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Navigating Against Terrorism

June 2003
By Henry S. Kenyon

Maritime management technologies watch for rogue vessels.

The U.S. Coast Guard is using a nautical tracking and collision avoidance system to monitor cargo ships entering American ports. Operating on internationally accepted standards, the technology permits law enforcement and intelligence agencies to automatically query data such as a vessel’s cargo, crew roster, port of origin and destination.

Homeland security requirements are pushing into the security realm many systems originally intended for other purposes. Information technology enables commercial and government institutions to operate more efficiently by sharing data, and these systems can be modified and reapplied to track the shadowy dealings of international crime and terrorism.

One example of these dual-use applications is the Coast Guard’s Ports and Waterways Safety System (PAWSS) project. Launched in 1998, it is designed to acquire and upgrade traffic control and navigation technologies in major ports across the country. But since the September 11, 2001, attacks, this maritime tracking technology also is being used to protect U.S. harbors, explains Michael Sollosi, chief of the Coast Guard’s Office of Vessel Traffic Management, Washington, D.C. He notes that procedures used to maintain orderly and predictable ship traffic with applications such as the vessel traffic service (VTS) system are easily transferred to a security environment. “We have the hardware and people in place—not necessarily the training or all the things we need to close the safety and security gap—but we are much closer than a lot of other organizations are to transitioning to that role,” he says.

The goal of the PAWSS project is to install VTS systems in all major U.S. ports. Developed by Lockheed Martin’s maritime safety, security and surveillance division, Syracuse, New York, VTS consists of a series of networked radar systems, closed circuit television cameras and voice communications on marine band radios. An important addition to the system is the automatic identification system (AIS). Installed aboard commercial ships, AIS devices act as transponders, relaying a variety of information about a vessel’s location, identification, cargo and destination.

As part of an international agreement, AIS systems are being placed on vessels around the world according to a phased schedule extending to 2004. All new ships built after July 2002 will carry the transponders, and as of July 2003 all tankers and passenger ships are required to have AIS systems, Sollosi explains.

AIS has three functions. It is a collision avoidance tool that works from ship to ship anywhere in the world. It also is a vessel traffic management tool, and it allows a coastal country access to information about passing ships and their cargo.

This vessel tracking data is an important homeland security tool because it enables the intelligence community to tap into AIS data, Sollosi says. Intelligence analysts constantly search for anomalies such as variations in a ship’s schedule. For example, if a vessel has maintained the same route and schedule for years but is suddenly 12 hours late, it will draw attention. AIS permits intelligence agencies and maritime organizations to investigate and determine if the cause of a delay is a mechanical failure or, for instance, if a ship stopped in mid-ocean to take on or drop off cargo.

As a collision avoidance device, AIS uses a variety of positioning sources such as the global positioning system (GPS) to provide location data. Unlike radar, which can be affected by bad weather, Sollosi notes that AIS allows ships to transmit accurate data about their locations under almost any meteorological conditions.

Ship traffic is coordinated by a vessel traffic control center. Ten centers are located in the United States, but only three have AIS capabilities: New York, Houston/Galveston, and Port Arthur, Texas. PAWSS seeks to incorporate AIS into all of them, Sollosi says.

Lockheed Martin’s VTS technology is important for the operation of these navigation centers. The system’s MTM 200 software incorporates data from shore radar and other sensors into a common display for an operator. It permits traffic control personnel to evaluate and respond to a quickly changing situation.

Sollosi notes that VTS combined with AIS is a substantial improvement in harbor management. The highly automated system reduces the need for voice communication by up to 60 percent because vessels no longer have to report their status via radio when they enter port. Traditionally, when a ship nears a harbor or coastal waters, the captain or navigator must report the vessel’s cargo, port of origin and destination to the port authorities by voice communications. AIS performs this function automatically without placing additional responsibilities on a ship’s crew, he says.

Although he cautions that it is not a silver bullet, Sollosi explains that AIS and VTS allow greater port security because harbor masters can access a ship’s history with the click of a mouse. This complements additional security measures implemented by the Coast Guard requiring all ships entering the United States to provide 96-hour advance notice prior to arrival. The data includes information such as crew lists, cargo and the last port of call in an effort to separate legitimate commercial vessels from ones with questionable histories. “Once they arrive in the near-shore arena, you can use AIS, radar, VTS and other tools to verify that a ship is who it says it is, what it says it is, and where it is going,” Sollosi offers.

VTS helps operators monitor traffic by feeding radar and other sensor data into a single user interface, explains Gregory Larioni, Lockheed Martin’s director of maritime safety, security and surveillance, Syracuse, New York. VTS software creates a common operating picture of all the vessels navigating in a harbor or waterway. The system can be expanded to accommodate data from multiple radar sites.

The software fuses radar and AIS data into a geographical picture of a port that outlines features such as the shoreline, piers and navigational tracks of individual ships. The system also provides a set of customizable rules-based alarms. For example, in a river system with a newly dredged channel, an operator can create a shape to indicate the dredged area. When a vessel traveling in this area strays out of the zone and risks running aground, the system sounds an alarm for the operator to radio the ship to adjust course.

Rules can be established to sound alerts for a variety of situations such as ship collisions or when vessels with restricted cargo such as fertilizer—which can be used to build explosives—enter a specific part of a port. It also requires fewer personnel to administer harbor facilities. Larioni notes that, traditionally, dozens of people were employed to physically observe ships and to radio them for information. The system permits one or two individuals to run harbor operations, he says.

VTS software is not bandwidth intensive and operates on commercial desktop computers and laptops using Microsoft Windows and Windows NT. The system features a ship registration database provided by Lloyds of London that contains information about almost every vessel in the world. Larioni explains that every ship has a call sign that triggers AIS and provides harbor operators with information about the vessel.

Lockheed Martin engineers have developed a transportable VTS that consists of a radar on a retractable tower that can be hydraulically lifted to 100 feet. The electronics for the system are stored in a sheltered trailer that can be towed by any civilian vehicle. The system can be used to fill in gaps in existing radar networks or to replace damaged or malfunctioning units temporarily. Larioni adds that the U.S. Navy and the Coast Guard have shown interest in the mobile unit. 

In addition to identifying the most important places to install VTS, the Coast Guard must establish a shore-based infrastructure. “In a sense, you have to build a telephone company,” observes Sollosi, because the very high frequency-frequency modulation (VHF-FM) receivers must be linked back to a command center.

Bandwidth issues also must be addressed. Sollosi notes that the World Radio Conference set aside two VHF-FM maritime frequencies for international AIS use. But one of those frequencies is privately owned in the United States. The Coast Guard is negotiating with the licensee to use the band, but frequency issues are complex, and the limited bandwidth must be shared. “There’s always some strings attached, and little problems and knot holes here and there. It’s just messy. There are no absolutes in that business,” he says.

International cooperation in implementing AIS systems is substantial, however. The International Maritime Organization originally set 2008 as the deadline for global AIS implementation. After September 11, 2001, the United States successfully argued that an accelerated schedule was in everyone’s security interest, and the implementation date was moved up to 2004. Sollosi observes that many nations have more extensive maritime tracking and navigation systems in place than does the United States. The coastlines of Norway, Sweden and Finland are either fully or nearly covered by AIS, and major ports and coastal areas in Great Britain, Chile, Japan, South Korea and Australia also are covered.

The Coast Guard is moving to install AIS and VTS systems in major traffic ports by 2005, followed by the rest of the U.S. coastline and ports. The service is currently using a triage system to identify and install systems in ports according to their needs.