The U.S. Coast Guard is launching the “beta” use of Automatic Identification System (AIS)-assisted buoys for evaluation in select U.S.ports. These buoys are, in essence, virtual buoys that would be visible only on radar, computer, or ECDIS. The buoys will not be physically visible at the surface, but will be easily picked up my computer systems on vessels as the buoys will have an AIS transmitter installed that communicates with a home base on shore.

In the past, a combination of AIS in coordination with physical ATON (aids to navigation) has been extremely helpful for increasing the safety of vessels. Never before, however, has the USCG solely used AIS systems without the further support of physical ATON.

There are those who are concerned about the new electronic-based buoy system. Since AIS signals do not have any form of encryption or authentication to send or receive messages, (i.e.: communicating with the home base as well as other vessels’ radar systems) they are sitting ducks for hackers to interfere with in serious ways.

Due to the security vulnerabilities, it appears that, for the time being, exclusively virtual buoys are not the way to go; but the USCG is trying to find a way to make that shift become a reality.