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Asset tracking – is there a role for AIS?

AIS Asset Tracking

Asset tracking, also known as asset monitoring, covers everything from a package brought to the door by a postman to monitoring the movements of ships and aircraft. These days almost anything that moves around is tracked one way or another. To meet these diverse needs there is a wide range of asset tracking devices available to give people and organisations the functionality that they require at prices that make commercial sense. However, to get a basic understanding of how it all works, the starting point is knowing that the tracking industry divides asset monitoring into two types; location specific and open space.

Short range versus long range

Location specific is where the presence of an asset is registered as it passes through a certain point, for example where a barcode or QR code on a package is scanned as it is delivered. These tend to be either passive or have a very short range, the most common of this last type being ‘passive’ RFID tags. For many of us our experience of these comes at the supermarket checkout when the cashier wrestles with the security tags on bottles of booze and over-priced razor blades. Location specific systems are therefore by definition short range.

Open space systems use GPS (GNSS) systems for positioning and either satellite or mobile phone (GPRS) networks to transmit their data. This gives them potentially global coverage, and AIS falls into this category. These long-range, open space systems differ from location specific systems in many ways, but the most important factor is that they are active systems, which means that they require a power source.

Requiring power potentially creates a vulnerability. If the power source can be located it can in theory be disconnected and the tracking beacon deactivated. High-end luxury cars are a classic example of desirable items that generally have asset trackers fitted. However a tracker can be a small device hidden in an inaccessible part of the car with a back-up power source ready to take over if the battery is removed. So, for any large asset finding the tracker and its power source, which may also be fitted in a secure compartment, may well turn out to be a lengthy process. If the tracker has been activated by the asset starting to move, hopefully time will be in very short supply as far as the thieves are concerned, making the device an effective deterrent.

Can AIS provide security for my boat or vessel?

Yes and no. By monitoring both terrestrial and satellite AIS signals coming from a vessel via a commercial service, anyone can see where it is and those familiar with its routes and schedules can see immediately whether it is where it is supposed to be. This is of course an exceptionally valuable service, particularly as it requires nothing more than a connected device with a web browser. However, the actual theft of commercial vessels is very rare, so security concerns tend to focus on what may be occurring either on board or in the vicinity that may threaten the crew or cargo. AIS is less effective in such situations as, unless the vessel concerned actually deviates from its pre-determined course, there will be no indication that anything is amiss. Plus criminals and pirates tend not to advertise their presence by having AIS fitted or operational on their craft. However, commercial vessels will have a range of other, dedicated safety / security systems such as SSAS, so at best AIS will be just one of the cogs in the security setup.

Owners of private boats may be more tempted to use their AIS systems as asset tracking systems. Using an online monitoring service on a mobile device will allow them to check at any time if their boats are where they left them, and setting up zones around a boat and configuring alerts will automatically alert them know if their boat starts to move, expectedly or otherwise.  However, it is worth remembering that AIS relies on VHF radio to transmit its signals, so any thief with a pair of bolt croppers can make short work of accessible aerials and / or their cables, so cutting off the signal. However for many boat owners, particularly those with boats on moorings or at anchor rather than alongside marina pontoons, the main fear will be for their boat to be set adrift through accident or a line or fitting failing. In these circumstances AIS will be useful, although it’s still probably best to have a dedicated tracking system fitted as well, just in case.

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BigOceanData is a vessel tracking software portal and service provider for maritime and vessel management.

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