What’s an eATON? I’m Glad You Asked

By Kimball Livingston Posted May 15, 2014

Ready for electronic aids to navigation? They’re here, in beta, though you may not see them yourself, soon-type soon. And please understand them as supplements, not replacements, for your favorite bells and whistles. And lights. This is an experiment, but I’ll call it the beginning of an inevitable evolution. And it’s only natural for the first deployment to take place in the waters closest to Silicon Valley.

In a prepared statement, the commander of Coast Guard Sector San Francisco, Capt. Gregory Stump, described these electronic aids to navigation—eATON—as an important initiative for the Coast Guard “as we explore the use of new technologies to enhance safety and protect the environment. There is no better place to evaluate this technology than the challenging waters of San Francisco Bay, and we look forward to receiving feedback from local mariners on how we can improve this service.”

At present there are 25 of these virtual aids, including five eATON marking the bridge towers on the western span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. According to the Coast Guard, speaking of all 25, “This suite of eATON is intended to assist mariners with navigation, particularly during periods of heavy fog or congestion on the Bay.”

There was about a quarter of a mile of visibility on January 7, 2013, when the 752-foot tanker, Overseas Reymar, rammed the underwater base of one of the Bay Bridge towers at about 11:20 a.m. The ship was unloaded, bound for sea.

The waters were less lucky on November 7, 2007, when the 902-foot container ship, Cosco Busan, well-loaded, thank you, gashed its side on the fender of the bridge’s Delta Tower and dumped more than 53,000 gallons of bunker fuel. That’s the Cosco Busan in the pic at top. Afterward, the name was changed to Hanjin Venezia.
Be sure to wave.

Both ships were equipped with plenty of technology to allow captain and pilot to avoid the human errors that caused those incidents, so we know that the incremental enhancements of virtual buoys do not, in themselves, make a game changer. But when it comes to navigational information, more is more.

At this stage, the eATON are operable, and all AIS and electronic charting systems should receive the data—but not all are coded to display it. The San Francisco Bar Pilots use the commercial version of Rose Point Navigation Systems software, which does display the eATON. The company’s recreational product, Coastal Explorer, has the functionality, but, as explained by senior support engineer Steven Hodgen, “Coastal Explorer supports these messages, although they are turned off by default, because most of the messages being broadcast these days are tests.

“To turn them on, go to Main Menu > Options… > AIS and look for a checkbox under the heading Other Targets called, “Show Aids to Navigation”, and check it. There are some new recommendations on symbology which we will be adding in a future update, so how they appear on the chart will be changing.”

As further explained by the Coast Guard, this early stage demo of eATON is operating on the premise that if you build it, they will come. That is, that more software providers will have the incentive to incorporate the capability of displaying eATON, and down the road it will be the new normal.

And no, what you see below, on the eastern span, has nothing to do with a ship collision. The old eastern span is going away quickly . . .

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