Navigating by instruments: Towboats testing aviation technology to navigate locks

As the tug D.L. Johnson approached a lock on the Ohio River, Peter Stephaich, head of Campbell Transportation Co., which owns the tug, broke the silence in the pilothouse, “It ain’t rocket science, but it sure is tricky.”

Stephaich, the chairman and chief executive at Campbell, was one of eight people crammed into the small pilothouse one recent winter morning to watch as Bob Shingler maneuvered the 80-foot tug and two barges up the Ohio toward the Emsworth Lock in Pittsburgh. While Shingler may have felt all eyes were on him, most glances darted back and forth between the small computer to his left and the scene unfolding ahead of him. The computer occupied a space on the console about as large as a small pizza box. The image on the screen displayed a prototype technology with the potential to transform the way tugs and barges navigate through locks.

Called the SmartLock system, it is designed to increase efficiency by enabling tug and tow operators to pass through locks on instrumentation alone, thereby decreasing or eliminating delays because of fog and other bad weather. SmartLock transmits a GPS signal from an antenna on a tripod at the lock to two disc-shaped antennas spaced about 20 feet apart on the tug.

The SmartLock computer in the pilothouse interprets the signal to convey a bird’s-eye view of the tug and tow as they approach the lock. In this case, the image on the left of the screen illustrated an electronic chart of the river with the tug and tow appearing at the bottom of the screen and the lock appearing at the top. Between them were two purple guidelines designed to indicate how well the tug was aligned with the lock opening ahead. A small green box also appeared and displayed the distance in feet between the tug and the guide wall at the lock entrance. It can also display information on conditions at the lock like current, wind speed, debris, etc.

Shingler, who had been using the system for the past several months, said he was skeptical at first, but had come to appreciate the technology.

“It’s good for training new, green guys who aren’t as good at calling out distances,” he said over his shoulder, “because you can check their distances with the computer system.”

SmartLock was like having a second set of eyes onboard, Shingler said.

“It’s another tool in the tool box,” he said. “It’s another tool to increase situational awareness.”

Among the folks onboard during this demonstration was Jim McCarville, executive director of the Port of Pittsburgh Commission. This new technology could have dramatic implications for his port.

Each year nearly 50 million tons of cargo — 80 percent of it coal — passes through Pittsburgh, located where the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers join to form the Ohio. To reach the Port of Pittsburgh, vessels need to pass through as many as 20 different locks.

McCarville is excited about the SmartLock system and believes it could be the most important technological advance to find its way into pilothouses since radar.

About five years ago, McCarville and the Port of Pittsburgh Commission surveyed merchant mariners up and down the inland river systems and asked which problems they encountered might be solved by technology. He and his staff assembled a list of about 11 topics, narrowed it down and then called up two professors at Carnegie Mellon University, who signed on five graduate students to tackle the problem. One question they asked was: What technology already in use in other industries could be adapted to the maritime industry?

Before long, it became clear that the Boeing technology that allows airliners to land on instrumentation alone might be applied to the marine industry to help ease the bottlenecks that occur within the locks.

“But this system is more precise than in aviation because in a lock, you have a lot less clearance than on a runway,” McCarville said.

The graduate students created a design; the Port of Pittsburgh patented it, and then contracted with Concept 2 Solution to take the students’ prototype and adapt it into something workable. This is when Jeppesen, a Boeing company, joined in with its expertise in flying airplanes on instruments alone.

McCarville said there will be a tremendous payback in making it safer to navigate the inland waterways. Nine out of 10 companies won’t run in the fog. This delay costs time and money that affects everyone who relies on the waterway system.

On the Ohio, fog season usually lasts for about three months in autumn. Shingler said he won’t enter a lock if he doesn’t have more than 50 feet of visibility.

SmartLock, however, displays the exact location of the tug and tow, as well as the shallow parts of the river.

“Even the guys who know it’s there don’t have any other way of seeing it,” Shingler explained, “but it appears on the SmartLock system.”

Nobeltec, an electronic chart company working with Jeppesen, resurveyed the whole area as it developed the digital charts instead of relying on old Army Corps of Engineers maps.

Earlier, as Shingler was bringing D.L. Johnson alongside the riverbank to pick up the barges, he paused to build the tow on the computer. With a few clicks of the mouse, he was able to enter in his own data — an 80-foot tug with “two jumbo covered empties, breasted up.” One barge was 200 feet long; the other was 195 feet. A computer image then showed his tug and barges, one appearing longer than the other on the screen.

“A touch pad feature would be good,” one of the onlookers said as Shingler finished entering his data.

“It’s capable,” came a reply, “and coming.”

As the tug and barges approached the lock, Stephaich noted that there were no transmitters on the barges yet, but adding them would increase accuracy. It would also allow the deck hand to step back a bit. Right now, it’s very dangerous to stand at the tip of the tow, which is often not in the view of the captain.

As if on cue, the VHF crackled in the pilothouse. The deck hand, perched on the bow out of view, estimated the tug and tow were about 800 feet to the guide wall of the lock.

All eyes darted to the SmartLock screen, which had picked up the signal from the lock at a distance of a mile away. It now read 750 feet. A few minutes later, the mate announced, “125 feet.” SmartLock read 163 feet.

“Once we make the guide wall,” Shingler explained, “it’ll calculate the distance to the bull nose (of the lock opening) and then to the farthest gate.”

Minutes later, Shingler eased the barge alongside the guide wall. His mate announced he was within four feet of the wall. SmartLock displayed six feet.

The mate said he had 650 feet to the lock. SmartLock read 652.

“He’s pretty accurate on that one,” said another onlooker inside the pilothouse.

The exchange continued as the mate called off distances. Inside the wheelhouse, the gathered group of industry representatives watched the SmartLock display. Often the mate was right, but often he was off by a bit. It became clear that with SmartLock, there was no estimating.

McCarville said SmartLock is accurate to within one foot. He is so confident in the system that a few weeks earlier, the port hosted a visit from the assistant secretary of the Army. During that demonstration, the windows of the tug were covered up and the crew entered the lock totally blind.

While the system as it appears now is eye-catching, it is still a work in progress. McCarville said he would like to see a system that allowed boats equipped with SmartLock to broadcast real-time data on conditions for other boats in the system to receive. This information — about currents, any obstructions, weather, traffic —would enable these boats to travel more safely and efficiently.

And, of course, all of this technology is not without an equally impressive price tag. To achieve practical benefits, the transmitters would have to be installed on all the locks —something the Army Corps of Engineers would have to buy into —and fleets of boats would have to buy the onboard equipment.

McCarville estimated it would cost about $50,000 to equip each lock and about $25,000 per boat. Jeppesen believes that the actual costs will turn out to be much lower because of alternate technology it is developing.

As Shingler waited for the lock gate to open, those who had come to see the technology seemed intrigued. There was general agreement that the cost of the equipment might be justified by the accidents it might prevent.

“How many casualties happen near and around locks?” McCarville asked. “If you hit a gate, it would cost millions to repair, and it could shut down the lock portion of the river for several days or weeks.”

And there is also the savings to be gained by avoiding delays. As McCarville observed, it sure is tricky pushing a string of six barges through a lock built in the 1930s, but SmartLock makes the process much more precise.

“Yes, it still requires a lot of finesse,” McCarville said, “but SmartLock eliminates a lot of the guesswork.”

By Professional Mariner Staff