ShipTracker: Near Real-Time Mapping of Ship Locations and Sensor Data

Tiffany Vance, Jason Fabritz and Dennis Shields
NOAA/Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory
Seattle, Washington
NOAA/Office of Marine and Aircraft Operations
Silver Spring, Maryland


This Web site ( ) provides graphical plots illustrating the current location of various ships in the NOAA fleet and the latest detailed weather and ocean conditions received from each ship. The site utilizes ArcIMS to generate the maps displayed on the site in near real time. Messages are sent automatically by the Shipboard Computer System (SCS) on NOAA vessels. The messages reach a server at PMEL through e-mail. From there, these messages are processed and the data are uploaded into a central database. Periodically the process examines the database for new information and regenerates the images displayed on the Web site as appropriate. The ships' locations are presented on an acetate layer overlaying an image service showing bathymetric and topographic data.  The service was implemented using Java.  It communicates with the ArcIMS map service through HTTP requests written in Extensible Markup Language (XML). The Web site itself is a combination of static HTML pages, images updated by the map service, and JavaServer Pages (JSP) for the interactive portions of the site.


        NOAA maintains a fleet of research vessels in both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.  These vessels conduct a variety of types of research and are used by multiple projects.  Knowing where the vessels are working and the environmental conditions they are experiencing is vital both for the scientists using the vessels and for the family and friends of the ships' crews.  Creation of an ArcIMS based web site allows for the display of scientific data and general information about the ships' locations and working conditions.  This project required development of tools to get near real-time display of tracked items (in this case a ship) into a GIS to allow for display, analysis and rapid generation of web pages. The methods developed for the ShipTracker pages are being applied to other tracked entities - such as marine buoys and instrumented marine mammals.
        The ShipTracker page ( displays the location of all of the ships in the fleet and allows a user to select a specific ship by name or an area of the ocean by latitude/longitude.  The user can also click on the map to select a ship and be taken to the ship-specific page.

Screenshot of the main ShipTracker page

         The summary page for a specific ship shows a detailed map of the ship's location and recent trackline.  The width and color of the trackline decreases with older obervations, making it easy to see where the ship has been.  The page also displays a summary of the current environmental conditions as measured by the ship's instruments.  This summary can be changed depending on the needs of the research project currently using the ship.  Project specific data could also be added to the data stream sent in by the ship.

Example of the web page for a specific ship.  Shows a map of the ships location and trackline and a table of recent environmnetal conditions such as air and water temperature and wind speed.

Shipboard computing

         The Scientific Computer System (SCS) software was developed by OMAO specifically for the NOAA fleet. SCS is a data acquisition and processing system designed for oceanographic and fisheries applications.  SCS is networked throughout the ship and is capable of sending data displays to remote stations (SCS NT Client) on the ship.  In addition, ASCII data strings can be sent via RS-232 cable or over the Ethernet.  SCS can be configured to generate a “current conditions” message giving values of selected sensors at a user-selected interval.  SCS data are sent to shore in an email message.  The ship transmits email to shore two or three times a day via Inmarsat or Cell phone.  Mail is packaged up and sent as a single file and the messages are unpacked on shore and transmitted to addressees.  Another standard system, SEAS, provides a backup system for delivering data about current conditions.

Diagram of the data delivery system

Shore-based processing

          Once the "current conditions" data are transmitted to shore they are added to a MySQL database configured for storage of data from ships.  The database is housed on a UNIX machine.  MySQL was chosen for its ease of configuration and the fact that the database is free. Duplicate and spurious entries are detected in the loading process.  Configuration parameters for the image service are also stored here and there is a Java-based GUI front-end for administration.

Snapshot of the server administration GUI

Internet Map Server

        For generating the maps in the web pages we rely on ArcIMS3.1 running on a UNIX box.  The base maps of the image service are generated from topography/bathymetry data stored as shapefiles  Ship locations are added as an acetate overlay with the sizing of the maps based on the location of the ships.  Use of the acetate layer allowed us to generate a dynamic view that could be easily updated each time a ship reported new position information.  XML and ArcXML are used for creation and return of map images and the images are regenerated each time new data are received.  Images created include an overview image and ship specific zoomed-in images.  The administration tools are used to set update frequency, file storage locations etc.  The server administration  is also Java-based and is similar to the GUI front-end for database configuration.  The web server and web pages are a 2-tier system which connects to the MySQL database to retrieve ship observations.  The web page selects the ship for display based on user input.  The web pages are hosted on an Apache Tomcat server and the pages themselves are a mixture of JSP pages, static HTML pages and images created by the Map Server.


        Planned enhancements to ShipTracker include the ability to select the time period for the display of historical data, the ability to zoom the area displayed and to add features such as the ship's expected trackline (from a shapefile).  We are also looking at using the database and display tools we have developed to provide real-time maps of the location of tagged marine mammals and also to display data from moored and drifting buoys.


Many individuals have contributed ideas, effort and data to this project. They include the various electronics technicians onboard the ships who have kept the daily reports arriving, Nazila Merati for web page design advice/technical support and OMAO management for continuing support of the project.  Everyone's contributions have been vital to the project.

This project has been funded in part by a grant from the NOAA High Performance Computing and Communication - Visualization Initiative (


For more information about the Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, please visit the PMEL home page at

For more information about the NOAA Fleet and the Office of Marine and Aircraft Operations, please visit the OMAO homepage at

Primary Author Information

Tiffany C. Vance, Computer Specialist
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Formerly with: Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory
Now with: Alaska Fisheries Science Center
7600 Sand Point Way NE
Seattle, Washington  98115
Telephone: 206-526-6767