Coast Guard keeps digital eye on seas

Coast Guard keeps digital eye on seas

For more than 40 years the Coast Guard has been keeping an eye on the world's sea lanes through AMVER, an automated tracking system that gives real-time information about ship location to search-and-rescue teams during emergencies.

About 12,000 ships, 40 percent of the world's merchant fleet, participate in the Coast Guard program. On any given day, about 3,000 ships are 'on plot' at sea in some part of the world. The program protects ships out of range of coastal rescue facilities.

'AMVER is used in deep-sea search and rescue, 1,000 miles or more out,' said Rick Kenney, the Coast Guard's maritime relations officer in New York. 'There is nothing out there to help but another ship.'

The problem is in knowing where another ship is when a distress call comes in.

The need for such information became obvious in 1912, when other ship captains passed the Titanic in the North Atlantic without knowing that the liner was sinking.

AMVER was launched in 1958 as the Atlantic Merchant Vessel Emergency Reporting system, running on an IBM Random Access Method Accounting Control machine with vacuum tubes and punch cards.

Now extending worldwide, the Automated Mutual-assistance Vessel Rescue program consists of an Oracle Corp. database on a Unix platform at the Coast Guard Operations Systems Center in Martinsburg, W.Va.

'We're in the process of upgrading our server' to a Hewlett-Packard 9000 L-Class machine, project manager Elissa Carroll said. Plans also are under way to give users at the Coast Guard's 11 rescue coordination centers a browser interface to access AMVER over an intranet.

Position reports, along with weather reports for NOAA, from ships at sea around the globe travel from a Comsat Mobile Communications ground station in Southbury, Conn., to the Coast Guard's Operations Systems Center in Martinsburg, W.Va.

In AMVER's early days, most of the information arrived by brass-key telegraphy using Morse code.

'Some participants still send traffic in Morse,' Carroll said.

Since 1997, software developed by the Coast Guard, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and Comsat Corp. lets a growing number of ships report their positions via Inmarsat satellite at low cost.

AMVER is a voluntary program open to ships from any nation operating anywhere in the world. At the start of a voyage, a participating ship sends a sailing plan, much like an airplane flight plan. Each day the ship reports its position, and an arrival report is due at the end of the voyage.

The operations center in Martinsburg picks up Morse signals relayed by participating maritime radio networks. Telex messages come in from AT&T Corp.

Commercial satellite communications became available in 1976 through Inmarsat, an intergovernmental organization operating three geosynchronous satellites. Comsat, a privately held, congressionally authorized company, was the American signatory to Inmarsat and provides U.S. service.

An early driver for Inmarsat was the Navy, which wanted more nontactical satellite communications to free capacity for sensitive communications on its satellite network. But a commercial market for maritime communications soon developed. Inmarsat went private in April last year, and Lockheed Martin global telecommunications, a unit of Lockheed Martin Corp., bought Comsat four months later. Comsat Mobile Communications now owns about 14 percent of Inmarsat. 'Government is one of our major clients, but maritime service is the backbone, making up about 70 percent of our business,' Comsat Mobile Communications' spokesman Tom Surface said.

In 1976, a satellite call required an 80-pound terminal the size of a suitcase. Today, a satellite terminal is the size of a 6-pound notebook PC.

Satellite communication from ships proved to be easy, reliable and fast but expensive, Kenney said. Ships had to pay about $10 to file each AMVER report.

So the Coast Guard 'sat down with Comsat and asked, 'How can we control the costs?' ' Kenney said.

The result was a partnership with Comsat and NOAA that lets AMVER reports piggyback on the daily weather reports that most ships already send to NOAA. Custom software automatically generates an AMVER position report when a NOAA weather report travels via Inmarsat. The compressed data goes to a Comsat ground station in Southbury, Conn., and from there by land line to Martinsburg, where it is uncompressed. The weather report goes to NOAA. The operations center processes the AMVER data.

The cost to a ship is now 38 cents, 'and we pick up the 38 cents,' Kenney said.

AMVER reports follow the International Maritime Organization's standard format. Parsing software at Martinsburg strips off the headers and produces a message for entry in the Oracle relational database.

Sailing plans and positions are proprietary information that the Coast Guard keeps confidential. Such data cannot be used for anything'including law enforcement'other than search-and-rescue missions.

'We're the gatekeepers for the information,' Kenney said.

When a Coast Guard rescue coordination center receives a distress call, an operator using SURPIC (surface picture) client software telnets into the Martinsburg server to bring up AMVER data about ships in the area.

SURPIC produces graphical displays much like those of air traffic control, showing the locations, names and radio call signs of nearby ships, along with the Inmarsat telephone number of the distressed vessel if it has one. AMVER plots each vessel's course and speed to its estimated current location, based on last reported positions.

SURPIC users also can access data about the distressed ship from its AMVER sailing plan, such as whether medical personnel are aboard, plus insurance information from a Lloyd's of London database to which the Coast Guard subscribes.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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