Integrating Internet Technology with Amateur Radio for Public Service Events
by Shelomo Alfassa
Published in CQ magazine | October 2012
AT A PUBLIC SERVICE event, the New York City Amateur Radio Emergency Communications Service (NYC-ARECS), a NYC based auxiliary communications service, utilized an APRS/AIS network to track the status of the world famous Staten Island Ferry for the purposes of obtaining real-time information that helped manage the flow of heavy pedestrian movement.
When not serving during a disaster, it is typical of amateur radio emergency teams throughout the United States, to provide communication support at events such as marathons, bike races and other “public service events” such as walk-a-thons. Deployment of communication team members to an event with tens of thousands of participants such as a marathon, or a bike race, provides an ideal training opportunity for radio operators to not only practice their communication and technical abilities, but to also observe and/or perform as part of the incident management system utilized by most municipalities.
This event in May of 2012, saw near a dozen radio operators stationed around the city, with one Net Control operator (Charles Hargrove, N2NOV) positioned in the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) located at Coast Guard Sector New York headquarters, located at Fort Wadsworth on Staten Island. The event was the Five Boro Bike Tour, America’s largest cycling event, which consisted of over 30,000 bicyclists who rode a 40 (64-km) mile path through closed New York City highways over ten hours. The event finale included the 30,000 bicyclists riding over the Verrazano Narrows Bridge into Ft. Wadsworth, then returning to Manhattan via the Staten Island Ferry.
"...the NYC-ARECS net control operator, established a
method to track the arrivals and departures of the
Staten Island Ferry in the EOC..."
The large numbers of bicyclists and their bicycles created a need to monitor ferry traffic, for decision making in regard to moving large assemblies of people from the fort where they were initially gathered, to a staging area in proximity of the ferry terminal, before boarding the vessels. Utilizing data plotted on an Internet based digital map, from both the APRS (Automatic Packet Reporting System) and AIS (Automatic Identification System), the NYC-ARECS net control operator, established a method to track the arrivals and departures of the Staten Island Ferry in the EOC.
APRS is a non-voice digital communication system that was developed since the 1980s by Bob Bruninga (WB4APR), currently a senior research engineer at the United States Naval Academy. The technology has since expanded to embrace both GPS (1992) and later, the Internet. APRS can be used to transmit real-time data, short text messages, information and reports of the exact location of a person or object via a data signal sent over amateur radio frequency. It can also be used to provide weather station location, data and dates, track objects, as well as other map-related amateur radio volunteer activities including search and rescue and signal direction finding.
AIS is a vessel and shore-based transponder system that was developed by the U.S. Department of Transportation and made operational in 2002. It was originally designed for ocean going vessels that would be in compliance with the international SOLAS Convention (Safety of Life at Sea), administered by the International Maritime Organization and in the United States enforced by the U.S. Coast Guard. AIS provides continuous real-time information including a ship's identity, type, length, position, course, speed, navigational status and other safety-related information; it then takes this data and automatically makes it available to shore stations, other ships and aircraft. AIS information supplements marine radar, which continues to be the primary method of collision avoidance for water transport. AIS integrates a VHF-FM transceiver that can also combine with other electronic navigation sensors, such as GPS, gyrocompass or rate-of-turn indicator. AIS runs at 9600 bit/s (GMSK) on two marine VHF frequencies (channel 87B (161.975 MHz) or 88B (162.025 MHz), transmitting ship position reports once every 2 to 10 seconds, over an unencrypted system.
The gateway which NYC-ARECS used to maintain coordination of the ferries via both APRS and AIS data, was the popular APRS.fi website, one of the most sophisticated aggregators of RF derived mappable digital location information on the Internet. APRS.fi collects data from APRS and AIS, then displays that data in a (Google sourced) real-time map. The APRS data comes through the APRS-IS (Automatic Packet Reporting System-Internet Service), the common name given to the Internet-based network which inter-connects various APRS radio networks across the earth and in space. APRS-IS is maintained and operated by volunteer amateur radio operators to provide world-wide capabilities to the amateur radio APRS RF networks and to promote the Amateur Radio service as a whole.
APRS.fi overlays and combines data from both APRS and AIS to geographically plot ships underway, as well as track them throughout their voyage, and even gather specific information about their movement. This movement was tracked by the NYC-ARECS Net Control operator at the Emergency Operations Center after he used the various tools on the APRS.fi website, to manually select all the boats in the New York City Department of Transportation’s (DOT) ferry fleet. Then, unique filters were employed so that only the active ferries would be tracked—as not all of the eight boats are usually in-service at any given time. Sailing between the boroughs of Manhattan and Staten Island, the Staten Island Ferry is the nation's single busiest ferry route by passenger volume. There are eight boats in the DOT fleet which travel the 5.2-mile (8.4-km) single direction run in 25 minutes. The three classes of these boats have the capacity to carry a range of passengers, some 1300, 3500 or even 6000 passengers per trip.
It is interesting to note, that the use of the APRS/AIS real-time monitoring of the boats, demonstrated, in hindsight, that a radio operator with the primary mission of reporting the location of the ferry in proximity to the Manhattan-side of the harbor—was now, no longer necessary. The observation and reporting of the geographic location of the vessels could be conducted in the EOC, but it could also be monitored and its progress reported, remotely by an offsite ‘trusted agent’ who is a pre-screened member of an organization’s Virtual Operations Support Team (VOST). While the idea of the ‘VOST’ is still nascent in the emergency management world, one certainly can see how the concept has potential.
While there are several websites which offer AIS tracking, APRS.fi remains ham-friendly, because along with AIS, it combines APRS (with GPS) plotting, making it a very popular site. The site is run out of Helsinki, Finland by a self-described single IT professional as a hobby, but (as he has listed on his site) “in a rather professional manner.” The APRS.fi site, combined with the APRS/AIS data, allowed a New York City amateur radio emergency communications team on the other side of the world, to maintain a constant watch on their harbor boat traffic and the ferries themselves, then pass along that information to the coordinating representatives of the event, the authorities in the EOC, as well as to their own radio operators stationed on both sides of the harbor.
While on that specific day NYC-ARECS did not use amateur radio operators on the boats themselves, they did utilize technology invented by amateur radio operators for amateur radio operators. The APRS-IS (Automatic Packet Reporting System-Internet Service) was started in the 1990s by Steve Dimse (K4HG) as a way to show APRS activity occurring on amateur radio frequencies to people using the World Wide Web. APRS-IS has grown into an ad-hoc network (500 servers and over 20,000 users), with a central server core that all packets pass through. Persons can access the network via amateur radio through several free amateur radio software applications, and even via their iPad or smart phone (even without a radio!) utilizing a callsign and password to gain entry into the network which then uses the cellular phone’s GPS technology.
This cellular phone APRS/GPS technology was combined with amateur radio APRS technology in June 2012 when NYC-ARECS assisted with the American Diabetes Association’s annual Tour de Cure, an inter-state bicycle tour fundraiser which runs over 100 miles (160-km) from New York City into upstate New York. On that day, amateur radio operators were deployed with bicycle support crews in vehicles. Among the operators, some utilized APRS via radio and some via smart phone applications with GPS technology. All of the operators were tracked by Net Control utilizing APRS.fi so at any given moment the geographic location of the amateur radio operators (and the bicycle support crews) could be located on the 100 mile course.
Amateur radio operators that are interested in mainting their hobby and service through the use of HF/VHF/UHF radio communications, will certainly also be open to embracing new technology which can only expand the breadth and depth of the hobby. This of course may also potentially spark interest in the younger folks who already have embraced the Internet and other new digital technologies. These younger folks who may become “new hams” will be those that continue the hobby into the future and will be those who volunteer their time, equipment and skills to participate in civic-minded opportunities such as volunteering for public service events and in emergency communications.
 APRS.fi is one of several websites which allow you to track positions. It just happens to be the one selected for use by NYC-ARECS – which has no affiliation with the website – other than just being fans of the well-made site.
 It’s interesting to note that as helpful as AIS is, in 2004, the Maritime Safety Committee of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) said that freely available AIS data on the Internet was "regrettable" and a threat to safety and security of vessels. Their position is to urge governments to discourage those who make available AIS data to others for publication on the Internet.
 Monitoring the day’s activities over the VHF repeater from outside of New York City was Dennis Graiani (KC2UEW) a Certified Broadcast Technologist, who has since become an active and welcome member of NYC-ARECS.
Alfassa, S. (2012, October). Integrating internet technology with amateur radio for public service events. CQ Magazine.
Available online at http://www.alfassa.com