AIS is now firmly embedded in the dry cargo sector with commercial operators relying on tracking and information services to gain competitive advantage, writes Argyris Stasinakis, Business Development Director, MarineTraffic.

Once the tool of ship spotting enthusiasts, Automatic Identification Systems (AIS) have now taken on a wide range of commercial applications. AIS systems consist of a transponder aboard a ship with a GPS and VHF transmitter. The VHF transmits GPS information to coastal or space-based (satellite) receiving stations; it is then interpreted by software, enabling it to be visually displayed. All ships over 299GT must carry an AIS transponder, meaning the world’s fleet of dry cargo ships can be located and tracked.

Businesses and the public have been able to access vessel tracking services thanks to the advent of AIS websites, some of which have been around for several years. Of these, the most prominent is which has the largest network of coastal receiving stations around the world — 1,800 stations in 140 countries.

Recently MarineTraffic undertook a survey of some of its five million monthly visitors to see how the use of such services had matured. The results confirmed that AIS services were no longer being thought of as a ‘nice-to-view’ website. Instead, information was being extracted and used for solid commercial reasons. A diverse range of uses across the maritime sector were reported, but all users were united in their need to have AIS available on their computers, phones and tablets. Users expected to be able to access AIS information wherever they were located and needed to feel sure of its accuracy and timeliness. This was because an increasing number of commercial users were now basing decisions with direct cost implications on the AIS information presented.

For example, one US ship owner-operator of a local bulk fleet was using AIS to closely monitor his own vessels and those of his competitors to avoid port delays. AIS is a more convenient way of monitoring vessel movements than obtaining information from agents and it provides a real time, visual representation of ships’ positions to aid decision making. This owner also tracked competitors to identify if they were operating different routes and working local ports so he could investigate and pitch for new business in areas not currently serviced. A shipper of woodchips based in Uruguay was using the AIS app to track vessels arriving at Montevideo so he could arrange ocean transport for his cargo as well as suitable cargo surveys. Information gained from local agents was considered to be less up to date and the real time configuration of the app was important for managing frequent passage delays.

The up-to-date information aspect of AIS systems was also emphasized by a timber trader from Norway who found the facility extremely convenient for obtaining the most accurate ETA forecast to ensure follow-on operations remained on schedule. Interestingly, brokers and agents themselves are turning to AIS information to update clients when called upon. A port agent/ broker based in Brazil was using vessel tracking to identify the whereabouts of a vessel once a charter had been confirmed and would then relay this information to his client with up-to-date information on ETAs and early notification of any delay. The agent thought that the AIS service was significantly enhancing the service he was providing for his clients.

In Mexico, a minerals logistics and trading business reported using the app to check vessel positions and ETAs provided by owners. Once vessel positions were ascertained, brokers were then approached to charter the most appropriate vessel. According to this firm, using AIS in the first instance was a much less resource intensive process than approaching the market through brokers — although brokers were still used to handle the fixture.

In addition to AIS information relayed from coastal receiving stations, some suppliers offer a combination of terrestrial and satellite tracking options, meaning ships can be tracked in real time when in mid ocean. The ability to overlay weather conditions and wind speeds on charts, including current and forecast conditions a vessel might encounter enables increasingly accurate ETA prediction and is a good basis from which to make business decisions and inform clients.

Systems accurately forecasting the estimated arrival time of ships and giving reliable route forecasts will become more and more valuable to ship owners and port authorities. They will enable financially astute decisions to be made, for example whether to increase ship speed and burn fuel in order to reach a berth or not. If the route and ETA of a rival berth-holder can be accurately predicted and it is evident they will reach port first, tonnes of fuel can be saved. Port authorities will be able to more accurately favour the vessels of long-standing clients and with a longer ETA forecasting range, strategically allocate berths to enable maximum loading and offloading efficiency. In order to do this, AIS systems providing this kind of information service will need the ability to interpret the ‘free text’

format that ships currently use to report their destination. When a ship’s AIS transmits ‘rdam’ or ‘boniiy’ the AIS system must be clever enough to interpret this as Rotterdam or the port of Bonny in Nigeria. This requires a vast bank of historical data coupled with an ability to combine this with current position, speed and status information to create an accurate route forecast. Only the most sophisticated AIS services can deliver this.

AIS services have come of age. They are no longer a domain for enthusiasts but are increasingly being viewed as a business tool with the capability of streamlining current processes and enhancing both customer service and competitive advantage. That said, in general AIS is being used at an individual level within most companies to provide the individual with an additional tool to complete his or her job more effectively. Only a handful of shipping companies have embraced AIS at a corporate level to benefit from the company-wide advantages this service can evidently offer.

As AIS providers continue to deliver ever more sophisticated services that enhance the traditional location and tracking data, it won’t be too long before big business wakes up and exploits this innovative service for the benefit of its customers and its own bottom line.