From Twain to high-tech, Part 1

Tracking conditions on inland waterways


This week and next The Mic is going to do things a bit differently. We want to tell you about a topic that will be unfamiliar to most coastal boaters---namely how innovative new electronics are helping vessels on our rivers stay safe. Avoiding collisions and ever-changing shoal water areas has been a goal of captains and pilots going back to the days of Mark Twain and beyond. His “Life on the Mississippi,” published in 1893, tells the story of his time as a steamboat pilot on the great river. No doubt he'd be impressed at the innovations that have occurred since then.


By Brian Tetreault

In “Life on the Mississippi,” Twain recounts how river pilots gathered vast amounts of information through years of observation, apprenticeship under experts, and hard experience. They also continually updated their knowledge. Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 15, The Pilots’ Monopoly:

 “At every good-sized town [there was] placed a strong box fastened with a peculiar lock . . . Every association man carried a key which would open these boxes.” [In the box were reports filled out by pilots as they traveled up and down the river.]

 “The pilot who deposited that blank in the Cairo box (after adding to it the details of every crossing all the way down from St. Louis) took out and read half a dozen fresh reports (from upward-bound steamers) concerning the river between Cairo and Memphis, posted himself thoroughly, returned them to the box, and went back aboard his boat again so armed against accident that he could not possibly get his boat into trouble without bringing the most ingenious carelessness to his aid.

“If the reports in the last box chanced to leave any misgivings on his mind concerning a treacherous crossing, he had his remedy; he blew his steam-whistle in a peculiar way as soon as he saw a boat approaching; the signal was answered in a peculiar way if that boat’s pilots were association men; and then the two steamers ranged alongside and all uncertainties were swept away by fresh information furnished to the inquirer by word of mouth and in minute detail.”


Safer today but still hazardous

These river pilots were limited to rudimentary means of communication, but communicate they did as Twain recounts—by exchanging closely held pilots association river logs, “speaking” passing vessels, and swapping stories in river town taverns between voyages. They would also use various signals and indicators to help them navigate—the alignment of riverside objects, the way a current tailed off a submerged object—these would provide them with information about the hazards that lay ahead and under the water.

Nowadays, with the rivers greatly modified by the hand of man, they are much safer to navigate, but still hold many hazards, particularly given the size of tows navigating the rivers. Communications and navigation technology have also vastly improved and expanded and there is now a plethora of means to communicate information to river pilots and from vessels to shoreside entities. This article will provide a brief overview of these advances and highlight the role a robust framework of standards has contributed to this evolution, which continues to this day.


Evolution of navigation technology

Fundamental information about the river is captured in depictions of it: charts, or on inland waterways in the US, chart books. These have been produced by the US Army Corps of Engineers for decades from information gathered and placed into charts by the various Corps Districts that have responsibility for different areas of the rivers. Paper chart books have a wealth of information, not only of the hydrographic layout of the rivers, but also structures in and abutting the waterway such as bridges, locks, and moorings. However, chart books are expensive to produce and update and do not share a consistent format. Since the late 1990s, the Corps has been producing Inland Electronic Navigation Charts (IENC). IENCs are produced to a common, international standard that is well documented and compatible with ENCs used worldwide.

IENCs are usually used with Electronic Charting Systems (ECS), though they are also generally compatible with the more sophisticated Electronic Chart Display and Information System (ECDIS). ECS allows river pilots to view IENCs, plot their position (via interface with GPS), and overlay other information, such as Automatic Identification Systems (AIS) and radar information.


Better systems, sensors & communication

In addition to the evolution of charts from paper chart books to IENCs, other areas of navigation information technology have progressed as well:

There are improved systems to gather and disseminate navigation information on the rivers, including the Lock Performance Monitoring System (LPMS) and Lock Operations Management Application (LOMA). LPMS collects information about lock operations, including statistical information on vessel lockages, cargoes and commodities, tow configuration, lock delays, and other information critical to lock operations and long-term infrastructure investment. LOMA leverages AIS to track vessels operating near locks in real time, allowing lock operators to manage lock traffic more efficiently. It can also be used to transmit navigation information to vessels using AIS—more on that later.

Sensors for gathering critical navigation information have improved, including automatic, high-accuracy sensors for weather observations, water levels, bridge clearance, and river currents.

Communications have advanced beyond visual signals and voice radio. Of course, these are still critical for ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore communications, but advances in digital communication have increased the amount and quality of information that can be exchanged. In particular, AIS has made it very easy for vessels to communicate their position, course, speed and other navigationally critical information to other vessels, aiding in the reduction of collision risk. AIS also allows shoreside authorities to track vessels for real-time (e.g., lock operators using LOMA to plan lockages) and strategic use (e.g., analysis of vessel transit history to determine chart sailing line placement).


Next: the importance of AIS and ASMs—Application-Specific Messages


About the author

Brian Tetreault is Navigation Systems Specialist at the US Army Corps of Engineer Research and Development Center.


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