Looking for Affordable AIS? Here's a Few Low Cost Options

Automatic identification systems (AIS) have been catching on with recreational boaters and cruisers over the last several years.  While commercial ships have used the system for many years, the technology has been becoming more affordable for smaller private vessels.  If you haven't heard of AIS, it's essentially an automatic tracking system used to identify and locate vessels by digitally exchanging data with other nearby vessels and base stations.  Data often includes vessel position, heading, speed, destination, and a variety of other information.  AIS systems can't replace a good on-deck watch or radar for collision avoidance, but they do offer a reasonable supplement.

AIS Overview from the International Maritime Organization

As a recreational user, you have basically two options: 1) Purchase an AIS receiver that allows you to accept and view AIS data from other vessels, but does not transmit your own data; or 2) Purchase AIS equipment that allows you to receive and transmit data.  Obviously, transmitting your own data (position, heading, speed) is an important component of collision avoidance because not only can you avoid traffic with your own vessel, but if you transmit, traffic can conceivably avoid you.  Costs to equip your boat with AIS typically begin in the $400 for receiving equipment, and go up from there.  What follows are reviews of a couple of low cost alternatives (But be aware of their fairly major limitations!).

Ship Finder HD Free App Review
As most regular readers of my blog already know, I'm smitten with Apple's iOS product line for sailing and cruising.  Being afflicted with this hi-tech ailment means I'm practically mandated to write a few reviews of apps applicable to cruisers.  Ship Finder HD Free falls into this category and does indeed show the location of vessels equipped with AIS transmitters on a Google Maps display.  If you want anything more than just the vessel name and position plotted on a Google map, you'll need to purchase the full version for $6.99 (as of 2/1/12) in the App Store.  It's also very important to remember you're only seeing vessels equipped with AIS transmitters and you yourself are NOT transmitting your location (and other data) to those vessels.  Those vessels can only see you if they are using their eyeballs on the horizon or are picking you up on their radar.  Another thing to keep in mind is that you'll need either a WiFi or cellular (3G) signal to use this app.  In other words, this isn't going to work for bluewater passages.  In fact, while I enjoy using this app, it's really more of a toy than a bonafide navigation/collision avoidance tool.  But hey, it's free, so why not give it a try if you've got an iOS device?  If you don't have an iOS device you can still view Ship Finder data at http://shipfinder.co/.
Ship Finder Free HD screenshot
MarineTraffic.com Review
If you don't have an iOS device or you're looking for a web-based solution for receiving AIS data, MarineTraffic.com may be for you.  Vessel position is shown in Google Maps just like in Ship Finder, but you also have access to additional free information like speed, course, vessel length, beam, draft, and destination.  Essentially, you're getting all of the paid Ship Finder features for free.  However, you'll have to deal with HTML browser formatting and advertising, as well as still needing WiFi or cellular data reception.
MarineTraffic.com screenshot
My choice among the above two free AIS options would be MarineTraffic.com simply because it offers more data in virtually the same format.  But ultimately, if you're looking for real AIS features and the additional potential collision avoidance that comes along with more traditional onboard AIS systems, I recommend investing in an actual AIS transmitter/receiver that functions with your existing chart plotter and/or VHF radio such as the Standard Horizon Matrix Gx2100 Vhf (Google Affiliate Ad).

Once again, I'm forced to admit that while Apple and iOS devices provide a very friendly user interface experience, they still can not replace more traditional dedicated marine navigation devices.  I have no doubt that as iOS matures and Apple expands its' already expansive market share, iOS devices will eventually begin to more evenly compete with marine electronics stalwarts like Garmin, Ray Marine, and Sim Rad.  As always, please feel free to share your comments, experiences, and opinions using the "comments" link below.
>> Don't forget to visit SFLF's Gear Review page for more sailing gear reviews/tests. <<


  1. wow, love the background of your site. Love sailing! Don't know much about it, but my cousins are way into it and I love going along :)

  2. Thanks for the blog - I've really appreciated the info-rich content.

    Do you know anyone using the ACR Nauticast USB AIS receiver? You can buy them for $120 (or less on sales) but I'm not sure about how reliable they are. I would appreciate any review if you know anyone using one.

    S/V Kintala


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Top 10 Favorite Affordable Bluewater Sailboats

Go Small and Go Now! 5 Pocket Cruisers to Take you Anywhere

Escape to the Sea: How to get from the Great Lakes to the Caribbean