With stations deployed everywhere from Alaska to Antarctica, MarineTraffic operates the world’s largest AIS monitoring network.
The MarineTraffic network began with humble ambitions. It was the brainchild of Dimitris Lekkas, a self-confessed radio enthusiast, computer geek and ship spotter, who was inspired to create the platform in 2006 when he became aware of AIS and the then recently launched Google maps. Initially Dr. Lekkas wanted to see if marine vessels AIS transmitters could be used to create a real-time picture of shipping traffic in a small corner of Greece. After the trial proved a success, the network expanded to cover all Greek waters, then the Mediterranean and rest of Europe, before achieving global coverage in 2012.
Today, MarineTraffic operates the biggest and most comprehensive AIS monitoring network in the world with 3,200 receiver stations deployed in over 140 countries. The responsibility for growing, maintaining and ensuring this network remains a global leader lies with Dimitris Vitoris, MarineTraffic Network Support Manager.
The phenomenal system he oversees starts with Automatic Identification System (AIS) transceivers, a navigational device and safety aid every ship above 300 gross tons is obliged to operate at all times. The transceivers autonomously broadcast navigational data in two reserved VHF frequencies, sharing the vessel’s unique Maritime Mobile Service Identity (MMSI) number and/or the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) identity number (if applicable), position as GPS coordinates, course and speed. Static data are also transmitted (less frequently) like the vessel’s dimensions, draught, destination etc.
Reading these signals is relatively easy: anyone can put up a receiver and decode the open transmissions. With a small antenna just over a metre tall, you’d probably walk blindly past one of the receivers developed by MarineTraffic and distributed to their worldwide network of AIS gathering stations. Based on the Raspberry Pi 3 mini computer, they feature a compact dual-channel synthesised VHF receiver and connect to the MarineTraffic network via Ethernet or WiFi interfaces.
It was Dr. Lekkas who had the vision to collate information from multiple sources and create a global picture of the shipping industry, but the MarineTraffic network’s extensive coverage relies on a diverse family of collaborators who voluntarily host the stations. “It would be unfair not to acknowledge the huge role our community’s input in providing us with this global visibility: from station operators to curators and photographers,” Dimitris explains. “They see the value in maintaining this system for everyone and that’s why we’re committed to offering the basic MarineTraffic system for free.”
Station ID 112 on the West Coast of America holds the record for longest reception distance at 1024 nautical miles. Dimitris explains that when a receiver is set up correctly, a range of 30-60 nautical miles is a success, while anything above 200 is great. But these are relatively small distances when we look at the enormous scale of the oceans, so Dimitris is constantly looking to broaden the network.
In areas with a high standard of living, such as Europe and North America, the network is almost complete and many areas are covered by multiple transmitters. It’s a different picture elsewhere, particularly areas of high poverty or instability. “My biggest and most continuous challenge is expanding our network in these problematic, hard-to-reach areas,” Dimitris explains. “In the Red Sea or parts of coastal Africa, Nigeria or Madagascar, for example, coverage is not good because people have other things to worry about.”
A backend system automatically identifies areas of low coverage and generates newsletters inviting locals to host a receiver. If they have a reliable power supply, internet connection and a clear line of sight to the sea, Katerina Koukaki, MT Network Development Agent, will approve and send them all the necessary hardware for free.
When deploying an AIS receiver is impossible, Dimitris employs a number of techniques to achieve the best coverage possible, from data sharing and exchanges with third parties, to using Satellite AIS data as a primary source or a complement to the Terrestrial AIS data gathered by the MT network. This has its own unique set of problems but the combination of methods provides effectively global coverage.
Keeping it all working is another major challenge, yet stability is one of MarineTraffic major strengths, with around 80 percent of the network always online. Dimitris and his team achieve this through both reactive and proactive management: good communication with users; overseeing development of increasingly reliable hardware and software; and shipping replacement equipment out as fast as possible when necessary. However, it’s impossible for the network team to guard against acts of god, such as the three back-to-back typhoons that have buffeted the Gulf of Mexico last year, forcing him to advise temporarily disabling all equipment in that area.
With so many nodes constantly gathering information, the network generates an excessive 560 million position reports per day. Dimitris oversees the operation of downsampling all incoming data to one position report, per MMSI (vessel), per minute, and clears up conflicting information from different sources to provide the data team with the cleanest possible data – when his job comes to an end.
On top of regular network growth and maintenance, Dimitris and his team are involved in research and development to find new ways to cover vast areas at low cost. They have successfully trialled meteorological balloons in order to cover difficult areas and the open sea and replace costly satellites. “This could be a game changer,” he explains. “It would save us money by limiting our reliance on external data sources and turn MarineTraffic into a data provider, holding lucrative, hard-to-reach data. In the back of our minds, we’re always thinking about ways to diversify in all areas.”