorities get involved in a positive way? Remember the desire of DHS to get boaters to volunteer their postion? Well, one aspect of Boat Beacon I didn’t mention is that you get much more AIS data if you send in your own. And it also supports easy messaging between Boat Beacon users. Consider the possibilities!   


Ben Ellison

Ben Ellison

Panbo editor, publisher & chief bottlewasher from 4/2005 until 8/2018, and now pleased to have Ben Stein as a very able publisher, webmaster, and editing colleague. Please don't regard him as an "expert"; he's getting quite old and thinks that "fadiddling fumble-putz" is a more accurate description.

27 Responses

  1. Ben Ellison Ben Ellison says:

    I will quit using mAIS on shore soon — just testing — and that may mess up the ShipFinder and MarineTraffic direct links to the MMSI number I’m using. But I just fired up mAIS for a lunch trip and you can follow it at Marine Traffic:

  2. norse says:

    What do MarineTraffic, ShipFinder, and AIShub think about this? I would think they would regard it as potentially polluting their data. Think of all the spam and e-mail abuse we get because the technology does not verify the sender.

  3. Ben Ellison Ben Ellison says:

    Norse, MarineTraffic, ShipFinder, and AIShub are obviously cooperating with Boat Beacon. I’m not sure how the data sharing between them happens behind the scenes — they all seem to share a lot, though not all — but I do know that they don’t have to accept any data feed they don’t want and that the Boat Beacon data is coded in some way to show it is “self reported” not transmitted over VHF.
    Also note that Marine Traffic offers its self reporting app and other ways to get your boat on their system:
    Plus both Marine Traffic and Boat Beacon require a registration process with them and an MMSI to get your boat on the system. While it would still be a lot easier to fake those validations than to, say, change an MMSI on actual AIS hardware, what’s the actual danger? No ship or boat navigator is going to see this “AIS” data unless he or she is looking a mobile app (or has gone to some trouble to add an Ethernet feed to a program like Coastal Explorer).

  4. Richard C says:

    If for some reason Boat Beacon, mAIS service, finds its way onto VHF then AIS is dead. As I understand, currently mAIS can only be seen online via ShipFinder or MarineTraffic. Is this correct? What’s to stop someone from developing an app that retransmits mAIS over VHF? If so, I can tell you that I have no interest in seeing where everyones iPad or iPhone is on the water or on land.
    If all those iPad owners want to let there friends and family know where they are they should send out a Tweet or use the “Find Friends” app or post to Facebook. If you are a serious mariner go buy a real AIS transponder and properly register it. Better yet, go buy a Spot Connect and send everyone your location, track and comments.
    In my opinion, Boat Beacon takes AIS, a serious technology, and turns it into something from Toys R Us. We have a hard enough time convincing professional ship captains to turn on Class B AIS so we can present a useful target. All they have to hear is that AIS is becoming an iPad toy and class B will be filtered out of every big ships chartplotter.
    Please be assured I am an iPad, iPhone MacBook Pro advocate, but not for this type of app.

  5. David D says:

    I’m an Ipad fan but I don’t like this kind of stuff.
    When I’m navigating I don’t want any type of processed second hand data.I want real time direct feed info from the source.
    I notice that all of these mockAIS systems have pretty good disclaimers.

  6. Ben Ellison Ben Ellison says:

    Relax, Richard. The VHF AIS channels are tightly regulated; broadcasting mAIS over VHF is not going to happen. Maybe I didn’t explain it well, but mAIS does not interfere with regular AIS in any way. It’s a parallel system that may receive regular AIS target info but only shares mAIS info within itself.
    However I think that some boats will want mAIS in addition to regular AIS eventually. But it will happen via cellular or satellite, maybe on separate display or maybe integrated, and it will be purely optional, again not interfering with the AIS we know now at all (unless you want the added info).
    Also, please don’t exaggerate the meme about ships turning off Class B targets. For one thing, it is simply not possible on the display that comes with every Class A AIS because filtering of any kind is not allowed in the IMO spec for Class A hardware.
    Filtering Class B from a ship’s radar or chart display is a complicated subject but an important thing to understand is that there’s an critical difference between filtering some target icons off a screen and actually not tracking those targets. You can be a Class B that’s “invisible” on the ship right up to the moment you cross a CPA/TCPA threshold that fires an alarm and makes you visible.
    Apparently it is possible to completely ignore Class B on some commercial machines but it’s not easily done, and the liability is considerable. It might make sense in congested areas with limited maneuverability and in that case an accident with a Class B vessel is apt to be the latter’s fault.
    But in open conditions, a ship would be taking a risk to purposely ignore an internationally sanctioned anti-collision device and I don’t think many do. That doesn’t mean they’ll answer your radio call and they may not even notice you on the Class A display which is still all that many ships have. But “turning off Class B”…not so much.

  7. jamie says:

    Just bought the ship finder android app. Sad to report that there are no AIS vessels in S FL or the Bahamas. They must all have slipped away….but seriously….no internet AIS repeaters anywhere? Tampa and Jacksonville seem to be the only ones in FL.

  8. Dean says:

    I started using mAIS about two months ago and have to say it is excellent. Its been a very inexpensive way to get some entry level AIS where I have 3G and provided family tracking me back home with great comfort. I have used it for the last sail from Sydney to the Gold Coast in Australia with 100% coverage. Love it and the support from the developer was great when I had a few questions.

  9. svHaven says:

    RE “Maine State ferries — which just got AIS”
    Can someone please clarify… I was under the assumption that all commercial vessels over 65 feet were required by law to have AIS. No?

  10. Ben Ellison Ben Ellison says:

    Jamie, for reasons unknown ShipFinder doesn’t seem to show the feeds of the volunteer AIS shore stations that do exist around Lauderdale, Key West, Cape Canaveral, and in the Northern Bahamas. But Marine Traffic does, as you’ll you’ll find on their web viewer. As best I can tell, whatever shows on the ShipFinder or MarineTraffic web viewers is what you’ll also see on their apps.
    But let’s be clear that volunteer shore stations only see a fraction of the AIS traffic and coverage along the U.S. East Coast and Caribbean is particularly poor relative to the number of vessels operating there. Even spots like New York and Long Island that look well covered are not seeing all the Class B traffic because of its shorter range.
    We need more volunteers and I’m going to write about how to set up a station later today. I’m beginning to realize that coastal marine operations like SeaTow and Vessel Assit, and marinas, could combine an AIS shore station and these new mAIS apps
    in ways that would be great for customers and hence their businesses. And, no worries, it won’t interfere with regular AIS!

  11. Ben Ellison Ben Ellison says:

    Sorry, svHaven, the answer is NO. The exact language of the IMO mandates is “Self-propelled vessels of 65 feet or more in length, other than passenger and fishing vessels, in commercial service and on an international voyage”. Which leaves out an awful lot of vessels!
    Individual countries have the right to mandate AIS on vessels that don’t come under IMO regs (“international voyage” the key term, I think) but the U.S. was quite lenient about it back when Class A transponders were quite expensive. They’ve been working on expanded mandates that will include some 17,000 vessels like the Maine State ferries, but apparently it still isn’t done. Which was already exasperating 2 years ago!
    Some of those 17,000 vessels have voluntarily fitted AIS, as in Maine. That Rockland to Vinalhaven ferry you see on my AIS feed, the CAPT.E.FRANK THOMPSO (I would have used the field differently like CAP.E.FRANK THOMPSON), is a brand new boat, our first in some 30 years. And the Lincolnville to Islesboro ferry, the MARGARET C SMITH, just got a refit.
    But there’s also a ferry that crosses the Bay multiple times a day from Rockland to North Haven and it’s invisible whether you’re looking on a Web site or coming up the bay in thick fog with one eye on your AIS plotter. Be careful of all navigational assumptions!

  12. Dan Corcoran (b393capt) says:

    If I am on a collision course with an iThing or Android, I would like to know about it. I am not going to quibble that it was USCG approved. And heck, if it’s $10 bucks, maybe the adoption rate would skyrocket.
    I have some thoughts:
    1. It’s hard for me to get excited about this until it is in my MFD. Not much interested in having a laptop at my helm, and smart things are not sunlight readable.
    2. It would be very helpful if it was designed into mAIS that a 3rd party application can get in between the receipt of the of the mAIS on our smart phone/pad and forwarding it to the display application on the smart phone/pad. Then someone, Kees ?, can apply lots of innovation to a context sensitive and dynamic alarming scheme that can be functional in many scenario’s I today need to turn off alarms (e.g. such as passing boats in a channel)
    3. I assume we will have click to call, or click to chat, maybe an icon to signal intent? I intend to pass to starboard, to port, etc, please acknowledge? If I am signaling this, it would be ideal if your chart plotter wouldn’t give off a collision alarm as I come up behind you.
    4. Polluted Data? We can’t get too caught up on how less accurate a smart phone GPS is than a marine model, or time shifted the COG/SOG becomes on a retransmission thru the cloud, since AIS only reports once every 30 seconds as it is … 100 feet plus or minus won’t much matter, but polluted data is a concern of mine also. Is there some protection built into the mAIS that measures the time shifting or sets a minimum quality level on the GPS? E.g. Can smart phone/pad GPS’s know their approx accuracy like marine GPS’s do? Does the mAIS server require the GPS accuracy information as part of the protocol that sends lat/long? How about the type of location technology used (e.g. WiFi triangulation vs. actual GPS reception)? Does it require the COG and SOG (some smart phones are motion sensitive and have compass) be sent in addition to the raw lat & long? Does the mAIS server determine how time-shifted/delayed the mAIS it receives is? Can the mAIS server take the lat/long and COG/SOG, and notice inconsistency? Can the mAIS determine how time shifted/accurate the data is and include that in the protocol to the AIS clients? Can the AIS clients then elect to not receive, or receive and filter out specific troublesome position reports? Can the AIS client, via the protocol, itself receive the raw information about the contact (time of transmission, lat/long, COG, SOG, gps technology, gps accuracy, etc.) so the client application can determine the end-end time shift and apply a correction before displaying to the user?
    I think some of those answers need to be yes, if not now, in the future, before this can be accepted into an MFD (point #1 above) to be co-displayed with AIS targets.

  13. norse says:

    I looked at MarineTraffic and found “panbo mais test” and “panbo boatbeacontest” with two different MMSIs. I note that they are shown as self-reported in the info bubble. The web page about self reporting says you can also send position reports from Spot or just by sending a regular e-mail. The answer to the yipee or yike question depends on whether a person uses the AIS web pages as a social network or for safety and navigation. MarineTraffic states “Data is provided for informational reasons only and is not related by any means to the safety of navigation.” I wonder if all the users will see it that way. It does make the entry cost to (pseudo) AIS lower (if you already have the smart phone). Another point of interest in the web page about how to report is that you can send them the AIS info about all the vessels your AIS sees from your own vessel — you do not have to be a shore station to do this.

  14. Ben Ellison Ben Ellison says:

    Norse, I think MarineTraffic and the other Internet AIS services are quite right to qualify their data as not for navigation, and users should be aware of that. For collision avoidance real VHF AIS transponders and receivers are much more reliable (though of course not totally so).
    Boat Beacon, in fact, should probably have more disclaimers. I believe that Steve Bennett, the developer, is getting a lot from his app in the Bristol Channel but I’m also sure that he’s aware that it’s dependent on both his cell coverage and a volunteer shore station.
    But let’s acknowledge that AIS is already used for much more than collision avoidance. Governments are using it for coastal security, companies are using it for fleet monitoring, and guys like me are using it to watch friends cruise down south (which I guess you could call social networking).
    All those uses are not incompatible as best I can see, and I don’t think mAIS is either. It does not pollute regular AIS because it lives on wholly different network. Regular AIS can mix with mAIS but it is only received; mAIS is not transmitted over the AIS frequencies and if someone does want to mix the two on a boat they’ll have to consciously integrate the two networks. Boaters who like AIS just the way it is need not worry.
    What’s confusing, I think, is that “AIS” has turned out to be two things. It’s a very efficient global data standard for identifying and tracking vessels and it’s also a highly regulated VHF radio network that uses the data standard primarily for collision avoidance. I believe that we’ve only seen a glimmer of what can be done with the AIS data standard and it won’t hurt the AIS VHF network system.

  15. Boat Beacon says:

    Hi Dan,
    Some great questions and suggestions and what a great debate! In answer to a few of your questions:
    MFD – Boat Beacon provides Video/VGA out to Chart Plotters etc.form both iPhone and iPad – and thats how one of our test boats in the Solent is using it. It also means folks in the Boat Club can watch on wide screen TV 🙂
    Polluted Data – Boat Beacon data is timestamped and sent and received with all the information that regular Class A AIS provides such as sog, cog, heading, location accuracy, etc. The only thing we don’t carry is rate of turn. Boat Beacon interpolates the current positions of the targets based on the time shifts. It also “fades” out targets with old or unreliable data. Boat Beacon has a unique option to spot coast and land so that boat position interpolation doesn’t result in boats traversing across land masses as they can in other apps.
    I like the idea of adding a click to ignore function for targets – that should be simple to add. Hopefully for the next version.
    Keep the suggestions coming its always good to have feedback.

  16. Tony says:

    We did an interesting experiment yesterday while helping a friend bring his 42′ sailboat through the south passage of Lake Erie. On board: Ship Finder Iphone app. a Raymarine AIS driven by E80 MFD and the Boat Beacon. The results within a 40 mi range were: the Ship Finder app had the least number of targets (2) Raymarine AIS had 4 and Boat Beacon had at least 6. Interesting. Additionally the Boat Beacon had more detail on the targets such as Ship names etc. The only rationale for the mid performance of Raymarine AIS could be that some of the targets were on the other side of Kelly’s Island. But we don’t understand why the detail of the visible targets wasn’t present. Any thoughts?

  17. Ben Ellison Ben Ellison says:

    Tony, I have the opposite situation here on Penosbscot Bay. The ShipFinder web site and app show a feed for the northern part of the Bay that does not show on Boat Beacon or MarineTraffic or AIS Hub. My own VHF AIS feed for the lower Bay — which I just wrote about, — goes to AIS Hub but shows up on all the sites and apps. In short, a lot of sites are shared between these online AIS servers, but not all.
    It’s easier to understand why your boat’s AIS didn’t pick up static data for targets that were in a marginal reception zone. For both Class A and B, the static data message only transmits every six minutes while the dynamic data can be as frequent as 2 seconds for Class A and 30 seconds for B, depending mainly on vessel speed.
    So on regular AIS it is very common to see a target without name, size, or vessel type for a few minutes before that data fills in, and if the reception is marginal it may take a long time to fill in. Some MFDs and charting programs cache static data, particularly for “buddy” targets, so they can show all vessel data as soon as they see the MMSI.
    Meanwhile, shore stations listen continuously and they cache vessel data so you don’t see the same delay effect.

  18. Symphony says:

    I have BoatBeacon on my iPhone. works perfectly, and at the least is a great back-up device for my old radar (just like my iPhone Charts and Tides app is a great backup to my 12 year old Raytheon plotter).
    Another idea is to watch Shipfinder site and learn the traffic before you sail new waters, especially if traversing them at night.

  19. Michael Powell says:

    I sail in the Bristol Channel too on my American Rinker 300, but I came across this App only today. I don’t know the developer.
    We have a lot of heavy traffic, tidal range, islands, and drying refuges to contend with here, so anything that reduces the risk sounds good. This will report my position so it’s a great deal better than any other system I have on board.
    It’s expensive to install ClassB transponders, and then, you can only be detected by other vessels carring a receiver. The Internet reporting services do a good job and, of course have a bigger future potential than the VHF service, for example being able to instantly click-through to communicate with a vessel on a collision course.
    We are fortunate in having very good 3G reception for phones throughout the area, and very many people carry and use iPhones and iPads on board, so automatic tracking systems using these is to be welcomed. It’s a pity that it’s not treated as a separate, extra security service rather than a variant of AIS, then perhaps people wouldn’t be concerned about where the data originates. False data can usually be detected and filtered, but it’s the lack of data that needs to be worried over.
    There are AIS receivers on the market that communicate with IPhones. There is no reason why boats so equipped might not report actual AIS data to the Internet, adding to the coverage.
    Having carried Macs on board for twenty years or more I have recently faced the inevitable with the loss off my iPhone into the bilges. After a week of drying off, all is working except the back light, so now is the time to retire the phone to permanent life on board reporting its position constantly even when I am not aboard, and streaming music too, when I am.
    This type of App is a security device too, after all.

  20. Ben Ellison Ben Ellison says:

    Proof of concept! If you look on MarineTraffic right now, you’ll see “BRILLIANT (M)” motoring up Buzzard’s Bay toward the Cape Cod Canal. That’s my brother-in-law Rich’s Grand Banks 42 and he’s running mAIS software on his iPhone. Hence the “(M)” in the ship’s name (my suggestion) and also the “Camden, ME” destination in his Marine Traffic details (which you can’t put into a Class B transponder).
    In fact, though Brilliant runs a Class B transponder, she is not visible in ShipFinder’s shore coverage and probably wouldn’t be on MarineTraffic if it wasn’t for mAIS because of Class B’s lower wattage. In other words, Class B and mAIS work together nicely if you like being tracked on MT.

  21. Ben Ellison Ben Ellison says:

    My “(M)” naming suggestion was a bad one! It confused the MarineTraffic server and it stopped tracking Brilliant for a while. But Rich corrected it and everything went great today. mAIS on his iPhone tracked Brilliant all the way from Provincetown and a Marblehead shore receiver has just picked Rich’s Class B up as they near Salem. The transition was seamless.
    If you look on MarineTraffic, ShipFinder, or the Panbo About page you’ll see that I’m using Boat Beacon on a mooring in Brooklin, ME, right now. The iPad is getting GPS from DeLorme inReach which has been running for days on a single set of lithium AA bats. InReach tracking went well yesterday on the iPad but the share site is confused about how to connect the dots:

  22. John Gass says:

    Try using a non-Chrome browser for viewing the share site. Apparently Chrome doesn’t like line segments – it prefers to draw closed polygons.

  23. Ben Ellison Ben Ellison says:

    A New York Times op-ed piece says that smartphones should be called “trackers” instead:

  24. Ben Ellison Ben Ellison says:

    Please take this boating app survey:
    Pocket Mariner, the company that developed Boat Beacon, created this general survey about apps used, cell coverages, etc. and Panbo is promised access to the results. They could be interesting if enough people participate.

  25. Ben Ellison Ben Ellison says:

    Congratulations to Boat Beacon for nomination as “innovation of the year”…
    I’m taking particular note because while I have reservations about using cellular AIS for actual collision avoidance, many UK boaters actually have more real AIS experience than we do over here.

  26. Ben Ellison Ben Ellison says:

    mAIS (or iAIS, depending where you looked) is now called OnCourse and seems to have new features. Regardless, this a neat free way to get your boat tracked on Marine Traffic for the benefit of friends and family (but of course it’s not real AIS). You just need an Android or iOS smart phone:

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