Panbo

SRT mini AIS modules, & trouble from the East?

... written for Panbo by Ben Ellison and posted on Jul 14, 2010
SRT_Class_B_n_SART_modules.JPG

I mentioned SRT's amazingly miniaturized Class B and SART AIS modules back in May, but seeing is believing. In that aluminum EMI enclosure at left is a Cobalt Class B transponder complete with precision GPS engine and power supply (the board itself is inset)!  What we're looking at is smart phone technology applied to a very specific marine use, and it shouldn't be too long before these modules make AIS less expensive, more powerful, and much easier to integrate with other devices.  But I'm also hearing about a dark cloud looming as the marine world rapidly adopts AIS...

I once got my hands on something called a Smart Radio SR261 {absolutely no relation to SRT} and discussed how this cheap but uncertified transponder might cause real problems with the slot sharing scheme that makes AIS work well.  Several readers with a lot of AIS expertise agreed strongly, and I'm glad not to have heard much about the SR261 since.  But now there appears to be a problem with AIS testing firms outside the U.S. and Europe that don't actually test transponders correctly.  I'm told that Samyung, Haihua Electronics Enterprise, Shanghai Avionics, and Alltek Marine have all secured local approvals in South Korea, Taiwan, or China for Class A and B transponders that have all failed testing at the facilities (TUV and BSH) approved by the US and EU.  {Correction, 7/15: Alltek's Camino 101 Class B transponder passed BSH testing in March, got CE certification on June 30, and should get FCC approval very soon.}  Apparently they are not always capable of adhering to the AIS slot mapping protocol, and could step on other transmissions.  That's not good, and it may be difficult politics for the IMO to get all member nations to police their own testing firms.
   Ships and yachts wander the globe, which is marvelous, I think, but also means that one nation's regulatory laxness can cause trouble anywhere.  So on top of known AIS issues -- like older Class A's that can't decode the B static data message, and ships that don't pay much attention to AIS anyway -- we have to worry about faulty transponders.  Damn.  The least we can do is to discourage bluewater sailors from buying transponders that lack US or EU certification.  For an example of how rigorous that testing is check out the files posted when SRT's Class A unit was approved in May.  I'll close with a shot of SRT's developement lab in the U.K.; isn't it comforting that the gentlemen who created those nifty-looking modules above are nearly as 'mature' as many of us?

SRT_Dev_Lab.JPG


Comments

Thanks for keeping us apprised of such an important issue.

Posted by: George Ray at July 14, 2010 6:22 PM | Reply

I am a unclear from your writing. You describe new AIS products from a company called SRT while also expressing concerns over the safety of AIS approvals. Are you implying that SRT AIS modules are among those products whose approvals are a concern? If not, then it is entirely inappropriate to associate two entirely separate things in one text.

I am also unclear whether your reference to the "mature" age of SRT developers is intended as a slight (i.e. old and past it) or a positive (i.e many years of experience)?

Posted by: anonymous at July 14, 2010 7:44 PM | Reply

I don't think it's that unclear, anonymous. In the second part I named four companies that have purportedly received AIS approvals in the Far East for equipment that has failed US and EU testing. SRT is certainly not one of them. I also linked to the SRT testing documents at the FCC as an example of what proper testing looks like.

Yes, the entry covers two AIS topics, as indicated by its title. Sorry that confuses you.

No, I was not slighting the SRT developers for their age. I'm 63 years old myself, and a fan of SRT's technical achievements.

Posted by: Ben at July 14, 2010 8:14 PM | Reply

This does not surprise me with equipment from outside the US, Canada, and Europe. I would think that any transmitter that is sold here in the US must meet certain FCC standards to reduce the chances of interference with other radio services. It's unfortunate that this stuff comes out of Asia where there are usually less stringent standards as far as acceptable interference. But hey we're all supposed to be one big global community.

Posted by: John at July 14, 2010 9:29 PM | Reply

I have all sorts of marine and consumer electronics that were built in the Far East and work very well. But, yes, my phones and VHF radios did have to pass FCC-mandated tests. AIS is different in two ways. Its core technology is the constant, automatic sharing of frequencies for short bursts of data from many sources, which is tricky. There is some redundancy and other protective measures built in, but apparently one rude transponder can mess things up in its transmission range.

And while there is a strict international standard for how AIS transponders should work, the nation where it's licensed and sold is responsible for making sure the details are right, even though the transponder sold may then go anywhere.

Posted by: Ben at July 14, 2010 10:00 PM | Reply

Correction notice from Alltek Marine

AMEC Class B transponder, Camino-101, has been certified by BSH and Phoenix Lab, and gained CE. In USA, we have completed USCG review and been waiting for FCC approval now.

Charlie

Posted by: Hsu, Charlie at July 15, 2010 11:19 AM | Reply

Ben - I suggest that you send an apology to Alltek - I have a copy of their BSH certificate in front of me.

Posted by: del at July 15, 2010 12:30 PM | Reply

BTW - we were monitoring the Portsmouth UK area a few weeks back and found at least one Class A unit that was intermittently transmitting half a slot out of time. The UK's MCGA went and had a quiet word with them - it's now been replaced!

Posted by: del at July 15, 2010 12:42 PM | Reply

I agree with the other post, that as I read this piece, it appears to imply that Smart Radio is of similar concern to you as the others mentioned. On apparent hearsay and by labeling it as "cheap" (rather than inexpensive), you have potentially sent it to it's grave. Now it may very well be a POS, but I would expect clarification and proof as to why.

Similarly, I am naturally skeptical anytime someone calls out companies by name without EXTENSIVE back-up. Using "I am told" as a foundation for casting such doubt on these manufactures is a bit suspect. This market is too small, and rumors/negativity spread like wildfire.

However - I DO think professionals and consumers need to be aware of the importance of certification and the discrepancies that may exist between national testing institutes. Bringing that to everyones attention is a very good thing - but presenting it as you did is a bit like chatter you would expect around the water cooler at work.

Posted by: Todd at July 15, 2010 1:01 PM | Reply

I do apologize to Alltel, and offer Charlie congratulations on passing the BSH testing. And I will edit the text above as soon as I get to a real keyboard.

Todd, Smart Radio has nothing to do with SRT.

Posted by: Ben at July 15, 2010 3:13 PM | Reply

Todd (and others), what I wrote about the companies making suspect transponders may be hearsay, and maybe I didn't write well, but the premise can be verified by anyone, at least to a certain degree. The equipment involved either is or is not tested and certified for sale in the EU and US. The manufacturer is certainly going to let consumers know if that is true.

Now, I can not verify that the devices that lack EU and US certification actually failed the testing required to get it, but I think it's safe to say that any company that makes AIS equipment would like to sell it in the EU and US. Draw your own conclusions. And please encourage boaters who are outside the EU and US to buy AIS transponders that have passed EU and/or US testing.

And please note that this premise works two ways. My hearsay information turned out to be old regarding the Alltek Class B Camino transponder (for which I'm sorry). The unit has recently passed BSH testing, and received CE approval -- I saw the certificates today -- and should get FCC approval soon. That's a tremendous endorsement, in my view, and will help Alltek to compete against manufacturers in the US and Europe, big time.

As for the Smart Radio SR261, which claims it can be either a Class A or B transponder, let me repeat that Smart Radio has nothing whatsoever to do with SRT (which stands for Software Radio Technology). In fact, that information is in the SR261 link above, in which you'll also learn that I briefly bench tested the device. My opinions about it are not hearsay:

http://www.panbo.com/archives/2008/01/smart_radio_sr261_pirate_class_a_ais.html

The Smart Radio SR261 is way out of the AIS specifications, has no certifications I know of, and the only reason some cruisers purchased it was because it's cheap. I think those cruisers made a mistake, saving a few bucks in exchange for the chance of damaging a very valuable safety system. If I hastened the SR261 to its grave, I'm glad.

Posted by: Ben at July 15, 2010 6:26 PM | Reply

Good stuff Ben. I'm very interested in seeing what micro-technology is created using these new small boards! -John

Posted by: John at July 25, 2010 7:42 PM | Reply

The Amec Camino-101 Class B transponder received FCC approval last week, and becomes the first transponder I know of available with bluetooth output. Info here:

http://www.alltekmarine.com/eng/products_camino101.htm

Posted by: Ben at August 2, 2010 7:50 AM | Reply

The Amec Camino 101 Class B is now for sale in the U.S., at under $500 with a GPS antenna, but apparently without the bluetooth option:

http://www.milltechmarine.com/AMEC-CAMINO-101-Class-B-AIS-Transponder-Kit_p_214.html

Posted by: Ben at November 15, 2010 11:32 AM | Reply

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