The automatic identification system (AIS) is an automatic tracking system that uses transponders on boats and ships to help avoid collisions at sea. Vessels receive and broadcast AIS signals to see other boats on a map and let them know where you are.

In the recent Sydney Hobart sailing race, the line honors winner (first of all boats to cross the finish line) Wild Oats XI was accused of turning its AIS transmitter off in order to operate without competitors knowing where it was or what it was doing. This strategy has been used by fishermen, who when locating fish, will turn off AIS to avoid attracting a crowd. In this case, it potentially enabled Wild Oats XI to perform maneurvers without competitor knowledge.

Wild Oats XI is a Super Maxi sailboat about 100 feet in length.

The stakes for this race are very high, with the Super Maxi class boats costing tens of millions of dollars to build and manage. Billionaires’ egos are on the line.

Second place finisher in the race, Black Jack, made the accusation in a press interview, but without filing a formal protest. The skipper of Wild Oats XI claims that a video download from a nearby helicopter disabled their AIS transponder without their knowledge. AIS uses a frequency for transmission that is easily compromised by other airwave acitivity, so the explanation is plausible, but may be hard to prove.

Sydney Hobart competitor Black Jack accused Wild Oats XI of turning off their AIS transmitter, effectively allowing them to sail “cloaked.”

It was the first year that the Sydney Hobart race required AIS to be used by all boats. Other sailing races, such as the Volvo Ocean Race, also employ AIS and even allow teams to go into “stealth mode” twice during the race, which means effectively turning AIS off twice.

As situational technology – the tech that makes it easier to see where you are and what’s around you – gets better and better, it also enables compeitors in any type of boating to monitor you. You can see AIS boats tracked here anywhere in the world.

AIS is considered a huge innovation, complementing the use of radar to avoid other boat traffic, especially at night. This type of situational tech contributes to taking steps closer to autonomous control as AIS becomes combined with radar, other senors, and the actual piloting of the boat.

For the latest Sydney Hobart race, the issues have been somewhat resolved with no formal protest and Wild Oats XI being declared the winner. But the verbal accusation related to AIS has left a mark on the results, which makes any billionaire boat owner angry and often and their lawyers happy.