An updated AIS system

Back in March I blogged about my AIS system, in particular about the LNA4ALL and how it coped with the low signal reception of my homemade antenna.

Things went really well until one day the reception dropped out completely.

A quick test of the system showed that something had gone wrong with one of the pieces of equipment though at the time I was unsure whether it was the antenna, the LNA or the NASA Engine AIS decoder.

As I was due to go away for a short while I decided to tell all the relevant websites that I feed (IHS AISLive, MarineTraffic and VesselFinder) that my system would be offline until further notice due to a technical fault, and that as soon as I’d worked out the issue that I’d get it fixed and back online.

The guys at MarineTraffic were very quick in getting in contact with me and offered to help with a new decoder as long as I didn’t mind being a beta tester for the equipment and some of their new software. I was very happy to agree to their offer.

The decoder they organised for me was a new Comar Systems SLR350ni Intelligent AIS Decoder and it arrived with me about ten days after I agreed to their offer.

The main thing that really appealed to me about this decoder was the fact that it links directly to your home network either by WiFi or hardwired using RJ45 Ethernet cable. This meant that I could install the decoder remotely, nearer to the antenna and out of my radio shack, but have full control of it from my main PC. The decoder itself is interfaced to a Raspberry Pi™ 3 computer, comes with aforementioned WiFi and Ethernet connectivity, 4 USB ports and an HDMI connector for a monitor display. It can be used in any AIS setup and is a dual channelled parallel receiver.

Installation was simple. Within 15 minutes the decoder was connected to my home-made antenna and we were receiving data – and at a much faster rate than the NASA due to the dual channel capability.

The MarineTraffic part of the agreement included some new software that they are testing, which includes the capability of sending received raw AIS data to five feeds such as AISLive. Any of these decoders obtained using MarineTraffic come with their host settings hardwired in so any data received through it is automatically sent to them – you don’t have to do anything to send data to MarineTraffic, just attach an antenna, connect it to your network and switch it on – that’s it.

In the new software there is a page where you can add other host iP addresses and port details. Doing this means a couple of things:

1 – You no longer need to use other software such as ShipPlotter or Neal Arundale’s NmeaRouter/AisDecoder software to forward on the data.
2 – You don’t actually need a PC connected directly to the Comar decoder.

The second point is interesting as it means you no longer need to have a PC running 24/7 to feed any of the AIS data to whichever sites you want. This is a bonus if you currently switch off your computers when you go on holiday or are away from home for a while. It still means you can provide the data whilst you are away.

Personally I have the following set up:
MarineTraffic (hardwired)
AISLive (iP host)
VesselFinder (iP host)
ShipPlotter (internal network address)
AIS Decoder (internal network address)

Using the ShipPlotter software still means I can get a better picture of what I am receiving, range of reception etc.; whilst using the AIS Decoder software means I can look at any of the messages sent in greater detail.

I have to say that I am very impressed so far, and highly recommend the Comar decoder. It is available from numerous online shops, but if you are going to feed MarineTraffic you may as well get it from their site, currently priced at €379.00. Doing this means it already comes pre-programmed to send to MarineTraffic.

A new antenna too

I had gotten round to testing all the equipment to see what the cause of the original loss of reception was and it turned out to be the LNA4ALL. This was a shame as I had new objectives for the LNA with regards to the reception of weather satellites so it means I’ll have to get a new one. Luckily I don’t need to replace the whole thing, just the circuit board, so it will be much cheaper – but a pain none the less, especially if I have the same issues with UK Customs that I had previously. The likely cause of the failure was an Electrostatic Discharge of some sort or other. There had been some Lightning storms nearby over the previous days and it could well have been this that had done it – strange though as my equipment is very well protected from this happening. The area I live in is prone to power surges and power cuts – the joys of living in a remote area in Scotland, still backwards in many things the rest of the UK take for granted.

With the loss of the LNA, this drastically reduced the range of my home-made antenna and so I decided it was time to buy a new one. I’d toyed with building a better one but in the end I just couldn’t be bothered and so I went for a Metz AIS antenna, bought from the Salty John website. Great service from them meant it arrived within 48 hours and so when it came to installing the Comar decoder I also rigged up the antenna in the loft space next to my home-made one at the same time.

If I have one complaint about the Metz, it’s that it doesn’t come with any form of protection for the co-ax connection area. This is especially strange as it is designed specifically for boats and would therefore be exposed to wet/salty conditions all the time. Add to that that the threaded area is over an inch long, much longer than what you would get with a UHF connector, this makes it a weak area for the lifetime of the antenna. If you were to install it outside (which is the general recommendation for AIS reception) then you would need to cover it in self-amalgamating tape and check it regularly to ensure it is still working. Not perfect if you need to climb up on the roof of your property.

One other option would be to use the tightening nuts supplied to fix some plastic or aluminium tubing around the connection, but again this is some extra hassle which could have been remedied by Metz themselves.

As it is, I seem to be getting great coverage from the Metz from it’s position in the loft, though I may still add a LNA4ALL to boost it even more.

With the antennas side by side I was able to run some quick comparisons between the two. The images below show the Spectrum analysis using my Rigol gear.

From the images you can see that with my messing around of the home-made antenna I had over trimmed it to be tuned to 180MHz rather than the required 162MHz. At 162MHz it measured in at 9.3dB which wasn’t even worth calculating the VSWR, whilst at 180MHz its VSWR was 1.23:1

In comparison the Metz antenna, which is a half-wave whip antenna, came in nicely at 83.6MHz with a measurement of 30.15dB/VSWR 1.07:1. Metz communications specify less than 1.2:1 VSWR so this is spot on.

With the new set up things have definitely improved. I also ran a quick test using AISDecoder to see how many messages the two antennas fed to the Comar, be it in a very basic manner of waiting till there was some ships being picked up, running the software with one antenna for a minute, noting how many messages were received and then swapping to the other antenna for the same length of time. In theory it is a reasonable test as the ships won’t have travelled far in that time, but not 100% perfect. Regardless, the Metz was able to pick up 19 messages in its minute test, whilst my home-made antenna only managed three! The test was carried out in less than five minutes.

In conclusion, whilst it has been a pain to lose the LNA4ALL, it has turned out better in the end for my AIS station. Statistically my data feed has improved no end for AISLive and MarineTraffic; and having gone away twice now since installation I have still been able to provide 24/7 coverage where I would normally have switched the whole system off.

Area coverage provided to MarineTraffic since the new installation. Fitting a LNA4ALL in the future should make this even better.

ShipPlotter example with the new installation. The bold plots are being received by my station and show 4673 messages received by 1032z. The image below shows the same but at 1753z and a message number of 28135. This averages out at about 52 messages a minute, though it was a busy time with lots of fishing boats in the area.

NOTES:

Following a couple of questions regarding the Comar decoder I’d like to add that it doesn’t have to be connected to the Internet or a Network to work. It can be used “locally” using the USB connections direct to a PC.

Also, you do not NEED to feed MarineTraffic if you don’t want to. If you don’t want to do this then buy a unit from another supplier which won’t have the files installed.

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Quick LNA4ALL test

Despite the best efforts of the Royal Mail service, I have been able to get my hands on a Low Noise Amplifier created by Adam at LNA4ALL. The Royal Mail showed just how useless it is, when the parcel arrived here in the UK in just 11 hours from Croatia on February the 14th, but then not getting delivered to me until March the 14th – yes, one month! There is no surprise that courier companies such as DPD and Hermes are getting more business than the Royal Mail – they are bloody useless.

Anyway, the reason for the purchase is for a later review on an AIS dongle that I will be testing, but which has unfortunately been possibly damaged before getting to me.

So, as I had some time to spare I thought I’d run a quick test on how the LNA performs against the claims that is shown on the LNA4ALL website. For the test I used a quickly built 12v to 5v PSU that was connected to a Maplin bench PSU and also a Rigol DP711 Linear DC PSU where I could ensure a precise power input. As it was, it was good that I used the DP711 because my quick PSU was only chucking out 1.2v at connection to the LNA4ALL, despite an unconnected output of 5v – some work needed there I think.

Despite this lower power the LNA4ALL still worked with just the 1.2v input, though the results where not as good.

Other equipment used were a Rigol DSG815 Signal Generator and a Rigol DSA1030 Spectrum Analyser (no longer available), along with various Mini-Circuits shielded test cables. The Rigol equipment I purchased from Telonic Instruments Ltd last year.

Below then is a table that contains all the relevant data. As you’ll see the Gain claim is pretty much spot on with some being over. Just a couple of frequencies are below that which is claimed, especially at 28 MHz.

LNA4ALL Frequency data

A couple of things to note.

Firstly, somehow I managed to miss testing 1296 MHz. I obviously didn’t put it in the table in Excel before I started 🙂 Also, the DSG815 only goes up to 1.5 GHz so I couldn’t test above that.

Secondly I ran a test for the AIS centre frequency of 162 MHz, for which there was no comparison to the LNA4ALL data. A gain of over 24dB though shows that the LNA would be perfect for those of you with AIS receivers that may want to get better reception. To prove the theory I compared the LNA reception against data without it connected to the NASA Engine AIS receiver that I currently use. In ShipPlotter I average a max range of around 15nm without the LNA, but with it connected this increased to around 22nm. The number of messages received also tripled as it was able to dig out the weaker signals.

The NASA Engine isn’t a bad receiver, but it is a frequency hopper rather than a dual monitor, and so it changes between the two AIS frequencies every 30 seconds (161.975 MHz and 162.025 MHz). I suspect a dual monitor would give better message numbers and range.

Below is a graph made using the excellent software by Neal Arundale – NMEA AIS Router. As you can see the message numbers (or sentences) for over an hour are pretty good – well, it is a vast improvement on what I used to get with my current “temporary” set-up, with 419 messages received in an hour. The software is available at his website, for free, along with various other programs that you can use with AIS. If you’d rather not use ShipPlotter he has created his own AIS Decoder which can be linked into Google Earth and such like. Visit his website for more information.

My antenna isn’t exactly top-notch. It is at a height of just 4 metres AGL in the extension loft, and it is made from galvanised steel angle bead used by plasterers to strengthen corners prior to skimming – this I cut down as a dipole for a target of 162 MHz. As usual with my trimming of antennas, I cut just too much off and ended up with it cut to 161.167 MHz. It gives a VSWR of 1.018 and Return loss of 40.82dB, with 162 MHz being approx. 30dB Return loss which equates to 1.075 VSWR – that will do.

Also, as I live right on the coast, about 50 metres from the sea, I’m practically at sea level, which doesn’t help much with range and signal reception either. Despite this the antenna produces great results, though it is just temporary until I can get a new homebuild up on the roof.

VSWR reading for the homebrew loft AIS Antenna

The LNA4ALL retails at various prices depending on what option you go for. I went for the aluminium box version so it was around £54 including the delivery. I had looked at a Mini-circuits equivalent, and when it looked like the LNA4ALL was lost I did actually order one. But this was nearly twice the price, and seeing as the LNA4ALL contains many components from Mini-Circuit I doubt it is any different really.

All in all the LNA4ALL is all you need to boost your weak signals – couldn’t get any more all’s in 🙂