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The automatic identification system (AIS) is an automatic tracking system that uses transponders on ships to locate them. There are also databases that provide information about the ship — size, type, owner, registration, etc.

I need real-time data, preferably for the River Thames or the English Channel. Failing that, Singapore, Hong Kong or any major European (preferably German) river or port. Does anyone know of a free API to access any of this data?

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The Norwegian Coastal Administration have an open AIS stream available, licensed under the Norwegian Licence for Open Government Data (NLOD) 2.0.

It's a TCP endpoint that you can access with a tool such as nc and pipe through a decoder like gpsdecode:

nc 153.44.253.27 5631|gpsdecode                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    130 ↵
{"class":"AIS","device":"stdin","type":3,"repeat":0,"mmsi":258201500,"scaled":true,"status":5,"status_text":"Moored","turn":"nan","speed":0.0,"accuracy":true,"lon":16.548040,"lat":68.798587,"course":360.0,"heading":511,"second":48,"maneuver":0,"raim":true,"radio":40442}
{"class":"AIS","device":"stdin","type":1,"repeat":0,"mmsi":257078370,"scaled":true,"status":0,"status_text":"Under way using engine","turn":"fastright","speed":3.8,"accuracy":true,"lon":6.019022,"lat":60.055675,"course":137.0,"heading":166,"second":47,"maneuver":0,"raim":false,"radio":23112}
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AIS data for the USA is available from https://marinecadastre.gov/ais/.

I don't know about an API, but the site offers a variety of Arc Python-based tools that may lead you to a solution.

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    Thanks and upvote.Whiel it's not live, so no use to me, it could be of great use to anyone who wants a mouton of historical data. "The data available below contain records for U.S. coastal waters for calendar years 2009 through 2017. Records are filtered to one minute" BUT "Ship name and call sign fields have been removed, and the MMSI (Maritime Mobile Service Identity) field has been encrypted for the 2010 through 2014 data" Still very useful, though Jun 2 '19 at 11:19
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I cannot find anything free. if you want it enough, then you can join AIS hub, BUT they require that you provide a feed before you can share the feeds of all other members.

The cheapest AIS receiver that I can find costs about $60, plus antenna.

If it's worth it, only you can decide.

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