Join the AIS Social Network

Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are popular because many people are joining and using these social networks, and that’s exactly why AIS (Automatic Identification System) is becoming more relevant for recreational boaters. Once you join the “network,” your chartplotter or radar screen comes alive with information about the other AIS-enabled vessels around you.

Some information is fun, like knowing boats nearby are named Jumpin’ Jack Splash or Patriot Misshull. But the more important information, such as knowing other boats’ proximity to your vessel and their compass headings, is also displayed.

When AIS first came out in 2002, it was mandated for ships more than 300 gross tons to use a Class A type AIS transceiver for international travel. Then in 2006, the AIS standards committee published the Class B type AIS transceiver specifications, designed to enable a simpler and lower-cost AIS device.

Electronics companies such as Raymarine followed by offering less-expensive Class B transceivers, and in the past nine years AIS has become better and more popular. Its main benefits include transmitting your position to other boat operators, alerting you to unauthorized boat movement and allowing port management to contact and control boats easier. This year, boat owners will be able to enjoy a series of improvements in AIS that make it easier to use and more powerful.

“AIS is really starting to trickle down to the recreational market,” said Jim McGowan, Raymarine’s maritime marketing manager. “The cost of the hardware has come down significantly, it’s gotten very small and it can be built into VHF radios.”

Having AIS integrated into your VHF radio, allows you to make a call to other vessels using the MMSI (Maritime Mobile Service Identifier), which is essentially a phone number for your boat. Nowadays VHF radios are equipped with Digital Selective Calling (DSC), and the core of DSC is having the MMSI programmed into your boat.

Signing up for an MMSI number is free and BoatU.S. offers easy registration through its website. Like the decision to join Facebook or Instagram, it’s not required for recreational boat owners to have an MMSI number or to use AIS, but there is a host of safety features available by joining in.

“Almost all VHF radios have a digital distress button built in,” McGowan said “But you have to have an MMSI number for your boat that identifies your vessel with the latitude and longitude from your GPS. That way you can be picked up by other boats when you press that digital distress button and signal that you need help.”

Boat owners who currently don’t have AIS on their boats can add it to their data network, connecting through the NMEA protocol that allows electronics from different manufactures to work together.

“Raymarine’s AIS650 is our Class B AIS receiver,” McGowan said. “It is popular with recreational boat owners, and transmits your ID and position to other boats and receives their AIS broadcasts as well, and it can be added to any boat with an NMEA 2000 network. It costs about $1,000.”

Some of the more advanced AIS improvements are only available if you stay within the same family of electronics, such as pairing a Raymarine AIS receiver with a Raymarine multifunction display.

“Our latest systems use AIS technology for collision avoidance,” McGowan said. “It really improves your situational awareness to see what targets are coming at you at longer ranges, whether it’s a small boat, yacht or big tanker. You get clued into what their speed is and what course they are on well before there is a problem. Symbols in red are considered dangerous and inside your comfort zone, while those in blue are considered a non-dangerous target. ”

In addition, Raymarine has been doing a lot of work with AIS symbology and improving the boat display information on the MFD screen. For example, the traditional first AIS symbols used just one icon for every type of vessel, such as a triangle or little box. Now, there are different icons for yachts, sailboats, high-performance boats, and even AIS-equipped helicopters.

“AIS will only get better as more and more boat owners participate,” McGowan said. “The next big thing on the advanced commercial ship systems is having the symbology fully scaled to the actual size of the vessel. The really big ships have very large screens, so on the chart you can see how big the nearby ships are relative to your size. If recreational boat MFD screens keep getting bigger then that feature may be available.”

Another AIS capability that hasn’t been fully used is text messaging between vessels using DSC. It’s conceivable to send a boat-to-boat text such as “C U soon at the dock.” One has to wonder if those “emoji” icons are not far behind.

— By Doug Thompson, Southern Boating January 2016



BoatU.S. MMSI registration;

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