Written by Loretta Haring
Office of Strategic Planning and Communication
Extreme weather. Poor visibility. Moving ice fields. Subsistence hunting.
Mariners face a multitude of hazards in the Arctic. The extensive seasonal melting of sea ice, reduction of multi-year ice and increase in first-year ice throughout the Arctic has generated an increase in maritime traffic. To help mitigate some of the risks associated with that increase, the Coast Guard has partnered with the Marine Exchange of Alaska (MXAK) to provide critical navigational safety information to Arctic mariners via digital means.
The partnership between MXAK – a nonprofit maritime organization dedicated to providing information, communications and services that aid safe, secure, efficient and environmentally responsible maritime operations around Alaska – and the Coast Guard Research and Development Center in New London, Connecticut, is part of the RDC’s Next Generation Arctic Navigational Safety Information System project. The objective is to provide reliable navigational safety information so mariners can mitigate risks as they travel in the Arctic region.
“The goal of the RDC project is to find a means, through technology, to transmit navigational safety information where traditional aids to navigation and general infrastructure (power, networks) are extremely limited,” said Irene Gonin, a RDC researcher and project manager. “Ultimately, that will lead to safer marine operations in the area.”
The MXAK had already established the infrastructure to support Automatic Identification System, a digital radio navigation-communication device required on board all seagoing vessels worldwide by the International Maritime Organization. AIS is designed to autonomously and continuously exchange pertinent vessel navigational information, such as vessel identification, dimensions, position, course, speed and status. The Coast Guard has developed its Nationwide Automatic Identification System to capture AIS broadcasts via a network of shore stations located in areas to provide coverage to major U.S. ports and waterways, but it has very limited terrestrial coverage in Alaska and the Arctic. Conversely, the MXAK had a terrestrial AIS infrastructure of 130 stations which received AIS information but had no authority to transmit data back to vessels. The RDC project sought to incorporate AIS transceivers and develop a software system to transmit navigational safety information through AIS directly to users.
“With the ice retreating, there is more vessel traffic in areas that were previously not transited,” said Capt. Ed Page, MXAK executive director. “New frontiers require new technology. The Coast Guard wanted to make sure that the necessary new tools were available for the new maritime environment emerging in the Arctic.”
Page called the project a “much more intelligent and effective way to transmit information to users.” Currently pertinent marine safety information on hazards, chart corrections and aids to navigation discrepancies are communicated weekly via electronic documents or daily via scheduled radio broadcasts. This means information lags in getting to the user or may be missed. “With this project, the Coast Guard via the MXAK demonstrated delivery of this information in almost real time.”
The system would not only provide access to real-time information but could also format the information to be portrayed on the vessel’s navigational display, such as an electronic chart system, radar or integrated navigational system.
“The Arctic has many unique challenges,” Page said. “Many of the navigational issues are dynamic, constantly changing. This information needs to be communicated hastily and in a manner that is easy to be used.”
For example, the ice retreat is causing an increase in marine wildlife activity in the area. A vessel coming too close can spook a herd of walrus, causing a stampede resulting in the death of younger mammals. Areas where Alaska natives are subsistence hunting change regularly, as do the sites of ice floes. The locations of such hazards could now be made available with the technology demonstrated in this project.
The system would also transmit electronic Aids to Navigation (eATON) information to mariners. eATON provides a means to extend the range of an existing aid, beyond visual sight and directly to the mariners’ navigational display. Virtual eATON are used to augment existing aids or to provide an aid where it is extremely difficult or not cost-effective to do so.
“The Arctic coast of the United States is not conducive to the traditional type of Aids to Navigation used elsewhere in the country,” said Dave Series of the 17th Coast Guard District Waterways Management Branch. “Conventional buoys cannot survive the ice conditions found in the Arctic, and daybeacons or lights placed anywhere in the tidal zone will not survive winter ice conditions either. The technology demonstrated in this project coupled with eATON represent a next-generation technology that would allow the Coast Guard to provide navigational safety information to the mariner where it is most needed, right in the wheelhouse of the ship on the navigation display.”
“We are pleased with the results,” said Bill Benning, MXAK chief technology officer. “In working with the Coast Guard, we found a lot of niches that could be filled.”
For example, mariners currently rely on weather reports that are updated hourly; the new system can update every minute. Information on the ice edge and safety zones can now be available directly on vessel screens (electronic chart systems) rather than within stacks of paper.
“Now that this technology has been proven, the Coast Guard looks forward to continuing to work in partnership with MXAK to provide essential navigational safety information in U.S. Arctic waters where conventional means of communication, such as VHF-FM marine band radio coverage, do not exist,” Series said.
While the project work may benefit what is called the near shore area (within 30-40 miles of the shore), the RDC has also been investigating ways to extend the range of AIS, to what is termed beyond line of sight. Testing of the extended range AIS technology is being conducted off Fishers Island, New York, throughout 2017. The RDC in early 2018 will release a report on its findings to the Office of C4 and Sensors Capabilities (CG-761), a project sponsor, who will determine if the technology warrants Coast Guard implementation.
“As the environment in the Arctic continues to change, maritime traffic is increasing and transiting farther north,” said Karin Messenger, Environment and Waterways domain lead for the Coast Guard Research, Development, Test and Evaluation Program (CG-926). “Research of this type is important to ensure the safety and security of mariners as they increase operations in this region.”