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AIS Virtual Aids to Navigation

International Association of Marine Aids to Navigation and Lighthouse Authorities (IALA) defines a Marine Aid to Navigation (AtoN) as, “means a device, system, or service, external to a vessel, designed and operated to enhance safe and efficient navigation of all vessels and/or vessel traffic”.

The introduction of Authomatic Identification System (AIS) is a major development in the provision of AtoN. It has allowed service providers, such as lighthouse authorities, to use the AIS infrastructure to simulate AtoN and to provide additional navigational information for the mariner.

The EBA recognises the value of Automatic identification System (AIS) AtoN to mark newly identified hazards on a short term basis until a physical AtoN can be deployed and to provide additional information for the mariner.

The ability to provide Virtual AIS AtoNs is one of the most significant technical developments for service providers, but is only possible through the deployment of a network of AIS base stations around the coast / along the waterways and most importantly the installation of onboard equipment that has the capability of decoding and displaying the data; typically Application Specific Messages relating to virtual aids to navigation in an “Aids-to-Navigation Report”. This message provides details of the Name, MMSI, Type and Position of the AtoN.

Virtual AIS AtoNs can provide a near-instantaneous warning to the mariner of a new danger before physical AtoNs are deployed. Virtual AtoNs applications include:

  • New wreck
  • Uncharted hazard
  • Virtual shipping lanes
  • Floating debris

They are usually deployed only until they can be replaced by a physical AtoN or the navigational hazard is charted or removed.

Virtual AIS AtoNs do not physically exist and therefore are only visible on systems that can display the virtual AtoN symbol and information.

The EBA supports the use of virtual (AIS) AtoN to provide navigational guidance which is only applicable to those vessels which are required to carry the equipment to receive the virtual AtoN.

The EBA does not consider virtual (AIS) AtoN to be a viable permanent alternative to the use of physical AtoN for marking navigational hazards and urges caution regarding the use of AIS to convey information which needs to reach recreational boats including those which are not compelled to carry AIS onboard.

Physical hazards to navigation must be marked by the physical presence of an AtoN.

Virtual AIS AtoN should only be used where the information transmitted is only applicable to those vessels which are compelled to carry AIS or to temporarily mark a new hazard (e.g. a wreck) until the physical AtoN is deployed.

All authorities must be aware that by following the recommendation to voluntarily fit AIS Class B, vessels may be equipped with AIS, but still not have the capability to receive virtual AIS AtoN.