Shipbuilders boost COTS electronics for new identification system

Nov. 1, 2000
The maritime industry is embarked on parallel efforts to put more electronics on ships to track them around the globe.

By John Rhea

GROTON, Conn. — The maritime industry is embarked on parallel efforts to put more electronics on ships to track them around the globe. Not only will commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) electronics enhance safety, officials say, but also can help route growing amounts of intra-ship data over point-to-multi-point databuses.

COTS electronics will enable ships that identify themselves and reveal their location, speed, and heading to other ships and to commercial centers throughout the world. This is the vision of an initiative called the Universal Automatic Identification System (UAIS).

UAIS will use COTS boxes with mature microprocessors, displays, and Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers, explains Lee Luft, a computer specialist at the U.S. Coast Guard Research and Development Center in Groton, Conn. The new boxes will begin phasing in by 2002 for new ship construction and retrofitting into existing ships over the next six years.

Coast Guard officials are beta testing the system, and the International Maritime Association is backing UAIS for what are known as SOLAS-class ships, which are large vessels such as ocean liners and container ships, Luft notes. On SOLAS-class ships safety of life at sea is a prime consideration.

Luft estimates that prototype UAIS boxes cost about $10,000 each, including GPS equipment. That number, he adds, should drop steadily as suppliers accelerate production.

The heart of the boxes is an evolving family of microprocessors based on a microcontroller designed 15 years ago by the German firm Bosch for industrial controls and since widely produced and upgraded by semiconductor manufacturers.

Coast Guard officials are considering the addition of UAIS capabilities to their own patrol craft, Luft adds, and may eventually require use by smaller vessels such as fishing boats, tugs, and ferries.

Operators of military vessels are understandably reluctant to transmit information about themselves, but the manufacturers are working on a "listen only" model that would enable them to steer clear of commercial shipping. A low-cost version of that model may eventually be offered to pleasure boaters, much as GPS receivers were in the 1980s.

The National Marine Electronics Association (NMEA), based in New Bern, N.C., meanwhile, is conducting beta tests of a new interface standard known as NMEA 2000 to serve as a bi-directional multi-transmitter, multi-receiver serial data network interface.

This would supplant the current standard NMEA 0183, which has been upgraded since it was established in 1983 and achieved speeds of 38.4 kilobits per second (kbps) last July.

NMEA 2000 is expected to increase throughput to 250 kbps. This may become the new standard by mid 2001 if the beta tests are successful, says Larry Anderson, chairman of the NMEA Standards Committee, who is based in Port Clyde, Maine.

The new standard will be able to handle the data content of 50 different physical node connections and 254 network addresses, and can replace as many as 50 individual NMEA 0183 interconnections with a single cable, he notes.

Devices called controller area network (CAN) boxes can connect to the UAIS and the new databases. Two companies have begun producing CAN-based tools, Luft says: Kvaser AB of Frederiksson, Sweden, and Vector CANTech of Novi, Mich. This mature technology derives from Society of Automotive Engineers standards for the automotive and agricultural industries.

In a way, the efforts are similar to the avionics industry's MIL-STD-1553 databuses, albeit at slower data rates than the military equivalents, which begin at one megabit per second.

Leaders of the maritime industry are beginning to realize they need comparable standards as they face ever-greater reliance on GPS and the growing use of sophisticated displays for navigation in ports and other areas where maritime accidents are a potential danger.

This emerging standard is ideal for consumers and manufacturers, claims William Adams, executive director of the Radio Technical Commission for Maritime services in Alexandria, Va.

Particularly with the GPS inputs to the ships' charts, he says, there is need for a mix and match capability to tie everything together. Adams also cites use of the Long-Range Radio Aid to Navigation system — better known as LORAN — as part of the equation, and looks toward extending commonality beyond the SOLAS ships.

The NMEA standards are essentially the de facto international standards, Anderson adds, through certification by the Switzerland-based International Electrotechnical Commission. The 12 participants in NMEA's beta tests include Raytheon Marine Co. in Portsmouth, N.H., Trimble Navigation in Sunnyvale, Calif., and Litton Marine Systems in Charlottesville, Va.

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