Comparing AIS Boating Apps: Ship Finder, Marine Traffic, Boat Beacon

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Typical AIS App Display Showing 2 Ships

AIS App Display

Note: This review describes and compares the features of three apps that show the location of ships near your own vessel or in another area: Ship Finder, Boat Beacon, and Marine Traffic.

AIS stands for Automatic Identification System, a radio-based system required for most commercial vessels that shows other ships a vessel's location and other identifying data including present course and speed. ​This article explains in more detail how the system works. Essentially, a ship has a special AIS radio that continually broadcasts its data and receives the data from other ships, usually displaying the ships visually on a chart of ​map display.

While the AIS system has been in place for some time, only recently has it become more readily available for pleasure craft, and sailors and other boaters can now readily access this information to be more aware of the movements of other ships nearby. In addition, with some apps, a pleasure boat can "broadcast" its own position through new online systems without needing the more expensive AIS radio equipment.

Note that this technology is rapidly advancing and may have already gained new features by the time you are reading this.

How Online AIS Works

AIS radios broadcast to AIS radios on other ships. Shore stations, however, can also receive these signals and the same information, which can then be put online in real time. The three apps reviewed here (Ship Finder, Boat Beacon, and Marine Traffic) all function in that way: by translating received radio signals into an online mapping system that can be accessed by the app or, in one case, by any computer online. The differences among these apps are mostly a matter of varying features.

Important Disclaimer

Because all of these apps depend on land-based AIS receivers, whether (and how well) any AIS app works in your own location depends on that company's system and local receivers. None is guaranteed to work in all areas. Most US coastal areas, in my testing, seem to have basic coverage in all three apps, but it would be good to test an app by checking its coverage online (when available - see below) or with its free version (when available) before depending on it. In addition, compare the features of these apps for what may be important to you in your own area - and for your future use.

Safety Warning

In my testing of these apps, I noticed in all three of them that occasionally a ship would disappear from the screen when the display refreshed. This could be due to a pleasure craft (which is not required to submit data) losing its online connectivity or simply turning it off, or with a larger ship due to the land station losing the signal or some other factor. Do not depend on any of these as your only method to maintain a lookout for other vessels.

The Ship Finder App

  • Available for both Android and Apple smartphones and devices
  • For Apple: requires iOS 3.0 and later - two versions (free, $4.99) for iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch
  • For Android: requires Android 1.6 and later ($2.99, no free version)
  • Version tested: 2.51 on iPod Touch with GPS

The free Apple version of Ship Finder has these features:

  • On a Google map, ships with AIS are shown as color icons that show the direction they are moving
  • Tapping a ship's icon shows its name but not additional information
  • Ship location can be shared by Facebook, Twitter, or email (but why would you?)
  • Apparently does not show pleasure boats that submit their location data via another app (such as Boat Beacon or Marine Traffic) - thus fewer vessels are shown
  • Optionally includes your own position on the map if your device has a GPS
  • Allows bookmarking your location
  • Shows small ads at the bottom

The paid Apple version of Ship Finder has these features:

  • All the same features as the free version (except no ads)
  • Also gives full information about vessels, including course, speed, and photos when available
  • Shows ships' trails
  • Allows search by vessel name

Bottom line for Ship Finder: Because it shows fewer ships than the other two apps (and does not allow you to submit your own location), this is my third choice among these apps at present. Note that the Android version was not tested and may differ.

The Marine Traffic App

  • Available for both Android and Apple smartphones and devices
  • For Apple: requires iOS 3.2 and later - $3.99) for iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch
  • For Android: requires Android 1.6 and later (presently a free beta version - may change)
  • Versions tested: Apple version 2.0.1 on iPod Touch with GPS, and Android version 0.9.3 tested on Lenovo A1 7-inch tablet running Android 2.3.4

The Apple and Android versions of Marine Traffic have these features:

  • On a Google map, ships with AIS are shown as color icons pointed in the direction they are moving
  • Tapping a ship's icon shows its name and speed; tapping again brings up full data about the ship (size, speed, type, destination, etc.)
  • Optionally can show the ship's track
  • Shows pleasure craft that voluntarily submit their position online (increasingly popular)
  • Apple version purportedly shows present and forecast wind (not functioning on my device at testing time)

Note that Marine Traffic provides essentially the same information free on its website - this allows you to check out its functioning in your own area before purchasing the app for use on your boat.

Marine Traffic also allows pleasure boats without AIS radio transponders to self-report their position if they have devices with connectivity and GPS. In this way your own position and vessel details can be displayed on the map the same as would occur with an actual AIS transponder (so other boats using this app can see you). This can be done in at least three ways:

  • The "mAIS" app (Apple or Android) for automatic reporting and updating
  • Emailed position reports to MT at regular intervals
  • Other satellite of 3G/GSM locator devices

See http://www.marinetraffic.com/ais/selfreporttext.aspx for more information about self-reporting your boat's position.

Bottom line for Marine Traffic: Because so many AIS receiving stations are used around the world, coverage is strong. At this writing, they list 1152 stations. For this reason and the many features including ease of self-reporting, I recommend Marine Traffic as my first choice for an AIS app.

The Boat Beacon App

  • Available for both Android and Apple smartphones and devices
  • For Apple: requires iOS 4.1 and later - iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch (not tested - would not install on my older device)
  • For Android: requires Android 2.3.3 and later ($9.99)
  • Version tested: 1.0 tested on Lenovo A1 7-inch tablet running Android 2.3.4

Boat Beacon is a newer app on the market, particularly new on Android devices. While I was unable to install the Apple version on my older device, presumably its revisions over time have made it a stable app.

The Android version of Boat Beacon has these features:

  • On a Google map, ships with AIS are shown as color icons pointed in the direction they are moving, with directional lines showing their course ahead
  • With fast vessels, you can see the movement continually updated on the display
  • Tapping a ship's icon shows its name and speed; tapping again brings up full data about the ship (size, speed, type, destination, etc.)
  • Allows pleasure craft to self-report their position online using the Boat Beacon app (no add-on needed) - unclear if your boat is then seen only by Boat Beacon users or by Marine Traffic users also
  • Shows your own location on the map if you have GPS
  • Includes a collision avoidance warning feature if your device has GPS

Bottom line for Boat Beacon: I liked the display features of Boat Beacon and its collision avoidance warning but encountered some bugginess in early versions. It also runs more slowly than Marine Traffic, although it has the benefit of continual position updating. Overall, Boat Beacon is my second choice after the reputable Marine Traffic but ahead of Ship Finder because it shows more vessels (includes self-reporting pleasure craft).

Update. A few months after writing this review, I reviewed yet another AIS app, Boat Watch, from the same people that developed Boat Beacon. While doing the testing for that app, I simultaneously ran different apps purporting to show the same vessel's location - but which actually showed the ship in different locations! This happened more than once, but without a fast helicopter at my disposal to confirm ship locations moment to moment, I am unable to ascertain whether one particular app is always right while another may have technical glitches - or whether perhaps all such private apps, not nearly as secure and reliable as the government-regulated true AIS system, may be off in different circumstances. Bottom line: don't trust your boat or your life to any of these apps, which may be subject to glitches, programming, or other systems issues.

Smart Chart AIS similarly shows other vessels on a chart relative to your own position, and offers some other interesting features.

Other boating apps that may be of interest: