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A Q&A with Jeff Robbins about AIS fences and the 35th America’s Cup

by David Schmidt, Sail-World USA Editor on 1 Jul 2017
Emirates Team New Zealand Oracle Team USA Ernesto Bertarelli’’s VAVA and cruise ships Day 5 2017 35th America’’s Cup Bermuda Daniel Forster
If you followed the 35th America’s Cup (AC35), you’re well aware of the mind-numbing speeds that the boats “sailed” at, the dizzying closing speeds involved, and the electronic sensors and on-the-water umpires that issued real-time penalties to transgressing teams, as well as the constant stream of spectator craft on Bermuda’s Great Sound, where the racing unfurled. While the skippers and afterguard aboard the fast-flying catamarans clearly knew their way around the course, the same could not always be said of the spectator fleet, some of which sailed to the island nation to watch the on-the-water action. Yet despite the close quarters and the wide discrepancies regarding local knowledge amongst the spectator fleet, everything stayed safe and well-organized thanks to some clever implementation of technology.

The Automatic Information System, or AIS, was devised as a way to avoid vessel-to-vessel collisions using onboard transponders, GPS, VHF communications, receivers/transceivers, and vessel-specific, 16-digit Maritime Mobile Service Identity numbers (MMSI; essentially, a unique phone number for your vessel).

When networked with modern chartplotters that are running up-to-date digital cartography, AIS graphically indicates (and sometimes alarms) dangerous targets (i.e., vessels that are on collision or near-collision courses with your vessel) and allows you to contact the other vessel directly, via their MMSI number and your VHF, to resolve the situation.

While AIS has been a godsend to countless mariners, it can also be used to set up virtual or synthetic Aides to Navigation (for example, electronic signals that mark rocks in places that are inaccessible or inhospitable to physical AtoNs) or to shift whale-protection zones based on real-time activity reports, which are displayed on networked chartplotters just like any other AIS target (but with their own unique onscreen icons).

Given that Vesper Marine’s Guardian AIS system has been successfully used in places like the USA’s Long Island Sound and New Zealand’s Bay of Plenty to safeguard against vessels accidentally damaging submarine cables (via their anchors) or finding the bricks-as well as to help delineate the racetrack boundaries for the 34th America’s Cup (San Francisco Bay, 2013)-it made sense that AC35 organizers would again reach for Vesper Marine’s Guardian system to protect their Bermudian racecourse.

I caught up with Jeff Robbins, CEO of Vesper Marine, which is based in Auckland, New Zealand, via email to learn more about the work the company did to help make Great Sound safe for everyone during AC35, from the cruising boat full of Cup tourists to the AC50s that were rocketing by at 40-plus knots.

Can you give me a 35,000’ overview of what Vesper Marine provided for the 35th America’s Cup (AC35; e.g., your deliverables for the event)?
Prior to AC34 in San Francisco, AC Race Management was looking for a way to enhance safety while making it an inclusive spectator event. As a result, we assisted them in implementing our virtual AIS system to advise spectator boats, as well as race officials, of the frequently changing racecourse boundaries. It was very successful and received great feedback. So this time in Bermuda it was further updated to provide greater range for increased reception and enhanced networking to improve integration with the other race-management systems such as the telemetry network used by the race boats and umpires.

It works by utilizing a Vesper Marine Virtual AIS Station onshore, which transmits movable virtual aids to navigation. Essentially, these are electronic buoys that can be shifted automatically as the course orientation and length is varied based on wind strength and direction. The racecourse was set daily prior to each race, and boats see these electronic buoys on their MFD's and chartplotters so they can easily visualize their own position in relation to the course boundaries and keep clear. It communicates to normal chartplotters on marshal boats and spectator boats alike, and was also used to mark specific locations for official boats to position themselves. A key advantage of this approach is there is no need for any special equipment on the boats.

Two hours before each race, and updated immediately as any course changes are made, the AC computer system takes the mark coordinates from the officials and computes the course boundaries and spectator areas by building a perimeter around the course. This information is then fed via network to the Vesper Marine virtual AIS system, which-continuously throughout the pre-race and race periods-communicates this information directly to the boats.

The system was also used for the J-Class exhibition race and the committee even used the Vesper Marine system to communicate virtual race marks to the J-Class yachts that were racing. Due to the size and draft of the J-Class yachts the course was further away and our new extended transmission range was a benefit.

Is the event using Vesper AIS units to track the boats around the course, or is Vesper providing an AIS fence to keep other vessels off of the racetrack?
Multiple systems were used at the event for different purposes. The event had a dedicated two-way telemetry network providing two-centimeter accurate positioning multiple times per second from the marks and the raceboats to shore. This data was used by the umpires on shore and also facilitated the graphics superimposed on the live helicopter video of the races. There were other independent telemetry networks used for all the camera controls, positioning, and attitude measurement between the boats and helicopter to provide the incredible video coverage of each race.

Due to critical safety considerations, the racecourse is off-limits to spectator boats and the Vesper Marine AIS system was a key safety system providing continuously up-to-date course boundaries visually to the spectators and the race marshal boats so they could keep the course clear.

Is Vesper using custom/bespoke equipment for AC35, or are we talking about off-the-shelf equipment?
The equipment used is not something an end user can purchase or operate such as an AIS Class A or Class B. However, that said we do use the same equipment, although with different software, for a variety of other applications such as marking and monitoring the traffic in the vicinity of hazardous wrecks within busy shipping lanes, creating maritime exclusion zones during hazardous events, identifying safe anchorages and mooring zones for oil and gas installations, protecting platforms, pipelines, sub-sea cables and other offshore structures, etc.

Although the equipment is highly specialized, the beauty of it is that it is designed to be interoperable such that no special equipment is required on board any of the vessels.

How was your work with AC35 different from your work with AC34 in SFO? From a technical perspective, were there additional challenges for AC35? (For example, did the physical size of Great Sound add complication compared to SFO Bay, or was all the heavy metal on SFO a bigger challenge than sleepy Bermuda?)
We used different equipment this time, which increased the reception range and enhanced the networking capabilities to facilitate more advanced integration with the other new America’s Cup Race Management systems. Reception range wasn't a problem in San Francisco and wasn't going to be an issue in Bermuda, either, but we felt that using our latest technology, which also incorporates our ability to support it remotely, was an additional advantage.

How much time did the Vesper Marine team spend in Bermuda getting everything running and operationally smooth? Or, were you guys there throughput the event?
I would have loved to spend time in Bermuda, but since we worked so closely with the AC team last time it wasn't necessary for us to be there this time and prior to the event they were able to complete and test the integration with us just assisting remotely. Because of the enhanced networking capabilities we now have in our devices we could also access the system remotely during the event, should the need arise. But in the end that wasn't necessary as it all worked perfectly, as planned.

Looking back on AC35, what aspects of the project went really well and where would you like to make improvements for AC36?
Now with the cup coming to New Zealand, AC36 will presumably be held right in our front yard! It's not that the distance presented any issues for us in the last two events, but it sure will be fun having it here and will give us additional opportunities to explore ways we can enhance the system further to implement new ideas for how our various technologies can assist in making it a safe and enjoyable event.

Anything else that you’d like to add, for the record?
Just want to extend my congrats to Emirates Team New Zealand on their incredible achievement. Here in New Zealand it's all anyone can talk about and we're all looking forward to welcoming them home and being part of a great celebration.

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