AIS and the Future of the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS)

Throughout history, the evolution of maritime distress and safety communications technology has relied heavily on the advancement of global search and rescue initiatives. Since the early invention of the radio, ships voyaging across the seas have depended on this essential advance to ensure the safety and vitality of their ships and crews. In 1999, the maritime nations of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) developed a new Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) aimed at providing the expansive communications support needed to execute a global search and rescue plan. Since then, this system has allowed for increased ship-to-shore international distress communication, improved ship-to-ship communication and an overall transparency in the way in which mariners are able to safeguard their vessel and their crew. Here we will take a closer look into what GMDSS is, how GMDSS has modernized technologically, and the potential for GMDSS in the future.


What Is GMDSS?

The Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GDMSS) has served as an interconnected maritime communication network that has helped ships and vessels avoid and alert others of dangerous emergency situations on the water. The original concept of the GMDSS is that search and rescue authorities ashore, as well as shipping in the immediate vicinity of the ship in distress, will be immediately alerted to a distress incident. The GMDSS requires those ships 300 gross tons and above, known as “compulsory fit” vessels, to be equipped with necessary safety communications equipment that can efficiently broadcast distress alerts by a minimum of two independent means.

According to maritime regulations today, a GMDSS compliant vessel will typically carry:

  • VHF, MF/HF Digital Selective Calling (DSC) marine radios
  • Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB’s)
  • Search and Rescue Transponder (SART’s)
  • On scene communication survival craft two way radios
  • MSI (Maritime Safety Information) receiver using NAVTEX
  • Inmarsat satellite communication system
  • Automatic Identification System (AIS)


Modernizing GMDSS

These regulations supporting GMDSS, although regularly reviewed, constantly shift to adapt to the changing ecosystem of maritime safety and efficiency. Since February 2009, the ceased use of the COSPAS SARSAT satellite system in processing of 121.5 and 243 MHz beacons has resulted in the complete implementation of AIS transponder technology, as of January 1st, 2010. At the forefront of acceptance of AIS-related technologies in GMDSS, the AIS SART (Search and Rescue Radar Transponder) was introduced as an intended replacement for the existing SART system, which operates in conjunction with X band marine radar. Existing RADAR SARTs rely on X band Radar to be in close range (operating in the 9 GHz band). These systems’ performance is easily hindered by non-ideal weather conditions such as rain and heavy wind, as well as large intervening land masses and structures. The continual evolution of GMDSS to better technology, like AIS SART innovation, is not only providing mariners with reliable products for SAR situations, but is allowing for the education of mariners and their crews in choosing products that will better safeguard them and their vessels on international sea voyages.
What’s Next for GMDSS?

Increasing world trade and growing marine traffic are considered driving forces in the rapid adoption of AIS technologies in helping reduce marine accidents and enhance marine traffic management. In March the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) announced that commercial vessels within its jurisdiction now have just 12 months to fully adopt AIS, whereby electronic data can be exchanged from ship to ship in conjunction with AIS base stations. Despite the divergence in technology based on Class (A, B) Location (land or vessel) and Functionality (Man Overboard , Fleet Management, Vessels Tracking, Maritime Security), market research in the global market for AIS is estimated to reach $225.05 million by 2020.

The IMO could harness this exponential growth by looking at how it considers AIS to support its GMDSS goals. The aim of the ship set of GMDSS technology is fivefold: Alerting, Search & Rescue Coordination, Location, Maritime Safety Broadcasts and General Communication. There is an argument to look at AIS technology as more than just a location tool as the growth in AIS SARTS and AIS MOBs gives the additional tracking ability via its GPS coordinates. This actively supports Search & Rescue Coordination for localised rescue via ships in the vicinity. By expanding the range of AIS devices allowed to support GMDSS or by mandating a switch to AIS SARTs over Radar SARTS, there is an opportunity to improve the identification, tracking and ultimately recovery of survival vessels and crew in search and rescue scenario.

With future developments of Satellite Enabled AIS offering improvement in the level of accurate tracking information being relayed by AIS across whole swathes of the oceans, GMDSS will inevitably continue to evolve as part of its life saving mission.