Letters/Online Comments

Guest Editorial: Virtual Aids to Navigation for Real Boats?

For six months now I’ve been explaining to people that paper charts are still available, but just not coming out of the Federal printing press. See the previous The Log article (May 9-22, 2014) for the details. Most all of my customers agree that paper charts are important, and that electronics are not always reliable for navigation.            

Now I’ve learned that there is a plan under consideration to do away with physical Aids to Navigation (AtoNs) and replace them with “virtual” AtoNs which would be visible only on electronic charts and AIS displays. The primary reason appears to be the apparent cost savings if physical aids no longer need to be maintained. While these electronic displays are common on large yachts and commercial vessels, they are not common on small craft – which make up possibly 90 percent of all vessels operating today.            

There are also some significant problems with the concept. A little searching on the internet produced reports by several groups indicating that there is a significant security risk. One group, TrendMicro, has conducted a series of tests that show that the virtual AtoNs can be readily hacked to corrupt and/or delete critical information. Another resource even appears to define the data strings that are being used to create these virtual aids. With all the current news about Chinese cyber-attacks, and the general issue of data security on line, it seems a bit naïve to assume that a system based on a combination of VHF and internet broadcasts is secure.            

Then there is the issue of the physical vulnerability of electronic devices on boats: salt water and electrical current don’t always play well together. When I worked for TowBoat US, a common reason for getting called out of bed at a very dark hour was some sort of electrical system failure on a small boat.            

While it may be true that the majority of the large vessels afloat have sophisticated electronic charts and AIS systems, most small craft rely on simpler technology which currently is not capable of displaying “virtual” information. And there have been a number of textbooks written on the subject of bridge resource management, which means basically using every resource available to navigate safely. The case studies include several where the navigator relied primarily on a digital image, and neglected to look out the window. Remember the harbor pilot in San Francisco who guided the ship into the bridge abutment?            

What really concerns me is the lack of notice from Government agencies about the whole concept and its implementation. While there was apparently some sort of notice some place, I could not find it on any of the logical web sites, and only found out the public hearing schedule by talking to a friend who had heard something about the whole idea while on the East Coast. And for one of the largest ports in the country, there was nothing planned in the original list of meetings. I now know that there will be a hearing in Long Beach on June 17 at the Hyatt Regency (200 South Pine Avenue). I intend to be there.

 Capt. Ann Kinner Owner – Seabreeze Books and Charts USCG Licensed Master

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