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What is AIS?
From our friends at Digital Yacht: The Automatic Identification System (AIS) is the biggest advance in marine navigation since RADAR. AIS uses GPS, VHF and Digital Signal Processing (DSP) to communicate data between vessels, namely broadcasting your boat's information including her speed, heading, boat name, port of origin, size and draft. AIS constantly updates your vessel information to any boat or interested party who has access to an AIS unit, wifi-enabled computer, or smartphone.
Vessels can Transmit their position and Receive other vessels' positions (Transponder) or just Receive other vessels' positions (Receiver). In laymans terms, AIS helps captains “see around corners" – vessels, AtoNs, and rescue craft are displayed as objects, not blobs.
Some more in-depth info on AIS types from our friends at BoatUS:
AIS is further broken down into two classes: A and B. Class A units are more powerful and put out 12 watts versus 2 watts for Class B, which means (assuming antenna height is sufficient) that Class A transmissions have a range of 20 to 30 miles as opposed to the 5- or 6-mile range of Class B units. Class A AIS also has a dedicated display and broadcasts its updates more often, at every two to 10 seconds while underway and every three minutes while at anchor. Class B units transmit approximately every 30 seconds while underway and every six minutes while at anchor.
Class B units, on the other hand, enjoy the usual advantage of simpler, less-powerful products — they cost less. In fact, they cost about half as much as a Class A AIS and are usually priced in the $1,000 range. An even less-expensive option for recreational mariners is an AIS receiver. This doesn't broadcast information about your boat, but it does allow you to tap into the data being broadcast by everyone else.