Enlarge / YOKOSUKA, Japan (June 17, 2017) The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald (DDG 62) returns to Fleet Activities (FLEACT) Yokosuka following a collision with a merchant vessel while operating southwest of Yokosuka, Japan. (credit: US Navy)
On early Saturday morning off the coast of Japan, the Philippines-flagged cargo container carrier ACX Crystal struck the USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) on its starboard (right) side, crushing the part of the Fitzgerald‘s superstructure where its commanding officer’s quarters were and rupturing the ship’s hull below the waterline.
Seven sailors died in a flooding berthing compartment, and the captain (who was in his quarters) and two other crewmen were injured.
As the incident was unfolding, the world was given an almost immediate look at part of the story behind the collision thanks to data from the Automated Identification System (AIS) aboard the Crystal.

AIS, a tracking system that has become the “Internet of Ships,” was intended to help prevent such collisions, but it has also become a tool for nearly anyone to identify and track ships traveling around the world through websites and mobile applications.

And the half of the story that Crystal‘s track told quickly raised questions about what exactly was going on with the freighter just before the collision—and whether the incident was something more than just a random accident.
AIS was developed in the late 1990s as a radio-based transponder system, initially intended to be used as part of a collision avoidance system for ships operating out of range of land-based shipping controllers.

AIS has been extended further by the addition of satellite monitoring of AIS traffic and the integration of AIS data into navigational beacons and local vessel traffic services (VTS)—think air traffic control for ships. Mandated for all ships over 300 gross tons starting in 2002, nearly all commercial sea-going vessels are now required by one authority or another to be equipped with AIS for tasks such as fishing fleet monitoring, search and rescue, and maritime security.
It also can be used for accident investigation along with the Voyage Data Recorder (VDR) “black box” mandated by the UN’s International Maritime Organization.
VDR is limited to 12 hours of data storage.
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