What is an AIS?
Picture a shipboard radar display, with overlaid electronic chart data, that includes a mark for every significant ship within radio range, each as desired with a velocity vector (indicating speed and heading). Each ship "mark" could reflect the actual size of the ship, with position to GPS or differential GPS accuracy. By "clicking" on a ship mark, you could learn the ship name, course and speed, classification, call sign, registration number, MMSI, and other information. Maneuvering information, closest point of approach (CPA), time to closest point of approach (TCPA) and other navigation information, more accurate and more timely than information available from an automatic radar plotting aid, could also be available. Display information previously available only to modern vessel traffic service operations centers could now be available to every AIS-equipped ship.
With this information, you could call any ship over VHF radiotelephone by name, rather than by "ship off my port bow" or some other imprecise means. Or you could dial it up directly using GMDSS equipment. Or you could send to the ship, or receive from it, short safety-related email messages.
The AIS is a shipboard broadcast system that acts like a transponder, operating in the VHF maritime band, that is capable of handling well over 4,500 reports per minute and updates as often as every two seconds. It uses Self-Organizing Time Division Multiple Access (SOTDMA) technology to meet this high broadcast rate and ensure reliable ship-to-ship operation.
Each AIS system consists of one VHF transmitter, two VHF TDMA receivers, one VHF DSC receiver, and a standard marine electronic communications link (IEC 61162/NMEA 0183) to shipboard display and sensor systems. Position and timing information is normally derived from an integral or external global navigation satellite system (e.g. GPS) receiver, including a medium frequency differential GNSS receiver for precise position in coastal and inland waters. Other information broadcast by the AIS, if available, is electronically obtained from shipboard equipment through standard marine data connections. Heading information and course and speed over ground would normally be provided by all AIS-equipped ships. Other information, such as rate of turn, angle of heel, pitch and roll, and destination and ETA could also be provided.
The AIS transponder normally works in an autonomous and continuous mode, regardless of whether it is operating in the open seas or coastal or inland areas. Transmissions use 9.6 kb GMSK FM modulation over 25 or 12.5 kHz channels using HDLC packet protocols. Although only one radio channel is necessary, each station transmits and receives over two radio channels to avoid interference problems, and to allow channels to be shifted without communications loss from other ships. The system provides for automatic contention resolution between itself and other stations, and communications integrity is maintained even in overload situations.
Each station determines its own transmission schedule (slot), based upon data link traffic history and knowledge of future actions by other stations. A position report from one AIS station fits into one of 2250 time slots established every 60 seconds. AIS stations continuously synchronize themselves to each other, to avoid overlap of slot transmissions. Slot selection by an AIS station is randomized within a defined interval, and tagged with a random timeout of between 0 and 8 frames. When a station changes its slot assignment, it pre-announces both the new location and the timeout for that location. In this way new stations, including those stations which suddenly come within radio range close to other vessels, will always be received by those vessels.
The required ship reporting capacity according to the IMO performance standard amounts to a minimum of 2000 time slots per minute, though the system provides 4500 time slots per minute. The SOTDMA broadcast mode allows the system to be overloaded by 400 to 500% through sharing of slots, and still provide nearly 100% throughput for ships closer than 8 to 10 NM to each other in a ship to ship mode. In the event of system overload, only targets further away will be subject to drop-out, in order to give preference to nearer targets that are a primary concern to ship operators. In practice, the capacity of the system is nearly unlimited, allowing for a great number of ships to be accommodated at the same time.
The system coverage range is similar to other VHF applications, essentially depending on the height of the antenna. Its propagation is slightly better than that of radar, due to the longer wavelength, so it’s possible to “see” around bends and behind islands if the land masses are not too high. A typical value to be expected at sea is nominally 20 nautical miles. With the help of repeater stations, the coverage for both ship and VTS stations can be improved considerably.
The system is backwards compatible with digital selective calling systems, allowing shore-based GMDSS systems to inexpensively establish AIS operating channels and identify and track AIS-equipped vessels, and is intended to fully replace existing DSC-based transponder systems.
A Class A AIS unit broadcasts the following information every 2 to 10 seconds while underway, and every 3 minutes while at anchor at a power level of 12.5 watts. The information broadcast includes:
* MMSI number - unique referenceable identification
* Navigation status - not only are "at anchor" and "under way using engine" currently defined, but "not under command" is also currently defined.
* Rate of turn - right or left, 0 to 720 degrees per minute
* Speed over ground - 1/10 knot resolution from 0 to 102 knots.
* Position accuracy - differential GPS or other and an indication if RAIM processing is being used
* Longitude - to 1/10000 minute and Latitude - to 1/10000 minute
* Course over ground - relative to true north to 1/10th degree
* True Heading - 0 to 359 degrees derived from gyro input
* Time stamp - The universal time to nearest second that this information was generated
In addition, the Class A AIS unit broadcasts the following information every 6 minutes:
* MMSI number - same unique identification used above, links the data above to described vessel
* IMO number - unique referenceable identification (related to ship's construction)
* Radio call sign - international call sign assigned to vessel, often used on voice radio
* Name - Name of ship, 20 characters are provided
* Type of ship/cargo - there is a table of possibilities that are available
* Dimensions of ship - to nearest meter
* Location on ship where reference point for position reports is located
* Type of position fixing device - various options from differential GPS to undefined
* Draught of ship - 1/10 meter to 25.5 meters [note "air-draught" is not provided]
* Destination - 20 characters are provided
* Estimated time of Arrival at destination - month, day, hour, and minute in UTC