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The end of buoys?

Jan 1, 2003

Is there a better bolster to a nervous navigator than encountering a bell or whistle buoy in fading light and lowering weather? As you sail past, reassured that you are headed for a safe harbor, the lonely buoy resolutely stands watch. For mariners, navigational buoys are a tangible presence in times of navigational trial. There is, however, an electronic navigation effort underway that could one day lead to the elimination of many physical buoys and their replacement with electronic, virtual buoys seen on an electronic chart, but nowhere else.

Called E-navigation, this new initiative working its way through the policy-making apparatus of the International Marine Organization (IMO), is designed to bring together in an integrated system a variety of electronic navigational and communications systems that have evolved more or less independently. According to Mike Sollosi, Chief of the Office of Navigational Systems at U.S. Coast Guard headquarters, the Coast Guard is aware of the E-nav concept and has recently formed an E-nav division in his office. "Yes, we are working on E-nav," said Sollosi.

Something of a unified field theory in marine electronics, the E-nav initiative would bring together systems such as automatic identification system (AIS), electronic chart display and information systems (ECDIS), integrated bridge systems and integrated navigation systems (IBS/INS), automatic radar plotting aids (ARPA), radio and satellite-based navigation systems (such as loran, GPS and Galileo), long range identification and tracking (LRIT), vessel traffic services (VTS), the global maritime distress and safety system (GMDSS) and wireless digital communication networks.

One of the first test beds of this new integrated approach will be the Marine Electronic Highway in the Straits of Malacca off Singapore. This system, a World Bank-funded initiative still in the development stage, will integrate shore-based marine information and communications stations with navigation and communications on board ships transiting the strait. The system will be based on ECDIS electronic charts linked to AIS, real-time tide and current sensors, and meteorological data. All ships in the straits, as well as shore-based VTS, search and rescue, and security forces will share the real-time data. This is an attempt at a system that will allow all the ships and the shore-based facilities to see everything going on in the straits. This is designed to improve safety of navigation, collision avoidance, ship security and environmental protection. It is no mistake that the system is being designed for the Straits of Malacca; a large percentage of the world's oil is shipped through the straits, making it a potential target for terrorist attack, and the straits are notorious for pirate attacks on commercial vessels.

An outgrowth of AIS, one of E-nav's component systems, is the ability of VTS to use "virtual buoys" to augment the existing buoy network in a place such as the Straits of Malacca. The VTS authority can use AIS to add virtual buoys to the shipping lanes and traffic separation zones. VTS broadcasts a message on AIS channels that a buoy numbered 8A is located at a certain lat/long. If you look out your pilothouse window, you won't see a buoy, but the virtual aid to navigation is shown on your electronic chart.

This use of virtual buoys is a variety of something called "augmented reality," which is defined in Milgram's mixed reality continuum as "enhancing the real world with computer-generated images, sounds and touch." Another source says "digital data is said to be 'co-registered' with reality because the person perceives the digital objects to be present in the real world."

While augmented reality may sound a little too high tech for yachts, there are augmented reality systems available for marine navigation. One company that has taken just such an approach is LookSea in Wiscasset, Maine, with a product called LookSea Pro. The system consists of a video camera, a computer, a display monitor, a heading source and a GPS position input. The video camera records the scene and sends that to the central computer, which also knows the boat's heading and position. The computer lays down virtual images of buoys and a course to steer in highway view (complete with "guardrails") along with other navigational aids and hazards. In clear weather, LookSea users see the video image of the water before them with the virtual highway superimposed. In foggy weather, the video camera displays a featureless gray image. The LookSea system, however, knows the boat's heading and position on an electronic chart and so shows the same highway view with course to steer and navigational information displayed. In the case of fog the vessel operator steers the highway course into the fog. Of course, in such a situation you might want to slow down and consult your radar. Any vessels you run into in the fog are unlikely to be of the virtual kind.

This ability of virtual buoys to assist real buoys in a high-traffic zone like the Straits of Malacca is just one way to use virtual buoys. Another virtual buoy idea that has been discussed by the world's coast guards and hydrographic offices is using virtual buoys to save money. Poor maritime nations are often hard pressed to maintan floating aids. Even for wealthy nations like the U.S. and the U.K., the cost of buoy purchase, deployment, recovery and repair is substantial. Maritime agencies may be keen on the prospect of replacing expensive real buoys with cheap virtual ones.

Even though the Coast Guard is working on the E-nav standard, there is no plan right now to move toward virtual aids to navigation. "I have a lot of faith in floating hardware," said the Coast Guard's Sollosi. And he stresses that his office's work on E-nav is just beginning. "We are in the experimental stage," Sollosi said. "Before we ever deploy virtual aids, we will do a lot of simulation and testing in a very controlled environment."

So while virtual aids might save money, such a move would require that all mariners have an electronic system to see navigational aids. For those hardy souls who eschew electronic navigation, the waters of the world would return to a time when there were no buoys and a navigator, armed with a good lead line, a stout hull and a dash of courage, was largely on his own.