AIS vessel tracking has been around for more than a decade and in that time has seen rapid advances in both its global reach and the accessibility of the technology. Yet the future of AIS promises that the pace of change will only increase over the next few years thanks to developments both in the underlying technology and the shipping industry itself. Factors that will underpin that change will include:

o Increased accuracy and frequency of vessels position fixes
o Growing focus on cyber security
o Moves towards autonomous ships
o Low-carbon shipping initiatives

The most important development, and the one that underpins all the others, is the dramatic increase in the accuracy of satellite AIS data that is now just a year or two away. Leading AIS satellite operators and data providers such as Spire and exactEarth, to name but two, will soon be offering a refresh rate of under one minute and customer data latency also under one minute. exactEarth is achieving this through placing payloads aboard 58 Iridium NEXT satellites, which are being placed in orbit over the course of 2016-18. Having so many positioned around the planet will allow continuous coverage of the Earth’s surface. For details, take a look here, but the result will be continuous, real-time AIS vessel tracking for the first time. This and similar systems now under development will have a transformative effect on the effectiveness and usefulness of AIS for vessel monitoring and management.

blue-ship_futureCyber security is going to become a significant issue for users of AIS. It’s a huge talking point in many industries including maritime, and the potential corruption of satellite tracking systems, maybe even of GPS itself, is a major concern for businesses and governments alike. Aside from the possibility of shutting down parts or all of the worldwide AIS network, security experts have already ‘hacked’ AIS; creating fake ships and making real ones disappear. Bogus alerts can also be created and there is real potential for disrupting commerce by making phony vessels appear in and around ports, forcing vessels to slow down or abruptly change course. As a legacy platform created in a more trusting time, AIS is vulnerable. Expect lots of talk and hopefully some action in improving security that may result in changes to hard and soft ware.

The development of autonomous vessels is going to put AIS squarely in the spotlight, and will certainly have an impact on its development as vessel operators demand functionality from it as a critical component of their onboard C&C systems. The US Navy’s experimental autonomous warship Sea Hunter already uses AIS as a core system for position fixing and collision avoidance and when real-time AIS goes live that onboard role is bound to expand. We can expect commercial developers of autonomous vessels to draw conclusions similar to those of the US Navy and seek to optimise AIS for the new, robotic world.

With luck this era of a new, more accurate and more secure AIS will also have benefits beyond the world of ships and shipping. A cleaner atmosphere could be one of those, as real-time AIS vessel tracking will make a significant contribution to the general move to de-carbonisation. Better performance management via onshore systems with access to ever larger data sets will deliver greater efficiencies and more efficient routing, and so low emissions. The fight against illegal fishing should also benefit as real-time AIS will make it easier to spot vessels engaged in manoeuvers that indicate fishing, in areas where they should not be. This will benefit poorer countries for whom fishing is important yet cannot protect or patrol their waters, and also boost the fight to manage fish stocks in a sustainable way. Even more applications will no doubt be developed as more organisations and businesses find ways to apply the new data. Exciting times ahead!