In the past, traditional aids to navigation (AtoN) were physical aids such as lighthouses, buoys, and beacons. The introduction of virtual aids to navigation is one of the greatest achievements in the recent history of navigation. Although many are still under development, they are already being used by a number of administrations around the world.
A virtual aid to navigation consists of a signal sent to a location in a waterway. It is an electronically emitted marker of a hazard. It involves sending information from an AIS station to another location without actually being there. The basic symbol of an AIS virtual aid to navigation looks like a diamond with crosshairs in the center on ECDIS or radar.
These may be reasons why virtual aids to navigation are established.
1. it is not possible, due to location or time constraints, to establish a physical aid to navigation such as a buoy, beacon, or lighthouse.
2. rapid deployment to immediately mark wrecks and prevent accidents by proactive notification.
3. virtual aids to navigation are independent of weather conditions. They are always detected and displayed on the Electronic Chart Display and Information System (ECDIS) or radar overlay, providing timely information to mariners.
4. they can be extremely helpful in areas where physical buoys are seasonally raised or relocated due to swell or ice, or when a buoy is out of service or damaged due to a natural disaster.
5. Easy installation and less maintenance. If conditions change, virtual aids to navigation are moved or removed.
6. In addition, virtual aids to navigation provide good coverage despite rugged terrain or when approaching from inland waters. Ships can detect dangerous underwater hazards well in advance of approaching them and know if they are on a collision course with a navigational hazard.
Nevertheless, it must also be considered that transmitted position data can be inaccurate. In addition, AIS data is also susceptible to spoofing or jamming. Last but not least, navigation officers are used to traditional buoys and beacons. If they are not properly trained, they may miss this information because it is not visible in reality.
This is how a virtual AtoN looks like in the FleetMon Explorer.