Vir­tual bea­cons

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.


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.


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.

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