2004 Plimsoll Awards won by Mississippi river pilot, Coast Guard R&D Center for support of AIS

The editors of Professional Mariner have presented the Plimsoll Awards for 2004 to Capt. Douglas J. Grubbs of the Crescent River Port Pilots’ Association and to the U.S. Coast Guard’s Research and Development Center in Groton, Conn. Grubbs and the R&D Center were honored for their work in developing automatic identification system technology and promoting its acceptance by mariners.

Rear Adm. Stephen Rochon (on the left) congratulates Douglas J. Grubbs of the Crescent River Port Pilots’ Association. Rochon, the Coast Guard’s director of personnel
   Image Credit: Brian Gauvin

The awards were presented during a dinner in New Orleans on Nov. 30. Grubbs was the winner of the individual award for outstanding service, and the R&D Center was the winner in the organization category. David Pietraszewski, the program area manager who directs the R&D Center’s work on AIS, accepted the award on behalf of the Coast Guard.

The accomplishments of the winners were judged to be in the tradition and spirit of Samuel Plimsoll, the member of British Parliament who, in the late 19th century, fought unsafe shipping practices. His efforts resulted in the maritime industry’s adoption of the load line marks that largely put an end to the unsafe overloading of cargo vessels.

AIS was conceived originally as an aid to navigation. By combining GPS and VHF radio technology, AIS transponders allow mariners to positively identify other vessels and track their maneuvers with a degree of certainty and precision that had not been possible. Some industry observers feel that AIS represents a dramatic step forward in ship safety comparable to the changes wrought by the introduction of radio, radar and GPS technology in the 20th century.

Walter Megonigal, director of training at the Maritime Institute of Training and Graduate Studies, observed that Grubbs had done great work in helping to convince other mariners of the benefits of AIS and the importance of embracing it. Mariners tend to be skeptical of new ways of doing things, Megonigal noted. But Grubbs won them over. According to Megonigal, he delivered a powerful and convincing message: “We need to embrace this. We can’t fight it. What we need to do is shape it.”

Perhaps the most graphic evidence of his success is on view at the Vessel Traffic Service run by the Coast Guard in the port of New Orleans. The operation is based on AIS technology, and at least one of the people on duty monitoring the river traffic is a licensed Mississippi River pilot.

Image Credit: Brian Gauvin

David J. Pietraszewski accepting a Plimsoll on behalf of the U.S. Coast Guard Research and Development Center.

If Grubbs was instrumental in getting mariners to accept AIS, Pietraszewski and the R&D Center demonstrated to mariners that the technology would work.

The R&D Center played a central role in developing the standards that made it possible for manufacturers to build equipment that would function properly on commercial vessels. Creation of the standards for AIS was a global undertaking achieved by the International Electrotechnical Commission.

“The AIS standard was done in an international forum,” explained Cmdr. David Tetreault, AIS program officer with the Maritime Domain Awareness Program Integration Office at Coast Guard headquarters in Washington. “The R&D Center took the lead not just for the Coast Guard but for the whole U.S.”

The R&D Center also had the job of making sure the equipment built to the international standards functioned properly in the unforgiving setting of a ship’s bridge in the middle of the ocean, or in a busy port or inland waterway. The R&D Center did simulations to make sure the AIS boxes on ships from all over the world would communicate properly with each other in every conceivable circumstance.

“It’s a thinking machine,” Pietraszewski said. “We wanted to confirm that what was being proposed actually worked.”

Thanks in no small measure to his efforts, AIS does work and is proving invaluable. It is helping to make navigation safer for vessels. The Coast Guard has adopted AIS as a crucial security tool for tracking vessels.

“It’s a revolution really,” Tetreault said of AIS. “We are only now scratching the surface of the benefits it will bring.”

By Professional Mariner Staff