If your chartplotter’s showing strange hazard markers that don’t actually exist, don’t worry. You’re not hallucinating – they’re Virtual Aids to Navigation – and they do have a purpose.
Aliens in your Chartplotter? There is an explanation.
BY LAWRENCE SCHÄFFLER
As the name suggests, Virtual Aids to Navigation exist in an intangible world. They are markers – usually little blue diamonds – that appear randomly on your chartplotter screen. While they show the position of a hazard, they are not physically on the water – which is why you can’t see them.
They are used to indicate hazards that are difficult or impossible to mark with a conventional floating buoy – typically a submerged rock or reef, a wreck, a pipeline or an electric cable. If you hover the plotter’s cursor over a diamond, a pop-up text tells you what it’s marking.
These virtual aids to navigation (also known as ATONS) have been ‘installed’ all around the New Zealand coast – and while many are geared to commercial shipping, owners of recreational vessels equipped with Ais-capable chartplotters will also find the Atons on their screens.
The Atons are the creation of Vesper Marine – an Auckland tech company specialising in electronic solutions to aid maritime navigation. Its technology has become something of a stellar New Zealand export story.
Following the company’s inception in 2007, Vesper’s technology has been installed all over the world and today is a vital component of navigation – not only in the global
The technology was successfully used at the last two America’s Cups (in San Francisco and Bermuda) and is currently being used by the Volvo Ocean Race at each stopover. The Atons create a virtual ‘barrier’ to keep the spectator fleet off the course and well clear of the race boats. The racing perimeter showed up clearly on the chartplotters of the spectator boats.
HOW IT WORKS
Virtual Atons use a nearby, land-based AIS station to electronically ‘create’ the mark and transmit the co-ordinates of the hazard or zone it’s marking. The higher the station, the longer the range of transmission/reception to vessels.
Just as vessels with Ais-equipped chartplotters can ‘see’ and identify other vessels equipped with AIS, so too the virtual Atons’ coordinates – together with information about what they’re marking – are transmitted to your chartplotter. They alert the helmsman/skipper that he may be on a collision course – well before the situation becomes dangerous.
Similarly, the technology will warn a skipper that he’s about to drop his anchor over a high-voltage or fibre-optic cable – the consequences of which might annoy an awful lot of people due to interruptions in power supply or the internet.
Tired of such anchoring mishaps, authorities in New York elected to install Vesper’s virtual AIS system in the city’s East River – creating a ‘no-anchor’ zone to eliminate damage to the cables providing electricity to millions of customers on Long Island.
Vesper’s virtual Atons have also been used in a number
Similarly, the technology will warn the skipper that he is about to drop his anchor over a highvoltage or fibre-optic cable.