Date of Award

Spring 1-1-2013

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Aerospace Engineering Sciences

First Advisor

Robert Leben

Second Advisor

William Emery

Third Advisor

Karl Gustafson

Fourth Advisor

Weiqing Han

Fifth Advisor

Jack Harlan


Ship drift is a technique that has been used over the last century and a half to estimate ocean currents. Several of the shortcomings of the ship drift technique include obtaining the data from multiple ships, the time delay in getting those ship positions to a data center for processing and the limited resolution based on the amount of time between position measurements. These shortcomings can be overcome through the use of the Automatic Identification System (AIS). AIS enables more precise ocean current estimates, the option of finer resolution and more timely estimates.

In this work, a demonstration of the use of AIS to compute ocean currents is performed. A corresponding error and sensitivity analysis is performed to help identify under which conditions errors will be smaller. A case study in San Francisco Bay with constant AIS message updates was compared against high frequency radar and demonstrated ocean current magnitude residuals of 19 cm/s for ship tracks in a high signal to noise environment. These ship tracks were only minutes long compared to the normally 12 to 24 hour ship tracks. The Gulf of Mexico case study demonstrated the ability to estimate ocean currents over longer baselines and identified the dependency of the estimates on the accuracy of time measurements. Ultimately, AIS measurements when combined with ship drift can provide another method of estimating ocean currents, particularly when other measurements techniques are not available.