U.S. Naval Forces Europe Commander Admiral Harry Ulrich brooded over the state of worldwide maritime awareness. It was 2005, yet despite the post-9/11 securities overhaul, global vessel traffic monitoring systems remained poor—capable of tracking only a handful of commercial vessels at a time. Understanding that efficient, safe, and secure maritime transportation is central to ensuring unimpeded trade and well as to safeguarding the United States from foreign threats, Admiral Ulrich challenged the Volpe Center—a component initiative of the U.S. Department of Transportation's Research and Innovative Technology Administration—to develop the technology to track vessel movement on the seas much more effectively.
Responding equally to the clear need and to Admiral Ulrich's appeal, Volpe Center staff built the Maritime Security and Safety Information System (MSSIS), an electronic repository of global traffic monitoring data amassed through the receipt of signals from: a) Automatic Identification System (AIS) transponders required on board commercial ships above a certain size, and designed to reduce collisions at sea; and, b) shoreside receivers positioned to collect AIS broadcasts. But, MSSIS is significant not only because of its effectiveness as a global traffic monitoring network, but because of the manner in which it was created and how it was applied. MSSIS is an outgrowth of two systems that were already in place—Transview, a real-time tracking and navigation system built for Panama Canal pilots; and, the Automatic Identification System, a vessel communications network operating on the Saint Lawrence Seaway. Building upon existing programs allowed Volpe Center staff to disprove industry experts who predicted that building a vessel traffic monitoring program would take years and would cost hundred of millions of dollars; MSSIS was built at low-cost in just one year. The existence of MSSIS, and the unclassified nature of the technology, also brought about an enhanced level of cooperation and trust among participating nations that work together to provide vessel monitoring data, cumulatively tracking tens of thousands of vessels in real-time. As of late 2007, over 30 nations participate in the MSSIS maritime data network.
Although the program remains in the early stages of development, the MSSIS system is poised to contribute significantly to efforts to combat piracy, terrorism, and smuggling (of humans, drugs, and weapons). In addition, it will help foster global economic stability by ensuring the secure global transfer of goods. The success of the MSSIS program is also increasingly regarding as a catalyst for promoting a greater willingness among nations to share resources and information in multilateral, unclassified exchange, and to participate in joint missions in order to enhance regional and global security.