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My Coast Guard
Commentary | June 6, 2024

Coast Guard Auxiliary creates time-saving app to verify Private Aids to Navigation (PATON)

By Kathy Murray, MyCG Senior Writer

Private Aids to Navigation (PATON) account for the majority of lights, buoys, and other markers that guide traffic in U.S. waterways. But making sure they’re working, and located where they’re supposed to be, has always been a time-consuming job. 

Now, a new app, created by an auxiliarist and developed in conjunction with the Coast Guard’s Research and Development Center (RDC), is poised to change that. 

The Aid Verification Assistant, or AVA, turns a multi-step process that relies on handwritten notes and typed forms into a series of tasks the verifier can complete on an iPhone or iPad in minutes.  In doing so, it captures all the necessary information—including GPS readings and annotated photos—in one place, reducing manual errors and increasing confidence in the data. 

“AVA really automates the PATON verification process from start to finish,” said James Spilsbury, Project Manager with the Coast Guard’s RDC.  “In a matter of minutes now, as opposed to hours, an auxiliarist is able to produce a high quality and accurate report.” 

Why this is a big deal 

The Coast Guard administers 41,000 PATON nationwide, and that number is only expected to increase as the Marine Transportation System (MTS) continues to evolve. PATON use has expanded to include restricting space launch zones and marking offshore wind turbines. Private electronic ATON, in particular, are expected to proliferate over the next decade, according to R. David Lewald, program manager of the Coast Guard’s Office of Navigation Systems.  

This makes it critical to ensure that PATON data is correctly recorded and charted. “The emerging digital nautical world requires authoritative databases be accurate,” Lewald said. “[This app] is the first step to take PATON verification out of the filing cabinet and into the digitized world.” 

Help from the field 

Inspecting PATON is such a big job that Coast Guard active-duty personnel rely on the Auxiliary for assistance with verification reports. So, it’s not surprising that a couple auxiliarists came up with the idea for the app. 

Clint O’Connor, a tech entrepreneur and retired Dell engineer, joined the Auxiliary in District 7 in 2017. He says he was struck by the inefficiency of the PATON inspection process right from the start. 

O’Connor still remembers standing in his boat, juggling a clipboard and trying to keep a sheaf of Light List pages from blowing away while he compared GPS coordinates to identify each aid, wrote down the necessary information, and took a photo. A couple of PATON were missing dayboards that day, which meant tracking down the numbers separately. This was tricky since the channel was uncharted. After he got home, O’Connor had to copy all the information he’d noted onto a separate form for the Coast Guard, collate it with the photos, and then send it off.  

“It took about two hours with each one,” he said. “My reaction was, ‘this is insane.’ “ 

O’Connor started thinking about an app that very day, one that would have the Light List and other information already loaded onto an iPhone to locate each aid. He’d also use the phone for GPS information and to take a photo. “I just needed to figure out how to program it,” he said. 

On Long Island, then-Auxiliary Commodore Vincent Pica II had a similar reaction to the process. An investor from New York, Pica had joined the Coast Guard shortly after losing four friends and colleagues on 9/11. But coming from the financial world, he was unprepared for the endless paperwork of PATON verification. Since District 1 relied on the proprietary “Harbormaster” system, a web-based form application for its PATON data, his idea was to put this information on a laptop or tablet to reduce both workloads and errors. “I wanted to capture all the data electronically and then upload it,” he said. This way, verifiers would no longer have to print out and carry reams of paper with them or copy data they’d handwritten in the field into Coast Guard forms. 

How it all came together 

O’Connor and Pica each submitted information about the apps they’d created to the Research, Development, Test & Evaluation program to develop a mobile app solution for PATON verification reporting. The two men didn’t meet until their ideas were combined to form the basis of a new RDC project to create a PATON app for the service. That happened thanks to an Auxiliary RDC Unit that was set up five years ago to tap into the unique skills auxiliarists bring to the Coast Guard. The unit had previously provided support for projects involving cybersecurity and satellite technology. 

“We’re essentially taking the skills of people in their day jobs and what they’re educated for and using it in the Coast Guard,” said Bruce Buckley, Aux RDC Unit coordinator.  

The PATON app project marks the first collaboration between the Auxiliary and the RDC to develop and roll out a new technology to the service. In the end, RDC researchers chose to build on O’Connor’s app because it was portable and a fairly well-developed prototype, although they included several features from Pica’s app. They called it AVA for Aid Verification Assistant and made improvements, including adding a nautical chart overlay, and a new Coast Guard database source file which also lists nonpublic PATON data. The next step after rollout is to figure out how to upload the data automatically to the U.S. Aids to Navigation Information system (USAIMS).    

Capt. Michael Chien, who runs the RDC, says the impact of the Auxiliary on Coast Guard research has been profound.   

“The words ‘force multiplier’ do not even begin the convey what the Auxiliary has done for the RDC,” said Chien. “We’re beyond grateful to them and their amazing skill sets which we use in every single one of our branches.” 


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