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What Ship Is That?

What is that ship sailing past? Where's it heading? When is it due in port? What is its speed? How big is it? For all these questions - and many more ? the answer is AIS: Automatic Identification System. You may even follow it, on line, on your own computer - from anywhere!

by Stan Swan

Readers may recall a few months ago we featured a means of identifying aircraft and following their progress using a hardware and web product called AirNav Radar Box (SILICON CHIP, November 2008).

Now you can do much the same thing with virtually all commercial shipping and even many of the larger pleasure craft you see off our coasts.

Somewhat akin to AirNav Radar Box, you have the choice of tracking in real time (using a VHF receiver or scanner) if you live close enough to the coast or alternatively, using the internet where details of that ship may well have been posted. But we are getting slightly ahead of ourselves!

Ship watching

Even viewed from the shore, ships often conjure up an exotic sense of far away places and tap an eternal human wanderlust.

Click for larger image
Keeping track . . . of a sailing ship with AIS. The Spirit of New Zealand off the northeast coast of NZ. You can even see how the ship is tacking from the southeast before it makes its due-westerly run into Kawau Island. There's even a photo of the Spirit under canvas so you can see what she looks like!

Many a ship-watcher has idly gazed at passing vessels and pondered their destination and movements – particularly if one’s vantage point is from a becalmed yacht in a busy sea lane!

Both at a romantic and utilitarian level, even a casual interest in shipping movements from a coastal location near sea lanes could mean an emerging VHF wireless technology called AIS – Automatic Identification System – may take your fancy.

Essentially a SOLAS (Safety of Life At Sea) collision avoidance system designed for professional seafarers, AIS shows immense potential even for landlubbers! It’s a fascinating blend of software, radio, electronics and e-navigation, yet can be experienced on skinflint budgets.

Interested? But it sounds like digital sea-sickness? Gain your AIS sea legs instead (and to whet your appetite!) go to www.marinetraffic.com/ais/!

Just select a busy region (perhaps the Straits of Gibraltar) from the global map and zoom in to suit. Mouse-hovering over a coloured display symbol gives vessel details, while a right mouse click shows ship images and near-live vessel tracks.

The versatile real-time insights gained from this are quite astounding and should enthuse even hesitant landlubbers!

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