Automatic Identification System receiver for GR

Hi all,

Just wanted to let you know I’ve committed the first version of the AIS
receiver I wrote to CGRAN. The project home page is at It’s still under development, but the
current version is more than serviceable. The project can be checked out
from CGRAN’s repository via:

svn co

I’m currently building this project against the latest svn build of GR.
Earlier builds probably work but I can’t vouch for them.

Below is the README, if you’re interested. If you do use the program,
please let me know how it goes! Comments, suggestions, feedback are all


The basics

This module implements an AIS receiver for GnuRadio. AIS is the
Automatic Identification System, a protocol designed to facilitate
safety at sea by broadcasting ship data such as speed, heading, rate of
turn, tonnage, draft, ship name, destination, etc. Ships of more than 65
feet in length or 150 tons in weight are required by Federal law to
utilize an AIS transceiver, so in densely-populated ports you will
receive quite a bit of traffic. The system uses VHF channels and is thus
mostly line-of-sight.

The module outputs processed NMEA 0183 frames, designed to interface
with any standard NMEA receiver. For a free Linux implementation, see
ESR’s gpsd program (, specifically the program included with the gpsd distribution. The output of can be
further parsed, to KML for instance, for a map implementation. If I had
the first idea how to work the Google Maps API, I might try it myself.
If you’re into that sort of thing, please, pick up the baton, I’d really
like to have a map interface. =)

The installation

sudo make install

The use

cd src/python
./ -R B -g 55 -e -2e3

The -e option is the only tricky bit, and specifies an error offset
specific to your USRP, since I haven’t implemented carrier
synchronization yet. -2e3 means my USRP actually tunes 161.998MHz when
I tune it to 162.000MHz, and so the USRP will tune accordingly to
correct the offset. The offset will vary over time and temperature. Play
with this setting for best results; you’ll have to be within 1-2 kHz to
get the best possible decoding. Also, I added a 162MHz front-end filter
to my setup because I live like a mile from Sutro Tower and without the
filter the less-than-selective TVRX would probably self-immolate.

You can also use a -F option to make the decoder receive
recorded data. The -e and -g options are not used in this mode, but
decimation can still be specified here.

Technical details

AIS is a GMSK modulated packet broadcast at 9600bps on two channels: the
A channel is 161.975MHz, and the B channel is 162.025MHz. The packets
contain either 168 or 440 bits of information and are prefaced with a
preamble and suffixed with a checksum. Packets are bit-stuffed to ensure
timely bit transitions for clock recovery, and NRZI-encoded.

The receiver uses a quadrature demodulator followed by a low-pass filter
to demodulate the signal. The demodulated signal is passed to a M&M
clock recovery module. From there, a modified decision-feedback
estimator attempts to correct ISI caused by GMSK modulation and channel
distortion. The DFE is based on the gr.lms_dfe block included in GR, but
with a reset input designed to accept a correlator output which is keyed
to the training sequence. The DFE then resets its taps and runs through
the first 150 bits of the packet 12 times, training the DFE for the
channel. It then runs through the packet with the trained taps and
outputs the ISI-corrected soft data, which then gets sliced. The sliced
data is differentially-decoded and inverted to decode the NRZI encoding.
The decoded data gets un-bitstuffed, framed, checksummed, and parsed to
NMEA frames.

Two receivers are instantiated in, one for each channel,
by tuning the receiver to the center of both channels (162.000MHz) and
using frequency-xlating filters to shift either channel to baseband.

Future improvements

I’m sort of an idiot, so some of the coefficients (specifically in the
DFE) are optimized by hand based on recorded data. If you’re really
bright and would like to mathematically determine more proper
coefficients for the various blocks, please, be my guest.

In addition, there is no carrier recovery in this version. Future
versions should use a PLL or something to make sure the demodulated
signal lies at baseband. The system as it stands is rather sensitive to
carrier offset, so the user has to specify an error offset using the -e
option in order to precisely center the demodulated signal. I’ll work on
this. If you know how this should be implemented, feel free to let me
know. I can’t seem to get a PLL tuned to play nice with the demodulator.

If you’re really good at this sort of thing, the optimal receiver for
GMSK is a coherent demodulator using the Viterbi algorithm on a combined
trellis. The gr-trellis module by Achilleas Anastasopolous includes
basically everything necessary to do this except carrier
synchronization. I personally can’t figure it out to save my life. If
you wanted to extend gr-trellis to include carrier synchronization, I’d
be a big fan, or if you were interested in patiently holding my hand to
teach me how to do this I’d be even happier. Actually, even using the
quadrature demodulator to feed a Viterbi equalizer using gr-trellis
should get you 1-2 dB of coding gain over the decision-feedback
equalizer currently used. Again, I can’t figure out how to make that
work within this framework.

On Mon, Jul 27, 2009 at 15:33, Nick F.[email protected] wrote:

Just wanted to let you know I’ve committed the first version of the AIS
receiver I wrote to CGRAN. The project home page is at

Excellent! AIS is fascinating in that it uses self-organized TDMA.
Without central coordination, stations will negotiate for broadcast
time slots, and the effective “cell size” automatically adjusts based
on the FM capture properties of GMSK. It’s like a peer-to-peer ad-hoc
MAC protocol and works very well in the maritime environment.

I know your application is receive only, and doesn’t need to deal with
any of this, but I’ve often considered it would be an interesting
experiment to try to replicate this SOTDMA MAC in our digital packet
radio, to replace the crude CSMA MAC we have now. Unfortunately, the
lack of timed TX/RX and message passing in GNU Radio makes this
difficult, but of course thats what we’re working on now for 3.3.