AIS tracking data: Your ultimate guide

Everything You Need To Know About AIS Tracking Data, and applying it solve maritime challenges.

AIS tracking data is collected today to track the vessels around the globe, monitor maritime activities, and avoid collisions.

The Automatic Identification System (AIS) is a vessel tracking system used for ship-to-ship, ship-to-shore, and shore-to-ship communication. AIS tracking is used to prevent collisions and track vessels. Ships were required to use AIS by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) in 1974. While the AIS is the mandated form of ship tracking, it has several shortcomings. Satellite AIS (S-AIS) was developed to offer more complete coverage in remote areas where Terrestrial AIS (T-AIS) fell short.

Introduction to the Automatic Identification System

The AIS tracking system is vital to the maritime industry as it serves as the primary vessel tracking and communication system around the globe. Historical AIS data is equally valuable as it is used to identify patterns and build-out vessel heat-maps on global shipping routes. In order to predict the future, we have to understand the past which is why AIS data is also crucial for developing machine learning models and Intelligent algorithms to automate fuel consumption and navigation.

More recently, AIS tracking data has been applied to applications to solve problems like predicting port arrival times, determining optimal routes, and to track and map trade flows based on cargo ship activity. Opportunities for AIS data applications continue to develop, many industry niches are currently being optimized, and maritime professionals are beginning to leverage the power of this data to improve their decision making.

Types of AIS data

Satellite AIS

S-AIS provides enhanced vessel data in remote areas where terrestrial AIS is out of reach.

Enhanced Satellite AIS

Enhanced Satellite AIS provides an unprecedented impact in unique MMSIs received and the frequency of position updates in HTZ.

Terrestrial AIS

T-AIS provides ship-to-shore and shore-to-ship communications within 40 nautical miles.

Digitalizing the maritime industry one application at a time

Beyond its original purpose of tracking vessels, AIS tracking data has become a quintessential data source for building maritime applications as it allows users to apply insights to a global map. The maritime industry is made up of complex sub-sectors that span supply chain and logistics through finance and insurance. Many of these niche segments rely on antiquated, complicated manual processes which leave a lot of room for error, and are time-consuming and costly. Some of these inefficiencies include, most supply chains still rely on third-party logistic data to track cargo, high latency between a ship becoming available and booking a charter, brokers have to parse through thousands of emails a day to find market insights, etc. In conclusion, the maritime industry is still heavily analog and ripe for digital disruption.

Over the past few years, there has been a rise of Application Service Providers (ASP) who are targeting niche maritime activities and leveraging Big Data to build solutions to drive efficiencies. ASP’s are skilled data experts who are able to ingest multiple layers of data through a simple API into one user-friendly interface. Among the industries that are benefiting the most from maritime applications are supply chain and logistics firms, ports, and dry bulk traders and brokers.

However, there are still many inefficient processes in the maritime industry, we are just beginning to scratch the surface. As the need to save costs, lower emissions and navigate more and more crowded waters, we expect to see many more innovations come out of AIS data and are happy to provide ASPs with the APIs they need to build the next generation of maritime intelligence tools.


A data-driven strategy is key to reducing costs

AIS data can save costs, time and resources for fleet managers, ship owners, and operators. AIS data has quickly gained popularity across the entire maritime industry as it allows people to make informed decisions that save time and increase revenue. It has been widely known that AIS can help you select the most fuel-efficient routes, but AIS data also allows maritime professionals to optimize many other factors that affect ship operations. Spire Maritime provides data that can be used as part of a real-time dashboard showing vessel locations. This information can be useful to time port arrivals, adjust speed, and plan maintenance and services. Many fleet managers use data with predictive algorithms to automate alerts for maintenance based on mileage tracking.

Historical AIS data is becoming a popular go-to when trying to economize multiple factors and it plays a crucial role when building predictive analytics and machine learning models. For example, historical data is valuable when it’s used to study weather and sea conditions to improve routing and optimize fuel consumption or time port congestion and canal delays. For ship owners/brokers, studying ship availability can expose opportunities for new markets and areas of investment.

Port traffic and delays are a major pain point in the maritime industry and AIS data can be used to understand current and historical traffic in crowded ports.

Spire Global satellite AIS data and T-AIS

Leveraging big data to increase transparency

Data fusion is the process of using multiple data sources to achieve your business goals. Our API’s fuse S-AIS with T-AIS and D-AIS™ as well as a number of other external data sets like vessel data or weather forecasts to provide a comprehensive offering for professionals.

We work with a number of customers who are building solutions for maritime professionals by fusing AIS data with SAR imagery, EDI, third-party logistics or even GPS. The additional layers of data help build a comprehensive picture of maritime operations, inform machine learning models and illuminate the dark fleet. Check out more data fusion customer use cases here.

Spire Maritime adds Enhanced Satellite AIS, a third type of AIS data, to their APIs, to increase transparency on global trade routes, especially on High Traffic Zones (HTZ) where visibility is compromised by overloaded communication channels. Enhanced Satellite AIS is a world-first innovation from Spire Maritime that allows you to benefit from thousands of satellite-enabled AIS receivers traveling throughout the busiest shipping lanes in the world. Spire Maritime’s Enhanced Satellite AIS service provides an unprecedented impact in unique MMSIs received and the frequency of position updates.

In a challenging economy, route optimization always becomes a popular topic. One way to optimize operations is to feed multiple sources of data into digital twins, machine learning engines. Using AIS data for ship location and combining it with maritime forecasts can provide ship operators with a more complete picture for daily navigation. Maritime professionals rely on clean data delivered through modern APIs combined with additional intelligence to develop predictive analytics and to guide decision making.

When we surveyed our customers in 2018 they confirmed that ease-of-use and API delivery was of high priority to them, we also found they value flexible and transparent pricing and simple terms of use.

AIS data challenges

The development of the AIS led to a reduction in collisions and eliminated fears of getting lost at sea. Additionally, AIS has helped to map key global trade routes and fishing territories. However it comes with a number of challenges that impact costs.


It is cluttered by nature

AIS data today, when filtered and organized to meet your business goals, can help build optimized operations. Oftentimes, AIS data alone isn’t comprehensive enough to solve business challenges, so maritime professionals seek out a data provider to sort data based on their goals. The current AIS system has seen little change over the last 20 years which also makes it difficult to use. Spire Maritime began refining AIS data for business use and delivers highly customized data through modern APIs.

Terrestrial AIS is limited as it can only reach 40 nautical miles from shore, which means it can’t track ships in the open ocean, so Satellite AIS (S-AIS) was developed to be able to track vessels worldwide. S-AIS allows ships to transmit key data from shipboard systems through a network of satellites.

With AIS using a radio frequency to track 200, 000 receivers across four channels on two frequencies for terrestrial communication the system falls short of modern expectations.


Missing ships in High Traffic Zones

Every year, we increase our global trade and activities. As maritime continues to be the most favored form of cargo transportation, common trade routes like the South China Sea and the English channel are becoming overcrowded. More areas are designated as High Traffics Zones (HTZ) each year.

A HTZ is an area where there is heavy vessel traffic. Areas including the North Sea, the Gulf of Mexico, and seas bordering China, and Singapore are considered HTZs. In these areas, there is a heavy concentration of ships transmitting messages to low earth orbit at the same time, from space this creates heavy noise where signals collide. This ultimately leads to high latency and missing ships.


Vessels go dark when AIS is switched off

Spire and ICEYE track dark vessels

We fuse AIS tracking data with Sar Imagery to detect dark vessels and illegal activity.


Unfortunately, AIS data can be switched off easily by the crew on the ship, this happens regularly when ships intend to engage in illegal activity and do not wish to be tracked. AIS has helped to identify and locate patterns of illegal activity on the high seas due to starts and stops on the AIS, and unique movements. When fused with other data like SAR imaging, it becomes a powerful tool to combat illegal fishing and trade.


The technology was not meant for this purpose

The technology behind the AIS system is now dated and can’t accommodate the high number of vessels traveling our oceans today. The system is overloaded by the high number of ships transmitting and because of this overloading signals are lost and data gaps exist. With more than 200,000 AIS users communicating across just two VHF channels, there are numerous gaps in data coverage and transmission failures. Additionally, AIS data can be switched off by crew on a ship allowing the ship to not be tracked..

VHF (very high frequency) Data Exchange System (VDES) is one upcoming solution to the overloading of the AIS, but this advancement is still several years away. The maritime industry and application service providers are constantly looking for solutions to AIS data gaps.

Applying AIS data to applications

Here at Spire, we strongly believe in the importance of ease-of-use, data needs to be accessible, transparently priced and highly customizable. We specialize in aggregating and refining data so you can quickly assess its quality and value. Until recently most data engineers have been ingesting data through TCP raw feeds, to use this data they have to build their own APIs to refine, declutter and organize the data so it can be customized and queried. This method is not sustainable if we want to see high growth for digital maritime solutions. We offer our AIS subscriptions through REST APIs so you can spend less time making the data usable and more time on building powerful dashboards and interfaces to solve key maritime challenges.

Value over Volume

While we talk a lot about the number of daily messages or position updates, the value of data is ultimately determined by how useful the data is and the impact it has on your workflow. Many factors define how effective data is, but the most important factor is if the data is helping you achieve the goals you defined prior to purchasing the data. AIS data subscriptions offer many options and configurations. Set your standards, define your goals, think about some requirements you have for accessing the data, and contact a service provider. Spire offers free data downloads and may be able to customize a sample to suit your needs. Spire Maritime also offers support, which can be helpful to quickly get started with your data usage. This framework can help you assess the value of a data set depending on your specific requirements.

Buying AIS data can be a complicated process. AIS data providers offer numerous options for purchasing data and data service terms and the legal process can be lengthy. It’s important to determine what you’re looking for and why you need the data. Set your goals and expectations, then talk to a few data providers and weigh your options. Learn more about navigating AIS data subscriptions in our 6-step guide.

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Most companies will offer access to data samples from their website. Definitely check out a provider’s data and formatting to ensure it would be helpful to you.

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