At any given time there are hundreds of boats and ships in and around Santa Barbara — passenger, cargo, tankers, yachts, U.S. government, including the Coast Guard, and many other vessels. Did you know there are two ways of tracking them on a map? The first is run by the government and this data is not available to the average boating enthusiast, but the second is an open-source system that tracks all of these vessels around the world.

Each tracked vessel has an Automatic Identification System (AIS) device onboard. The larger commercial and government ships have a type-A device that sends out data every few seconds while the smaller vessels are equipped with type-B devices that send out information less frequently. In the Santa Barbara area there are two stations that track this data. The first is located at UC Santa Barbara and the second, which was just installed, is operated by the Santa Barbara Amateur Radio Club (SBARC). The nonprofit SBARC also has plans to install two more of these receivers, one on a mountain site north of Santa Barbara and one on Santa Cruz Island.

The data that is collected from each of these receivers is sent via the Internet to a central processing center located in Greece and then distributed on the web. Click here to view the data or click here to view the local data. You can click on each ship and see exactly what it is. If there are pictures available they are included, and you can track where it came from and where it is heading.

Any vessel that is equipped with an AIS device is tracked as long at the device is on. Depending on the ship, the device might be shut off; for example, a police boat or Coast Guard vessel, and, of course, panga boats won’t have operational AIS devices either! Many marine radios offer built-in AIS and they are very inexpensive. They are not only used to track the vessels but also for collision avoidance since boat owners or captains can see other vessels around them even if they do not have radar onboard.

These sites are also viewed by the Coast Guard and others and are used to track the vessels, including their speed and if there is a problem with pollution from the ship. Speed is important because there are limits in this area to protect whales and other sea animals. Now with a click of a mouse, the exact speed of all of the ships in the area can be tracked and any exceeding the recommended speeds can be contacted by radio and warned to slow down. The last part of the system enables a ship to send out a distress signal that is then received by the ships around it, and therefore are close enough to offer assistance. data is interactive, so users can see exact details of a vessel's journey. data is interactive, so users can see exact details of a vessel’s journey.

Although the government’s system is for its use only, the open-source system is available to all on the Internet. However, many times government vessels in these waters will run with their AIS system on to help prevent collisions, and recently we tracked several Navy ships and one submarine that had surfaced and was heading into port. If more boats in this area opt into AIS (pleasure craft only need type-B AIS equipment), the waters around Santa Barbara will be even safer for all.

This is only the newest in a series of services being offered by the Santa Barbara Amateur Radio Club. We already host a camera on Diablo Peak on Santa Cruz Island that is used by many pilots and ships that are heading for the islands. Another camera location is provided to homeowners in the Mission Canyon Association; it looks toward the mountains from the SBARC location in the city.

We also run numerous weather stations that are all connected via the Internet and are used by the National Weather Service, paragliders and others. We provide an emergency communication link between homeowners associations and the Santa Barbara County Emergency Operations Center, as well as assist public safety, the American Red Cross, Santa Barbara County Chapter and others during major incidents, parades, marathons and the Old Spanish Days Fiesta Parade. And we monitor the local emergency beacon channel that is used by airplanes as well as boats, and provide direction finding assistance when an alarm is received at one of our sites.

Click here for more information on the Santa Barbara Amateur Radio Club. Click here to make an online donation to the Santa Barbara Amateur Radio Club.

— Andrew Seybold is vice president of external affairs for the Santa Barbara Amateur Radio Club. The opinions expressed are his own.