I was reading an article looking at the aftermath of the Rena shipwreck in the Herald. In it I read some ridiculous statements by Gerry Brownlee that seemed (like so much from him) to come from the early part of the last century. It appears that he (and his minons in the M0T) haven’t quite caught up on rapid progress of the digital age in nautical circles.
This was the section of the article that caught my attention.
Balomaga (the captain of the Rena) said he hoped lessons could be learned from the disaster, and agreed New Zealand should have mandatory shipping lanes.
Such lanes have been recommended by the Maritime Union and the Green Party.
But Transport Minister Gerry Brownlee says the lanes are expensive to set up and police.
And Ministry of Transport officials told the Herald the lanes did not necessarily guarantee compliance or prevent accidents involving navigational error.
Italics are mine.
These days all commercial vessels over 300 tonnes entering NZ waters are required to have a AIS (Automatic Identity System) transponder. I have no idea if it is mandated, but it is hard to find commercial vessels without AIS receivers and linkages to their charting systems. Many people watching the Rena disaster cleanup did so watching apps and websites relaying AIS information mostly picked up by amateurs and put on sites like marinetraffic.com. An example of their limited efforts is shown below.
AIS broadcasts using VHF radio the details of vessels, their current position, heading, and speed and a host of other information when available. This means that for commercial vessels and a increasing number of class B private vessels it is quite inexpensive to monitor any vessel from a few aerials mounted in the tops of nearby hills that will cover a radius of up to 40 nautical miles.
But this doesn’t mark the shipping lanes in harbours. This was traditionally done using buoys, beacons, and other hardware. These are known generically as AtoN’s (Aids to Navigation). Setting up and maintaining these was always expensive. Dropping hardware out in the harbours or on convenient exposed coastal land is to put them in some of the roughest environments that humans put any of their hardware. They are also relatively ineffectual in that to be useful you have to tell vessels that might only come into port a few times a year where they are and how to use them.
However these days there are AIS AtoN’s. These are either on actual AtoN’s like buoys with all of the problems of harbour hardware, or they can be virtual or synthetic. In the latter case they just need aerials like those mounted on the top of Mt Victoria and Rangitoto in Auckland Harbour and a device to transmit the locations of the virtual locations in the harbour. They can mark shipping lanes as easily as they currently mark hazards.
These have been in use around various parts of the world – just look at google. In fact I’m sure that some of the AIS AtoN’s in the chart above are virtual – I wasn’t aware of an aerial or AIS beacon at the top of Little Barrier for instance.
None of this is particularly expensive to set up as the aerials are already in place, the AIS message protocols already handle what is required, and most if not all commercial vessels already have the required AIS transponders, VHF hardware, and most will have modern AIS receivers that can plot the AtoN’s marking shipping channels.
Now the last part – policing. Now you have to admire this following statement in the Herald article which is a quite carefully worded misdirection that the Herald reporter, Jamie Morton, was a complete sucker for accepting at face value and printing. He should be required to watch a series of Sir Humphrey making the same self-serving and essentially meaningless types of statements in Yes Minister.
..Ministry of Transport officials told the Herald the lanes did not necessarily guarantee compliance or prevent accidents involving navigational error.
I merely contemplated what this approach to lanes would mean for traffic on the motorway. Having lanes there also does not “..guarantee compliance or prevent accidents involving navigational error”. In fact there is no traffic lane system in the world that even attempts to do either of those things. It is a bit of nonsense. What traffic lanes are intended to do is to provide a guide to the people using them and to provide a definition on when people are transgressing the rules and are therefore liable to be punished. It is not the lanes that enforce compliance by sticking up spikes. Nor do they even attempt to prevent accidents. What causes lanes of traffic to be observed and which therefore reduce accidents is the expectation of policing of transgressions.
As some readers of these pages are aware I am a programmer. These days I spend some of my time using or programming AIS RMC and VDM messages so I know what information that they carry and how the locations are generated from GPS. And unlike cars all commercial vessels carry an transponder that broadcasts their position that can be picked up from well out to sea.
Writing a traffic control program that reads the AIS GPS positions and looks for transgressions against lanes locations marked by virtual AIS AtoN’s seems like a no-brainer. Automatically sending transgressors a message over VHF of a traffic violation from the program using both AIS and voice seems only marginally more complicated. Non-performing hardware is in itself a transgression. A digital maritime radar would be sufficient to check for vessels without a transponder or with one with a inaccurate position and putting one in place for harbours without it looks like the only significant cost.
When transgressors next dock at a NZ port levy the appropriate punishment that must be paid or otherwise complied with before they may undock. If a vessel transgresses and never returns to NZ waters, it still fulfils the purpose. None of this appears to violate any of the international maritime law and I’d expect would require mere regulation rather than legislation to put into place. In fact I can’t see any reason why it could be operating next year.
Could someone please, please educate Gerry Brownlee about which century he is living in, and what inexpensive tools are actually available for his portfolio. Having a minister of the crown living on the trailing edge of humanity and making his judgements based on the best practice when he was a youth seems like a waste of everyone’s time. What is worse that next thing you know he’ll extend this same numbnuts logic to the roads that I drive on and abolish policing of the roads because it is too “expensive”. But really I suspect that he is just simply too damn lazy to think about what need to be done and getting around to doing it.