Coast Guard tests ‘Digital Lightship’ capabilities

Written by Walter T. Ham IV

Coast Guard Cutter Healy, a 420-foot icebreaker home ported in Seattle, recently tested digital lightship capabilities while on patrol in the Arctic. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Cory J. Mendenhall.

Coast Guard Cutter Healy, a 420-foot icebreaker home ported in Seattle, recently tested digital lightship capabilities while on patrol in the Arctic. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Cory J. Mendenhall.

From distant lights on the horizon to information at a navigator’s fingertips, the U.S. Coast Guard’s Aids to Navigation, ATON, systems have evolved over the years to keep up with technological advances and changing navigation requirements.

This evolution took another step forward recently when the Seattle-based Coast Guard Cutter Healy, a 420-foot polar icebreaker, tested a digital ATON and Marine Safety Information, MSI, system while traveling around Alaska as part of a deployment in support of Operation Arctic Shield.

Leveraging a portable Automatic Identification System, AIS, transmitter, the Healy served as a “Digital Lightship” test platform by broadcasting electronic ATON and MSI. These AIS transmissions provide safety information to mariners on their integrated radars and electronic charting systems.

“The Healy was able to establish the Digital Lightship system quickly and it worked the way it was meant to,” said Dave Lewald, a former Coast Guard warrant officer who currently serves as a senior Coast Guard civilian in the Office of Navigation Systems’ Navigation Technology and Risk Management Division.

Testing the Digital Lightship capabilities in an austere environment, such as the one the Healy is currently deployed to, allows the risk management division to ensure the technology works in the most remote locations and most severe conditions.

Lewald said the deployable AIS transmit system displays a virtual laydown of an ATON system and provides information on the hazards identified, creating a more multifaceted and digital version of the Coast Guard lightships that guided mariners into port until 1985.

The Coast Guard maintains more than 48,000 ATON that safely guide mariners through the 25,000 miles of waterways that connect the U.S. to the rest of the world.

The Digital Lightship will add to the Coast Guard’s vast ATON system, made up of buoys, beacons, ranges, sound signals and electronic aids, helping mariners to determine their position, chart a safe course and steer clear of hazards.

The Digital Lightship capability could be used on any Coast Guard platform to enable ships to operate safely in austere environments where aids are not available and to quickly reopen ports following disasters.

Lewald, who served as the commanding officer of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Pamlico during Hurricane Katrina recovery operations, said the capability could have reduced the maritime response time in the aftermath of a disaster like Hurricane Katrina or the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti.

“The quicker we reestablish Aids to Navigation and identify hazards for mariners to reopen the port, the quicker we can get aid to the people affected by the disaster,” said Lewald.

The Digital Lightship program will continue to undergo testing and review before a final way ahead is established, but according to Capt. Scott J. Smith, the chief of the Office of Navigation Systems, this experiment was an important part of the Coast Guard’s Future of Navigation initiative.

“This initiative will make our ports and waterways more resilient and capable of bouncing back from disasters more quickly,” said Smith. “We continue to analyze, optimize and modernize our Aids to Navigation system and Marine Safety Information delivery capabilities to keep our Marine Transportation System safe, secure and resilient.”

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