Ahoy there! Did you know that you can track the location of vessels? All you need is the AIS data transmitted by the vessel. AIS data provides a wealth of information including current location, course, and speed all of which can all be used to make waves in the field of data analytics.

So with everyone on board let’s set sail and explore AIS in a bit more detail. Anchors away!

What is AIS?

AIS is a data broadcast system on board a vessel used to track its location.

The system primarily provides real-time details of the vessel’s geographical location (latitude and longitude) at that specific point in time, along with other details such as its navigational status (eg is it anchored or moving).

This article by The European Space Agency entitled Satellite – Automatic Identification System (SAT-AIS) Overview provides a good overview.

What is AIS currently being used for?

Examples of how AIS data is currently being used include:

  • in risk models to determine if a vessel poses a threat, and to reduce accidents and groundings
  • port managers can monitor expected and actual arrivals and departure of vessels
  • fleet managers can keep track of the location of their vessels
  • to improve the coordination of the various services required when a vessel comes into port especially with regard to offloading and loading
  • help regulatory bodies manage fishing quotas and monitor vessel activities for suspicious behaviour
  • in route analysis through understanding the trajectory of the vessel

How does it work?

A vessel is equipped with a transceiver which broadcasts the AIS data. A transceiver onboard another vessel or onshore can receive the data. Depending on the distance from shore, the signal may be picked up direct from the vessel to an AIS coastal station or if the vessel is further from the coast to a ground station using satellite. Ground and AIS coastal stations collect the AIS data and route it to a coastal station.

Ports typically use the AIS data with a VTS (Vessel Traffic Service) systems to monitor vessel movements.

Vessels required to carry AIS

Legally AIS must be fitted onboard vessels over 300 gross tonnage and all passenger ships regardless of size. This means the majority of vessels at sea have AIS fitted with perhaps only small fishing vessels falling within the exceptions.


AIS data is sent unauthenticated and unencrypted. This allows anyone with the appropriate equipment to intercept the data feed. This works well when operating in an open environment allowing potentially anyone to benefit from the data.

However it is accepted that this openness comes with risks as individuals could use it for unscrupulous means.

AIS data

The AIS data can be dynamic, static, safety related, binary, or form system management messages. AIS data is transmitted every 2 to 10 seconds when the vessel is moving and every 3 minutes while a vessel is at anchor.

AIS data does not belong to one specific company hence it is available for others to use. Whilst accepting that there can be fallibilities in data collection, its potential economic value should not be underestimated.

Table of AIS data extract
AIS data example – from data provided by The Norwegians Coastal Administration.

Wikipedia provides helpful information on the AIS and message broadcast along with information on the Maritime Mobile Service Identity (MMSI).

MarineTraffic’s website provides similar helpful information on the AIS data broadcast and navigational status values.

Potential users of the insights

From the wide range of port stakeholders such as local communities, to companies using the ports, to government bodies to the indirect maritime community such as insurance companies, shipbrokers and lawyers there are numerous organisations which could utilise the knowledge which may come from performing data analysis on AIS data. Indeed, some of these organisations are already performing data analytics, for example insurance companies to understand collision risks.

There was an emphasis on making more use of technology and data in the maritime sector by the UK Government in the Maritime 2050 plan.

Potential uses of the insights

A number of academic papers have been published focussing on the uses of AIS data and some suggestions of its uses are listed below:

  • Fleet optimisation – ability to reduce number of vessels taking the same route albeit as delivering different goods, potential to take longer routes, and reduce time spent idle/in holding patterns
  • Classification algorithms – spot relationships between explanatory variables such as length of vessel and beam which impact the behaviour of ship clusters
  • Visualisations which show the density of traffic in a gridded area to assist with e-navigation and to highlight hotspots for accidents and to show the trajectories of vessels
  • The use of data warehousing for storing and manipulating the AIS data for decision making.

It’s not clear from initial research on the web how many of these ideas have been adopted.

Software mapping tools

There are a lot of software mapping tools on the market as can be seen on this diagram on Konsberg Digital’s website. However from a visit to some of the software providers websites it’s not always clear what they are providing/have provided as most lack examples in this area. Appreciate there could be a number of reasons for this stance, but it makes it difficult to quantify in this article how much use is being made on AIS data in the software applications.

Don’t let the data become lost at sea

To make the most of AIS data, the data needs to be shipshape and utilised. The maritime industry are in a excellent position to rock the boat by making more use of the AIS data both on its own and in conjunction with other data sources for economic bounty. It may not all be plain sailing but with more hands on deck learning the data ropes, more insights from analytics can be reaped. Shiver me timbers!

Additional – YouTube

The YouTube video below demonstrates how AIS co-ordinates can be added to a leaflet map inside an R Shiny app to map the path of travel of a ship. The data has kindly been openly provided by The Norwegian Coastal Administration.

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