America's ship-tracking challenge

Long before a ship is within eye sight of Newport Harbor, a radio signal alerts a computer in a small, one-room office 20 miles away in Warren, R.I. that it's approaching.

That information is then fed onto the Internet. Back in Newport, Capt. Paul Costabile looks at his computer and knows in an instant that a ship is heading into his port.

"It allows us to be in the office and to see where ships are and make estimates about their time of arrival," says Captain Costabile, who is in charge of piloting ships around Narragansett Bay. "And sometimes ships come up that aren't expected, and we can find out what's going on."

The US Coast Guard was mandated by Congress in 2002 to enhance the security of the nation's ports and waterways through a Nationwide Automatic Information System (NAIS). The technology would give all homeland security officials an instant understanding of where every large ship is located in American waters. But this system isn't expected to be completed until 2014, in part, because the cost is estimated at more than $200 million.

With no government AIS capability in Newport, or in most of the rest of the country, Costabile is using a private, nonprofit version. It was set up in less than six months for $50,000 and covers the coast from Maine to New York.

"What we're doing is filling a gap," says Moses Calouro, CEO of Maritime Information Systems in Warren. "If there's any ship out there you have questions about, you have access to the information at your fingertips."

The Coast Guard's slow pace of implementing the system is not only related to the high costs of bureaucratic government versus the efficiency of the private market, it's also about challenges that the combination of terrorism and technology present to the people charged with safeguarding the nation. After 9/11, security officials recognized that AIS could be a vital national security tool.

"AIS capability is a cornerstone for establishing 'marine domain awareness,' which describes our ability to know what's happening in the maritime environment and to identify activities and potential factors that could influence all kinds of threats to the national security," says Cmdr. Keith Ingalsbe, deputy project director of NAIS.

AIS was first developed in the late 1990's as a tool to aid navigation. Since 2004, the deadline set by the International Marine Organization, all large commercial ships have been required to have the equipment, which sends a radio signal carrying the name, type, size, and exact location of the ship. AIS was conceived as an advanced navigational tool that could help ship mariners and harbor pilots avoid collisions and guide traffic safely with a few clicks on a computer.

Security officials also recognized that AIS technology could aid terrorists who may want to track oil tankers or ships that carry liquefied national gas. So their challenge was to create a system that could track AIS radio signals and communicate with ships on secure frequencies. They also want to be able to build a central database, where nationwide AIS information could be shared with appropriate federal, state, and local law enforcement officials.

Critics argue that while that is a laudable goal in the long-term, it is costly and will take years to implement. A Government Accountability Office report on the Coast Guard's 2006 budget request concluded that "estimates to establish such a system ... were well above funding levels." It recommended that the Coast Guard "seek and take advantage of partnerships with organizations willing to develop AIS systems at their own expense."

Over the past few years, a group of independent mariners has begun setting up AIS tracking systems around the country in places, such as Alaska and the West Coast. To develop his system, Mr. Calouro, went to pilots and harbor masters at various Northeast ports offering access to his AIS data in exchange for putting up a receiver. The cost of the equipment and installation was $975 per base station. Calouro's system now covers more than 750 miles of coastline. It not only tracks ships coming into US waters, but it also can send out e-mail alerts when ships cross into certain geographic areas, say, either into a harbor or a protected marine area.

The Coast Guard is working with some AIS data providers in the US like Calouro, but for security reasons, it is determined to develop its own system – one that can't be compromised. It has AIS-receiving capability at ports in New York, New Orleans, and Los Angeles. Those AIS systems were designed to guide vessel traffic, but Commander Ingalsbe says, "we're going to build around those to extend that capability."

By the end of the year, the Coast Guard plans to have "receive only" AIS capability in 55 key ports. Earlier this month, it received approval from the Department of Homeland Security to put out bids for the larger, "send and receive" secure communication system it hopes to have in place by 2014.

In the meantime, if there's a maritime national security emergency, Calouro says he'd share the data from his system with the Coast Guard or any other homeland security agency that needs it.

"It's amazing, any ship goes under the Verrazano Bridge [down in New York], we know about it immediately sitting right here in Rhode Island," Calouro says.

As for turning his system into the kind of send and receive communication system that the Coast Guard envisions, Calouro says that it's easy. "All I have to do is change the radio boxes," he says.

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