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Author Topic:   From the Department of Homeland Security: the so-called AIS CLASS-E
jimh posted 10-20-2014 06:47 AM ET (US)   Profile for jimh   Send Email to jimh  
I recently came across a mention of AIS CLASS-E. I don't think there really is anything called AIS CLASS-E as an international standard.

I did find a contract award for about $1-million to a firm in Maine from the Department of Homeland Security that seems to be the driving force for what is being called AIS CLASS E. This contract calls for development of a vessel tracking system. The contract abstract says:

The ability to track small vessels is critical to national security, but not easily accomplished due to the sheer volume of craft and the range of environments which they operate within. The introduction of smart-phones with location, orientation, camera, and Internet capabilities is enabling collaborative applications that have strong locative potential. These devices are capable of acting as basic Electronic Chart Systems (ECSs), along with providing additional nautical services such as weather forecasts, electronic text chat/VOIP, and so forth. Smart Chart AIS will result in smart-phone based ECS capabilities that can be distributed for free to the small craft community. The only obligation of end users will be to register with a Smart Chart AIS server and to enable broadcast of AIS-like data. This will enable tracking of many small craft through cloud based servers. The Phase 1 effort resulted in successful proof of principle prototypes being developed for the iPhone and Android platforms. Phase 2 will fully develop the app for these platforms plus Windows Phone platforms, along with fully implementing supporting server capabilities that include gateway services to other Maritime Domain Awareness systems. This effort is expected to provide the basis for a new international standard called AIS Class E. The Phase 2 option will facilitate adoption of AIS Class E by other ECS manufacturers through creation of Application Programmer Interfaces. Smart Chart AIS presents a strong opportunity for commercial growth through additional value added applications, server software licensing, content marketing, and related product development.


I think the above summary explains what Class-E AIS really is--a government data base for vessel tracking. It is not a real-time collision avoidance system for other vessels, but it seems to be disguised as part of the international AIS collision avoidance system by naming itself AIS Class-E. It sounds to me like a way for recreational boaters to voluntarily send real time boat movement data to a Homeland Security database at their own expense by using their own Smartphones and wireless data packages to transmit the data. The Department of Homeland Security is going to collect this data and maintain it in their servers.

The company developing the software is in Maine. See

The project is rebranded as "Smart Chart AIS" and is promoted as a free application for Android and iPhone.

The Smart Chart application has a lot of features, such as

--free charts

--integration with Active Captain cooperative sailing information

--a cute overlay of navigation information on a smartphone camera called "augmented reality views"

--social networking, and

--what is called AIS-i

It is the AIS-i feature that is the real meat of this government funded project. The other features are just a bit of candy wrapper around the core--vessel tracking.

What is going on here? We have a "free" application that on the surface looks like it has some interesting features. But no where in any of the promotions of this application is there any mention that it is being funded by and developed for the Department of Homeland Security through a contract with the professional software developer. I think that is a little scary.

There have been several reviews in the boating press on Smart Chart AIS. All the reviews are quite positive.

CRUISING WORLD declared it their "App of the Month," and said it was "very cool."

PANBO.COM got on board with Smart Chart, urging users to sign up as beta testers. PANBO was very honest, however, and pointed out that the project was sponsored by the government: dhss_small_vessel_cooperative_tracking_whats_your_guess.html smart_chart_ais_needs_our_help_uncle_sams_too.html

What bothers me about the Smart Chart AIS application is involvement of the government is not very clear in the promotion of the application. The contract award language seem to make things clearer:

"...ability to track small vessels is critical to national security..."

"...will enable tracking of many small craft..."

jimh posted 10-20-2014 06:57 AM ET (US)     Profile for jimh  Send Email to jimh     
Here are some excerpts from a presentation made by the Technologies Systems inc. to the e-Navigation Underway Conference, April 4, 2014, California Maritime Academy


--“AIS Class E” does not claim to be AIS Class A or B, or to fulfill any of the FCC, USCG, or IMO (International Maritime Organization) regulations pertaining to those devices and their users.

--The long-term goal is to establish standards that will support tracking of small vessels over wireless networks.

--The AIS Class E approach is covered under US Patent 7,805,146, issued September 28, 2010, entitled Cell Phone PDA/GPS Communication Network with AIS. TSI has an agreement with the patent holder under which this work has been developed.

--The AIS Class E concept has been developed under DHS SBIR funded project known as “Smart Chart AIS”

Cf.: https:/ / www. google. com/ url?url=https:/ / www. csum. edu/ c/ documen t_library/ get_file%3Fuuid%3D5362ad3c-f4d4-4a09-ad69-f4f83bf97fcc%26grou pId%3D61938& rct=j& q=& esrc=s& sa=U& ei=UulEVJLtE4amyASMoYDoDA& ved=0CD QQFjAC& sig2=q71xVs_rGjuhsbGNB4xDdA& usg=AFQjCNGkEvQhRsr0W3Yc9LzKoxeVKMr K8g

Hoosier posted 10-20-2014 10:23 AM ET (US)     Profile for Hoosier  Send Email to Hoosier     
OMG! This could be a financial disaster for those of us who boat in US-Canadain boundary waters. If we have to keep our phones "Data enabled" for this to work and we accidentally connect to Canadian towers it could end up costing a fortune.
dfmcintyre posted 10-20-2014 03:30 PM ET (US)     Profile for dfmcintyre  Send Email to dfmcintyre     
If, a few years down this road you start reading about requirements to equip all vessels with AIS or transponder like equipment, heard it first here.

jimh posted 10-20-2014 05:56 PM ET (US)     Profile for jimh  Send Email to jimh     
Regarding MANDATORY, just read a little further into the presentation (linked above) to find:

quote: is in industry’s and government’s interest that future wireless “AIS-like” capabilities be standardized, and eventually also be regulated or mandated in certain circumstances

I don't like this system. It has several big flaws:

--how does a Smartphone tie into a vessel? Maybe you come aboard my vessel with your Smartphone and you are a user of this system. What happens now? Does your Smartphone start reporting the position of my vessel as your vessel?

--the other vessels using the real AIS don't ever see you with your Homeland Security-only Class E AIS. They are listening for the real AIS transmission on the real radio band from real AIS vessels. They are not checking into some data network to get the position of the cellular data plan users of this DHS vessel tracker;

--the cited "advantage" is to avoid the expense of a real AIS receiver or transponder. What? You can add an AIS receiver to a modern VHF Marine Band Radio for a few bucks, and then enjoy the benefits of the collision avoidance features for free the rest of your life. You don't have to have a $700 Smartphone and an $80-per-month wireless telephone service and wide area data modem service. Even if you bought a CLASS-B transponder you'd only spend about $700 for the whole system. And you'd be visible to all the real users of the AIS system, not just to Homeland Security.

Sorry, I am not jumping on the bandwagon to support this. If you want to participate in the global, organized, legitimate, real AIS system, buy yourself an AIS receiver or AIS transponder. Do not buy into this Department of Homeland Security financed and funded vessel tracking system in disguise.

dfmcintyre posted 10-20-2014 06:45 PM ET (US)     Profile for dfmcintyre  Send Email to dfmcintyre     
And "regulated and mandated in certain circumstances" will, in all probability, be interpreted to mean forcing all all vessels along the international borders to be so equipped.
Hoosier posted 10-21-2014 10:03 AM ET (US)     Profile for Hoosier  Send Email to Hoosier     
Don, How would they do that with trailer boats? And I still stick to my cost point made above. Data in Canada costs a fortune, Verizon told me to turn OFF data in my phone whenever I was near the border.
dfmcintyre posted 10-21-2014 05:00 PM ET (US)     Profile for dfmcintyre  Send Email to dfmcintyre     
They could either exempt trailer boats.....or not.

Worse case scenario; mandate that _any_ vessel traveling along or close the border would be required to have an AIS onboard, and operating. And they will not be concerned about the cost. When dealing with the federal government, I always keep this in mind, they don't care about cost benefit analysis.

jimh posted 10-22-2014 12:32 AM ET (US)     Profile for jimh  Send Email to jimh     
David--You are right about outrageous charges for data when roaming. I recall my days administering an account of several hundred Smartphones. One user went to Canada for a few days, and while there continued to use their Smartphone without regard for being in a foreign country. The bill was $1,300.
jimh posted 10-22-2014 08:34 AM ET (US)     Profile for jimh  Send Email to jimh     
When the Automatic Identification System (AIS) was designed, I don't think it was ever anticipated that the system could be scaled-up to accommodate thousands and thousands of boats transmitting in a single cooperative cell. There are limitations on the number of AIS transmitters that can send data cooperatively in a cell without having their transmissions overlap based on the duration of the transmission and the number of transmit slots available. There are also practical limits on the presentation on a chart display of AIS targets. A chart display with a thousand targets or even one-hundred targets becomes very cluttered, and it not easily interpreted by a human observer. The automatic identification system has been corrupted from its original purpose, a system to help large ships avoid collisions with each other, to become a vessel information gathering system.
Hoosier posted 10-22-2014 09:04 AM ET (US)     Profile for Hoosier  Send Email to Hoosier     
This whole issue is BS. All marine VHF radios are now required to be DSC compliant. One feature of DSC is remote polling, i.e. "Track Your Buddy", the Feds can just require everyone within 10 miles of the US border to have that feature enabled and they can use Rescue 21 to track everyone. Right?
jimh posted 10-23-2014 10:25 PM ET (US)     Profile for jimh  Send Email to jimh     
The use of DSC polling requires that the station initiating the polling know the MMSI of the station from which the position is being requested. It would seem to me that you can't use an "all stations" polling, as the replies would collide. There isn't a radio protocol in DSC to prevent collisions of transmitters. I don't think there is an "all stations send me your position" request, and, if there were, there is no way to coordinate all the replies. The transmissions would all step on one another.
jimh posted 10-25-2014 11:20 PM ET (US)     Profile for jimh  Send Email to jimh     
The AIS options:

AIS CLASS-B Transponder: You can see other vessels with transponders that are in range, and they should see you on their AIS transponders or receivers. Your position may be received by a shore station participating in a network of AIS monitoring sites, either public, private, or government.

AIS-Receiver: You can see other vessels with transponders that are in range. No one sees you.

AIS receive-only from web based system: You can see other vessels that shore monitoring sites have picked up via radio when those shore stations are participating in the particular website's non-radio AIS data exchange and the website is willing to publicly share the data. No one sees you. It is the same situation as sitting at home and visiting a website like MARINETRAFFIC.COM. You could access this from your boat if you have a mobile data plan and were in range of your service provider's towers on land. In other words, you get the same benefit of seeing AIS vessels without having an AIS receiver that you would get from running the free App.

AIS with Homeland Security sponsored free App: You can see other vessels that shore monitoring sites have picked up via radio when those shore stations are participating in the particular website's radio AIS data exchange and the website is willing to publicly share the data; you can also see other vessels using the free App. No vessels with real AIS transponders or receivers will see you at all. You will only been seen by other users of the free App, and, of course, by Homeland Security. There is not much different about this system in terms of the vessels you will be able to see than you would get from just using the web-based free AIS website method with your mobile data connection. The only extra vessels you might see would be other users of the free App.


If you want to be seen by most other users of the AIS collision avoidance system, get a real AIS Class-B transponder.

If you don't want to be seen, but want to see others, get an AIS receiver, or use a mobile data plan to connect to a website that provides coverage of vessels in your area and is willing to share that data publicly. Getting a receiver is a one-time cost; using a mobile data plan to connect to a website from your vessel is an on-going cost, and it is only available if you are in range of the shore towers of your service provider.

If you want to be tracked by Homeland Security but not seen by most other vessels, get the free App.

What Might Happen In The Future

Today you can see other vessels via a free website where shore monitoring sites have picked up those vessels via radio and those shore stations are participating in a particular free website's radio AIS data exchange and that free website is willing to publicly share the data. At the moment there are several websites like this and they seem willing to share some of the data they have for free with the public, but there is a trend to reduce the free service in order to establish a paid service that provides better data. Better data is usually either older, historical data or newer more current data. In the future the present day situation of having a lot of reasonably current AIS data available for free from a website may not exist.

There are already several companies collecting AIS data--even with such exotic methods as launching their own micro-satellites into space to receive it on a global basis--and organizing it, storing it, analyzing it, and making it available to their customers for a fee. If you use a transponder, your vessel movement may very well become part of the data these private companies are collecting and selling. Of course, we have to believe that Homeland Security is already doing this exact thing, too. The Coast Guard says it is already collecting 92-million AIS messages per day. That is what they mean when they use the government-speak phrase marine domain awareness. Getting your vessel movement history stored in all these collections of data just comes with participating in the AIS system by having an AIS transponder. If you don't want to get tracked, don't get an AIS transponder.

The notion that participating in AIS can be done with this free App is a bit deceptive from my point of view. Vessels running the free App are not going to be seen by most commercial vessels that are using a Class-A AIS system. They won't be seen by anyone using an AIS receiver. And they won't be seen on websites that are not able to participate in the network of shared information that is getting the data from the freeApp. Right now the free App network is supposed to be available to the public--but I think it is only available if you run the free App. That is quite a Catch-22. If the free App data is not always shared with public sites which then share it for free via the web, your vessel position will not be seen by anyone other than Homeland Security.

jimh posted 10-27-2014 05:09 AM ET (US)     Profile for jimh  Send Email to jimh     
[Deleted sidebar discussion on different topic. I also edited my post above to clarify a few points that I did not make clearly.]
kwik_wurk posted 10-27-2014 09:16 AM ET (US)     Profile for kwik_wurk  Send Email to kwik_wurk     
Oh, this could be fun when I have ten friends (all with said free software) along with me in a bigger boat and we decide to cruise by the navy base. AIS-E will make us look like D.H.S. Suspect No 1, with my 11-boat armada!
jimh posted 10-28-2014 03:02 PM ET (US)     Profile for jimh  Send Email to jimh     
AIS-Class E is just a made up name. I think it is more descriptive to call it DHS-Vessel Tracker instead.
Hoosier posted 10-28-2014 06:32 PM ET (US)     Profile for Hoosier  Send Email to Hoosier     
kwik got it right. What about the "slightly drunk" guy on a PWC going like hell near a navy ship, or a BIG cruise ship, with his cell phone is a waterproof pouch...that he totally forgot was turned on...?

This is supposed to be a good idea?

jimh posted 10-28-2014 10:46 PM ET (US)     Profile for jimh  Send Email to jimh     
A system like this Department of Homeland Security vessel tracker is going to have some latency. With real AIS, signals are received from other vessels in real time. In the Department of Homeland Security vessel tracker free App, the signals have to be sent via radio using a data modem to shore, then sent via a network to some ingesting server, then entered into some data base, and sent to some website to be included in their web page. Then the webpage has to be updated, your browser has to load the page, and the page contents have to be sent via radio data modem to your vessel. By the time all that happens a fast moving vessel could be thousands of feet away from the position it sent. And the position it sent is coming from a smart phone whose GPS receiver is probably not getting a clear view of the sky while sitting in the captain's pocket, is probably not receiving enough satellites to have a low dilution of precision, and may not be getting any augmentation from WAAS, thus the position was not very accurate to begin with. Great system.

Remember the government data base is already collecting 92-million AIS messages per day. If a lot of recreational boaters get duped into using this, there could be ten times as many boats sending data to Homeland Security than it collects now via over-the-air transmissions.

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