We love tablets. Our tablets are in constant use on the boat. Chartplotting apps, equipment manuals, movies, music, and more are readily accessible on a tablet. Now, several apps are available that provide a view of ships transmitting AIS signal all over the world. One of the newest and most unique is Boat Beacon.
Boat Beacon is available on both iPad and Android. While more expensive than other similar programs, the feature list is extensive:
- Real time map view of your boat and boats near you via AIS
- Over the horizon collision avoidance and alarm using Closest Point of Approach (CPA)
- CPA calculations and AIS position updates continously in background
- Lets others see you on Boat Beacon and internet AIS systems like MarineTraffic
- Compass mode to sight ships on the map
- Current Speed, Course and GPS location
- Share your location and track with friends and family
- Man Overboard tracking (iOS only at present)
- Anchor Watch and Theft Alarms (iOS only at present)
- Ship to Ship instant messaging – chat with other Boat Beacon boats (iOS only at present)
- Magnetic or True North setting. (iOS only at present)
- MMSI numbers to contact nearby boats on via VHF
- SART support – alarms and reports SART’s within 30NM
- Support for local AIS data feeds via WiFi, e.g. easyAIS, Digital Yacht, Simrad and B&G GoFree™
This is a compelling feature set, but it comes with a few caveats.
First, we must note that this is not true AIS reception (that occurs over VHF) and should not be relied upon for navigation, such as in foggy conditions.
AIS apps get their data through an internet connection. Volunteers around the world host AIS receivers, which upload information in vessels in their are to remote servers. A computer or tablet, in turn, downloads the data from these servers. This process can result in delays. Most importantly, if you have no internet (WiFi or cellular) connection, you won’t get any AIS information.
Many remote areas have no volunteer AIS receivers, meaning there’s no AIS data available on apps like Boat Beacon. That said, we noted Boat Beacon has AIS receivers at the top of Vancouver Island, and at Calvert Island, providing coverage for the open water crossing of Queen Charlotte Sound.
The Boat Beacon interface is easy to use.
The best way to use an AIS app is for ship identification. If, for example, you notice a radar target and want to hail it, you can match up the location of the radar target with a vessel on the Boat Beacon screen.
Boat Beacon can also operate in the background. If another transmitting vessel is approaching dangerously, a warning pops up. Imagine cruising at 8 knots in Puget Sound as a container ship, traveling at 20 knots, is quickly approaching behind. If your tablet is connected to the internet, Boat Beacon can sound an alarm, notifying you of the danger.
Boat Beacon has good coverage in Elliott Bay.
Boat Beacon can also transmit your position for others to see – sort of. If you have an internet connection, you can set the program to transmit your location as AIS data into the Boat Beacon AIS internet server system. It will display on the screen of other Boat Beacon (and the Marine Traffic app) users screens. Your AIS information will not be sent to the AIS receivers on ships and boats around you. Boat Beacon also allows you to send text messages to other nearby Boat Beacon users. This could be useful if you are traveling with a group. Then again, it is probably easier to just sent a text message to their phone.
One of the most important things to watch is the data screen for each vessel. Tap on the image of the boat and the vessel name and home port will be displayed. Tap again and a data screen for the boat pops up. Note the time of the last update in the top left corner of screen. You may see a significant gap in time noted here. This gives you some indication about the reliability of the data. Imagine seeing a 10 minute delay for the Victoria Clipper traveling at 23 knots. In reality, it will be four miles away from the position shown on your iPad or tablet!
The map can be displayed in either north-up or heads-up mode.
Want to learn more about Boat Beacon, and AIS in general? Take a look at their website. There are many links to other references and even a Google Map showing where the AIS ground receivers are located on the US and Canada coasts.