However, there seems to be some confusion and even misinformation regarding a recent trend using so-called Internet AIS apps. These apps, which are available from Free to $10, are being displayed as being acceptable replacements for “real” AIS. Unfortunately, a growing number of boaters are using these Apps as primary navigation tools.
While these low cost AIS apps are an interesting novelty, there are several limitations that the prudent mariner should be aware of. The savvy user/buyer will carefully read the full description and all the FAQs and reviews in an effort to fully understand the actual capabilities of the Application. While many apps show occasional bugs, even a perfectly working AIS app should not be relied upon as a primary navigation tool.
What I have called “True” or “Real” AIS works over VHF frequencies and comes in two “classes”; Class A and Class B. Class B is the recreational version that most of us use. Both Class A and B require a dedicated AIS receiver and, ideally, a dedicated AIS antenna. Both can transmit and receive. Class A is for vessels with mandatory carriage requirements. Only Class B also offers a receive-only version.
Beside initial cost and carriage requirements from an enforcement agency (Coast Guard, IMO, SOLAS), there are some key differences between Class A and B. The biggest are the amount of data transmitted and the frequency which that data updates. Class A (what big ships use) offers more data, including: Rate of Turn, Cargo, and Destination info. A Class A device transmits its data more often for safety reasons. And, the faster a vessel is traveling, the more frequently the data is transmitted. Class B works under the similar guidelines, but in general, the transmission of the data is less frequent and transmits with less overall power. If you are within VHF range, your AIS will interact with other so-equipped vessels for “real-time” AIS data.
“Internet AIS” (which is what the low cost apps are), relies on an internet connection to get data. So, you must be in a position to have this access either via Wi-Fi or cellular. This may be fine in an urban marine area or near shore. However, without internet access, the app will not update the data. The AIS data is uploaded to the internet from certain commercial Vessel Traffic Zones (VTZ) and from some local land-based AIS stations or commercial vendors that choose to do so. This means that even if you have a “True” AIS transmitter aboard, it does not mean your data is automatically being uploaded to the internet for app users to see. You must be in an area that is capable of and utilizing the upload capability. It is common to read a review where users complain they are watching ships go up and down their local shipping channel, but are unable to see them on the app. Do they have internet access? Are they in an area where someone is uploading the data? Are some of these vessels not required to carry AIS? Do they understand how real AIS works and the differences between real and internet-based?
Because of the uploading requirement, the data that shows up on your app will likely be delayed. While there may be slight delay in real AIS based on the frequency of transmission based on speed or vessel status, the delay on an internet AIS may be anywhere from a few seconds in a commercial VTZ area to several MINUTES or more in a less traveled area or when the vessel is between uploading areas. Most boaters should recognize the danger in such a delay if this app is being used as a primary navigation and/or safety tool.
In fact, if you read far enough into the FAQs and/or Description fields for these apps, most will specifically say that the Application SHOULD NOT BE USED for navigation. However, it is unlikely the purchaser ever sees these warnings because of the hard sell at the beginning of the description as well as a fair amount of press in recent months extolling these apps. One App dangerously describes that it “works by picking up AIS ship feeds used by all passenger vessels, vessels of 300 tons and increasingly by smaller pleasure craft and yachts. This technology is actually faster than radar and is used by vessels for safety and navigation.” This could be a very enticing description to someone looking to save some money and feel safe. “Faster than Radar”? What does that even mean? Most radars transmit their pulses several thousand times a second. Unfortunately, the developer (sales writer) does not go on to expand their claims.
Another Internet AIS App claims the user/boater does not need an MMSI (Maritime Mobile Service Identification) number to TRANSMIT over AIS. In fact, FCC and Coast Guard regulations require such a number to transmit AIS data. This app generates a temporary number that is used and allows the boater to be seen BY OTHER USERS OF THE APP WHO ARE ALSO CONNECTED TO THE INTERNET. It is not until the last line of the description that declares the app is “not an AIS transponder. You will not be visible to other ships on their VHF AIS systems.”
Blue Frontier recognizes that every boater operates with certain budget restrictions. However, if you are looking to invest in AIS, we would urge you to be very diligent in your research. While a $10 (or less) app for your mobile phone or tablet may be enticing, you should be aware of the limitations of such programs versus a true VHF AIS system. In fact, there are numerous options for real, VHF-based AIS and a receive-only device can often be purchased for less than $175.
Also, use caution once you have bought that AIS App “just for entertainment”. Remember your first credit card? The one you got “just for emergencies”. How long did it take for the definition of “emergency” to get broader and broader and the card easier to use for convenience. The same slippery slope mentality could apply to your AIS mobile app and the next thing you know, you are looking at it all the time with dangerous reliance.
At Blue Frontier, we encourage you to bring your mobile device aboard and to find useful new ways to use it. But, as with any technology, use caution and don’t rely on it as your sole source of navigation information. Consider it as another tool in your toolbag of knowledge and skills.
As always, we invite your feedback to this article and any information you have for useful “Apps” you use aboard. If you have questions about AIS or any onboard electronics, please don’t hesitate to contact Blue Frontier.