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A sea traffic control tower

According to the ESPO, (1) more than three and a half billion tonnes of merchandise pass through Europe’s 1 200 sea ports every year. At any one time, 20 000 vessels are navigating our coastline. This creates a considerable logistics headache for sea traffic controllers as this dense traffic generates a major flow of information that is exchanged between the vessels themselves as well as with the coastal authorities. Since November 2004, the MarNIS – Maritime Navigation and Information Services – research programme has been trying to rationalise and organise these flows to limit the risk of accident.

Herald of Free Enterprise, Erika, Prestige… Names that evoke terrible memories of disaster, with loss of human life, polluted beaches and oiled seabirds. Never again! Yet accidents continue to happen at sea all too frequently, sometimes bringing environmental disaster and loss of life and sometimes not. Fishermen are particularly exposed to risk, with an occupational mortality rate of worrying proportions: around 2 for every 1 000, while in other risk sectors, such as construction and mining, it is “only” 0.3 for every 1 000. Very often it is a lack of communication between ships that is to blame.

The AIS, everywhere at all times

To combat this problem, the European Commis - sion proposes to extend the AIS (Automatic Identification System) obligation to all boats and fishing vessels more than 15 metres long, whereas the International Maritime Organisation only makes this compulsory for cargo vessels with a laden volume of more than 300 Gross Registered Tonnage - or 849 m³ - and for all passenger ships. But what exactly is the AIS?

This identification system consists of an automatic message exchange device using very high frequency (VHF) radio waves. Connected to the vessels other navigational devices - position, speed, change of course indicators, etc. - the AIS automatically emits a series of data at regular intervals enabling other vessels and surveillance systems based on the coast to pinpoint their precise position. It also provides additional information on cargo, size, destination, etc. At the same time, the AIS incorporates the same information from any vessels crossing their path at proximity.

“This system clearly makes it possible to improve safety at sea,” says Gabriele Mocci, head of high frequency maritime telecommunication studies at the Telespazio centre(IT). “But to make it more efficient, this system must be extended to apply globally and on all vessels.” It is precisely this generalisation that the Commission plans to impose, at least at European level.

MarNIS for integrated management

“But at the same time, thanks to the MarNIS research programme,” explains its coordinator, Cas Sillems, “the Commission plans to further develop the potential of the AIS.”

Launched in November 2004 in cooperation with more than 40 partners - including Telespazio - in 13 European countries, MarNIS has set itself the ambitious goal of improving global security in European waters. “To achieve this, telecommunication systems can play a major role,” stresses the MarNIS coordinator. “In particular, we are trying to combine as best we can the information supplied by the LRIT (Long Range Identification and Tracking) systems, positioning systems such as GPS and Galileo, and cartographic display systems. By integrating all these data and presenting them in the form of a graph on a single interface, sea traffic can be generated by a single operations centre, a kind of single control tower, similar to what we have in aviation.”

Matthieu Lethé

  1. ESPO - European Sea Port Organisation.

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