Automatic Identification System (AIS)

Commercial Ship in St-Johns Newfoundland waters

The Automatic Identification System (AIS) is a vessel tracking system that automatically provides updates on a vessel’s position and other relevant ship voyage data to a marine vessel traffic operator. The federal Navigation Safety Regulations came into force on May 10, 2005 and states: “Every ship, other than a fishing vessel, of 500 tons or more that is not engaged on an international voyage shall be fitted with an AIS….”

The purpose of the AIS project is to enhance the Coast Guard’s ability in identifying and monitoring maritime traffic to enhance awareness of vessels approaching and operating in Canadian waters. The Canadian Coast Guard is responsible for the construction and operation of the shore-based component of the national AIS network, which consists of the installation of AIS shore-based stations at specific locations to track vessels within 40 to 50 nautical miles of the shore.

AIS shore infrastructure is integrated within Marine Communication and Traffic Services (MCTS) centres and has resulted in 19 MCTS centres and 113 remote sites fitted with AIS systems. Operating in the Very High Frequency maritime band, AIS is capable of sending such ship information as identification, position, heading, ship length, beam, type, and draught, hazardous cargo information, to other ships as well as to AIS Base Stations operated by a competent authority. It is capable of handling over 2,000 reports per minute and updates as often as every two seconds.

In addition to the management of shipping traffic in general, MCTS centres provide an AIS data feed to other Government Departments such as the Department of National Defence, as well as to the Marine Security Operations Centres, to further contribute to maritime domain awareness and assist in the identification of anomalies within Canada’s waters.

Automatic Identification System Guidelines

Download the complete version of the Automatic Identification System Guidelines [ PDF - 487 Kb]

1.0 Purpose

The purpose of this document is to outline and provide guidance related to a number of aspects involving the Canadian Coast Guard’s (CCG) Automatic Identification System (AIS)1 network.

The intended purpose is to communicate how the network should be used, the conditions under which AIS aids to navigation (AIS AtoN) can be deployed in Canada and principles related to sharing recorded AIS data, collected through CCG’s AIS network.


1 This document uses the acronym AIS in the French version also, instead of SIA, since the term AIS is internationally recognized.

2.0 Application

This document is intended for external stakeholders who use CCG’s AIS network or have an interest in AIS data.

3.0 Objectives

The primary objectives of this document are to: 

  1. Maintain the integrity of the AIS channels by informing external stakeholders how the CCG’s AIS network should be used;

  2. Ensure AIS aids to navigation are deployed in accordance with established principles; and

  3. Provide clarification on access to CCG’s recorded AIS data.

4.0 Structure of Document

This document is divided into three separate sections.

Section 6.0 addresses acceptable use of CCG’s AIS network;

Section 7.0 addresses the use of AIS AtoN in Canada; and

Section 8.0 addresses principles related to sharing recorded AIS data, collected through CCG’s AIS network.

5.0 Context

  1. The principal functions of AIS are to facilitate:
    1. Information exchange between vessels within very high frequency range (VHF) of each other, increasing situational awareness for collision avoidance;
    2. Information exchange between a vessel and a shore station, to improve traffic management and vessel safety in congested waterways;
    3. Automatic reporting in areas of mandatory and voluntary reporting; and,
    4. Exchange of safety related information between vessels, and between vessels and shore station(s).
  2. AIS can also be an effective tool in a number of other areas. For example, AIS can be used to:
    1. Display traffic on electronic navigational chart and radar display;
    2. Provide information to Vessel Traffic Services (VTS) centres;
    3. Monitor shipping routes including mandatory and recommended routes;
    4. Enable trend analysis of AIS data (number and sizes of different types of ships);
    5. Provide data for risk analysis, long term planning and marine accident investigation; and
    6. Improve the effectiveness and efficiency of planning, management and maintenance of waterways including the provision of aids to navigation.
    7. Aid in facilitating search and rescue operations through the display of AIS Search and Rescue Transmitters (AIS-SART) on a vessel or shore-based station electronic navigational chart display.
  3. AIS devices are required internationally on most commercial vessels2 as identified by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) in the Safety of Life at Sea Convention (SOLAS), Chapter V.


    2Regulation 19 of SOLAS Chapter V requires AIS to be fitted aboard all ships of 300 gross tonnage and upwards engaged on international voyages, cargo ships of 500 gross tonnage and upwards not engaged on international voyages and all passenger ships irrespective of size. The requirement became effective for all ships by 31 December 2004.

  4. In Canada, Transport Canada is responsible for carriage requirement regulations related to AIS units on vessels.
    The federal Navigation Safety Regulations, paragraph 65, came into force on May 10, 2005 and state that:

    (1) Every ship of 150 tons or more that is carrying more than 12 passengers and engaged on an international voyage shall be fitted with an automatic identification system (AIS).

    (2) Every ship, other than a fishing vessel, of 300 tons or more that is engaged on an international voyage shall be fitted with an AIS.

    (3) Every ship, other than a fishing vessel, of 500 tons or more that is not engaged on an international voyage shall be fitted with an AIS, but if it was constructed before July 1, 2002 it need not be so fitted until July 1, 2008.”
  5. As the National Competent Authority for AIS in Canada, CCG is responsible for the provision of the AIS Network and for ensuring the availability and integrity of the AIS channels and infrastructure used in Canadian waters.
  6. In Canada, the first AIS network was implemented by the St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation in 2002. As such, the Corporation is responsible for provision, monitoring, performance measurement and coordination of the use of the AIS network and AIS users on the Seaway.
  7. Industry Canada (IC) is responsible for providing Maritime Mobile Service Identity (MMSI) numbers to be used with AIS units (Industry Canada Client Procedures Circular CPC-2-3-07).
  8. The Minister of Fisheries & Oceans is mandated through the Oceans Act, though not obligated, to provide aids to navigation in Canadian waters in order to facilitate safe and expeditious movement of marine traffic and to protect the marine environment. CCG’s principles for the use of AIS AToN are based on the related International Maritime Organization (IMO) Policy, which should be tabled for approval at the IMO Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) in Spring 2014.
  9. The Canadian Coast Guard’s AIS network was implemented by identifying areas where VHF AIS shore coverage had to be maintained. This resulted in the establishment of four priority coverage areas and the consequent locations of AIS physical shore stations in existing CCG Marine Communication and Traffic Services (MCTS) centres and Remote Site Infrastructure. The sites were identified due to their high traffic density or by virtue of presenting an “entrance to Canada”. The figure below shows AIS coverage across Canada, with the exception of 2 new sites in the Arctic, located in Resolute Bay and Iqaluit.

Figure 1 - AIS Coverage across Canada

Traffic in Canadian waters using the Automatic Identification System (AIS)

6.0 Recommendations Related to the Use of CCG's Automatic Identification System Network

Responsibilities Related to CCG's AIS Network

As the National Competent Authority, CCG is responsible for ensuring the availability and integrity of the AIS channels and infrastructure used in Canadian waters. CCG will work with the St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation and the USCG to make the AIS networks, messages and systems as seamless as possible for the mariners.

As such, CCG is responsible for:

  • Monitoring and performance measurement of the CCG AIS network;
  • Monitoring and coordinating use of the VHF Data Exchange (VDE) within Canada to help avoid interference, overloading and ensure optimal use of limited VDE capability.

In order to preserve the principal functions of AIS in Canadian waters and the availability and integrity of the AIS channels and infrastructure, CCG recommends that:

  1. Only vessels, aids to navigation with AIS equipment, AIS transponders for search and rescue purposes or other AIS stations should broadcast live on the AIS network.
  2. Safety Related Messages (SRM) are a text based form of message that can be broadcast through AIS. SRM should not be used for routine communications; they are not a substitution for established communication procedures. SRM should not be excessive as they could reduce situation awareness of mariners and if displayed on Electronic Chart Display and Information System (ECDIS), could create false alarms. SRM should only be used for circumstances with safety implications, such as radio communication failure, maritime security level changes, for urgent notices to shipping, weather warnings and failure of a vessel to respond to vessel traffic services calls.
  3. AIS Application Specific Messages (ASM)3 and the rate of transmission should be limited. Those wishing to broadcast ASM must request approval from CCG. ASM will only be approved if there is a compelling operational need for them or if they are safety, security or emergency related. For example, CCG may use ASM to transmit information on water levels, weather, air draft for the clearance of bridges and notices to shipping. It should be noted that the display capability of AIS Application-Specific Messages on board ships is not part of the current mandatory functions of the Minimum Keyboard and Display (MKD) of IMO mandatory carriage requirement. The display of the information transmitted by AIS Application-Specific Messages may require external hardware and dedicated software to the Electronic Chart Display and Information System (ECDIS) or other Electronic Chart Systems (ECS) in addition to the AIS equipment.


    3 Refer to IMO SN.1/Circ.289 – Guidance on the use of AIS Application Specific Messages.

  4. Ship owners should ensure their vessels are transmitting accurate information. This applies to both manually entered data and data provided by the ship’s sensors connected to the AIS. This includes the maritime mobile service identity number (MMSI), ship name, International Maritime Organization (IMO) number, ship type, destination, and navigational status. The accuracy of the configuration of the position of the AIS antenna is also paramount.

Contact information

Additional requests for information related to CCG’s recommendations on the use of CCG’s AIS Network or general enquiries regarding AIS can be sent to


An AIS AtoN is a digital aid to navigation promulgated by an authorized service provider using AIS message 214 “Aids to navigation report” that is portrayed on devices or system on-board vessels, such as an Electronic Chart Display and Information System. The AIS message 21 provides details of the name, MMSI number, type and position of the aid to navigation. In addition, there may be an indication if the AtoN is off station, and of the status of the light, racon or other equipment.


4 A complete list of AIS messages and related technical definitions are available in the following International Telecommunication Union (ITU) document: Technical characteristics for an automatic identification system using time division multiple access in the VHF maritime mobile band (Recommendation ITU-R M.1371-4). For more specific technical information on AIS AtoN (message 21), refer to section 3.19 of annex 8 of the ITU document.

An AIS AtoN can be implemented in two ways:

  1. Physical AIS AtON – a Physical AIS AtoN is an AIS Message 21 representing an AtoN that physically exists.
  2. Virtual AIS AtoN – a Virtual AIS AtoN is transmitted as a Message 21 representing an AtoN that does not physically exist.

CCG principles for the use of AIS AtoN are based on the related International Maritime Organization (IMO) Policy, which should be tabled for approval at the IMO MSC Committee in Spring 2014.

  1. Establishment and operation of an AIS AtoN must be in accordance with the SOLAS chapter V, regulation. 13. As such:
    • CCG may provide, as deemed practical and necessary, either individually or in co-operation with other Contracting SOLAS Chapter V – 1/7/02 Governments, such aids to navigation as the volume of traffic justifies and the degree of risk requires. Based on the Convention, the same approach applies for AIS AtoN, provided that establishment of AIS AtoN is done in such a way so as to not impact the primary purpose of AIS for collision avoidance between ships.
  2. In line with IMO’s policy on the use of AIS AtoN, every AIS AtoN must be authorized by CCG in order to avoid unauthorized transmissions and overloading of the AIS channel bandwidth.

  3. In accordance with IMO, implementation of AIS AtoN is possible in two ways:

    • Physical AIS AtoN: Representing an existing aid to navigation that physically exists and is equipped with an AIS unit.
    • Virtual AIS AtoN: Representing an aid that does not physically exist.

Application of Physical AIS AtoN

Physical AIS AtoN, which is associated with a physically existing AtoN, can be implemented to provide mariners with the following service information:

  • the type and name of the AtoN;
  • the position of the AtoN (must always be the actual position of the Physical AtoN, i.e. real-time Electronic Position Fixing System position for floating AtoN, especially if it is off position);
  • AtoN’s status, i.e. light error, RACON error, off-position indication in the case of a drifting buoy; and

Application of Virtual AIS AtoN

  1. In accordance with the IMO policy, a virtual AIS AtoN may be used temporarily to rapidly mark a new danger, a wreck or an accident zone or to supplement Notices to Mariners before the hazards are included in Navigational Charts updates.
  2. Permanent usage of virtual AIS AtoN is generally not recommended for fixed objects and hazards because they should be included in nautical publications (e.g. charts, Notices to Mariners) and / or marked with a traditional AtoN.

  3. IMO’s policy provides for an exception to this principle, allowing for permanent use of virtual AIS AtoN in circumstances where it is difficult to establish a physical aid due to environmental or economic considerations. For example, a permanent virtual AIS AtoN could be used to mark a shoal, which changes due to current, weather effects or when ice cover prevents the deployment of traditional aids to navigation.

  4. If permanent Virtual AIS AtoN are established, they should be included in Electronic Navigational Charts, paper nautical charts and nautical publications, and should, in general, not be duplicated as a multiple layer by AIS AtoN. In general, fixed objects and hazards, that are included in nautical publications, should not be layered over by AIS AtoN.

Responsibilities Related to the Deployment of AIS AtoN

  1. Special precautions should be taken when considering the establishment or deployment of AIS AtoN given that not all ships may carry equipment capable of transmitting, receiving, or displaying AIS messages;
  2. Close co-ordination is needed between CCG and the Canadian Hydrographic Service, due to potential conflicts between AtoN display on navigational charts and electronic AIS AtoN display; and
  3. Promulgation of information on the establishment or deployment of AIS AtoN to mariners and other relevant parties must be done in advance to ensure that mariners know how to interpret, understand and use the AIS AtoN before they are established or deployed.

Approval Process to Deploy AIS AtoN or AIS Stations in Canada

The process outlined on the next page has been agreed upon by Industry Canada and the Canadian Coast Guard.

  1. The process starts with the applicant's request for a radio licence to Industry Canada (IC)5. Once the licence is issued, CCG is notified. Additionally, the licence specifically states that the licence is conditional upon coordination with CCG for AIS channel access. 


    5 Industry Canada is the radio licensing authority in Canada. All entities wishing to install an AIS AtoN or an AIS Station must request a radio licence from Industry Canada. Industry Canada is also responsible for attributing MMSI numbers (used as unique identifiers in AIS) to the applicant and registering attributed MMSI numbers with the International Telecommunication Union.

  2. Through the coordination step, CCG has the opportunity to approve or deny installation of the new AIS AtoN or AIS station and to influence configuration parameters that will impact what mariners view on displays. In the case of applications that are denied, reasonable explanation should be given noting that it may be possible to re-apply with revised parameters.
  3. In the event that the AIS AtoN or the AIS Station is removed from the service, modified or simply not available, the applicant must inform CCG, which in turn, will inform affected mariners.

Figure 2: AIS Unit Deployment Approval Process (Applicant - IC - CCG)

AIS Unit Deployment Approval Process

Text description of Figure 2: AIS Unit Deployment Approval Process (Applicant - IC - CCG)


  1. Real-time or historical data may be shared with:
    1. Canadian federal, provincial, territorial or municipal government agencies or foreign government agencies for legitimate internal government use;
    2. Canadian Port Authorities and other major ports in Canada;
    3. Non-governmental entities that are contractually supporting a federal government agency’s operations or research and development efforts (with supporting documentation); and
    4. Non-governmental entities with which Canada has an established or formalized relationship.

Contact information

  1. Groups and/or individuals identified under a) through d) above may request access to CCG’s AIS data via email at