The Coast Guard has deployed electronic aids to navigation, or eATONS, around the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, a critical piece of Bay Area infrastructure. (Coast Guard/Levi Read)
The Coast Guard has begun testing a new system of aids to navigation that planners say could help to secure ports, vessels and other key homeland security assets.
The electronic aids to navigation (eATONs) are under evaluation in the San Francisco Bay Area. These virtua” systems are designed to augment traditional buoys and other nautical markers.
“On land you can put a fence up around the airport and say, ‘You can’t come in here.’ In the water you can’t put up that fence,” said Cmdr. Amy Wirts, Chief of Waterways Management for Sector San Francisco. “This gives us another way to create that security zone.”
Traditional buoys occupy a physical place in the water, around which sailors can navigate. These aren’t always visible in the bad weather, however, and it’s possible for an inexperienced sailor to miss the mark.
An eATON, on the other hand, is broadcast electronically. It shows up on a ship’s display as a digital marker even when visibility is low. These virtual signals also can be easily deployed to mark a specific sector according to evolving need.
In the San Francisco test, for instance, planners are using eATONs to mark traffic separation lanes, as a safety precaution to ensure ships stick to their side of the road.
The Coast Guard has deployed the markers around the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, a critical piece of Bay Area infrastructure. While the bridge’s piers and markers have traditionally been marked by buoys and radar beacons, these can sometimes appear vague on onboard displays.
The eATONs give a clear reading as to the bridge’s foundations, so that the exact location of the hazard can be read even in poor visibility.
“That is what we all want: for people to not hit bridges,” Wirts said.
Homeland security uses
As an aid to the Coast Guard’s homeland security mission, the eATONs may have a range of possible uses. Foremost, the virtual beacons can help protectors determine at a glance whether a secure area has been breached.
“When we think about homeland security, there is always concern about things like cruise ship safety,” said David Kennedy, senior program coordinator for government affairs at the trade group BoatUS.
Today, the Coast Guard may create a buffer zone of a few hundred feet around a cruise ship, but the ambiguous nature of traditional buoys can make it hard to guarantee absolute compliance. An eATON could help keep such zones clear.
“For the good actors it helps you to know exactly where you should not be, and that in turn lets the Coast Guard and others focus on the bad actors,” Kennedy said. “Now if you see something in there, it is clear that you need to know more about that.”
A fleet of potential applications
Wirts envisions a number of security-related uses for the emerging technology.
When San Francisco hosts Fleet Week in October, the area will see a massive influx of Navy activity. Traditionally, this calls for the demarcation of a safety zone for aircraft flyovers. Rather than mark the box with buoys at the corners, the Coast Guard this time is considering deploying a virtual perimeter around the entire zone.
“Ideally, we could be transmitting the perimeter of that box so that someone could see it on their chart or even on their smartphone,” Wirts said.
Since 95 percent of incursions typically are due to boater error, this clearly marked perimeter could significantly cut the need to respond to incidents.
In theory, such safety zones could be laid out around shore-side construction sites, security-sensitive exercises on the water or even around vessels in motion.
The biggest hurdle at this point is the low adoption rate of what is still a new technology. Even if the San Francisco test proves a big win for the Coast Guard, it still may take a while for mariners to adopt the necessary equipment to receive the eATON signal.