New navigation software gives mariners the info they need to operate safely

As tugboat McAllister Sisters escorted the undocked containership APL Arabia down Newark Bay, Capt. Randy Wansley looked ahead toward Kill Van Kull.

About all Wansley could see were overcast skies, fog and a snow squall. He couldn’t see around the bend to identify incoming vessel traffic headed toward the Bayonne Bridge.

Capt. Randy Wansley, at the helm of McAllister Sisters, maneuvers around Port Newark with the help of his laptop-based Rose Point ECS system. (Dom Yanchunas)

In the old days, pilots hoped that radio warnings would help them avoid congestion at the bridge as they prepared to make their turn to port. On this gray December day, however, Wansley glanced at his wheelhouse laptop computer, which was equipped with Rose Point ECS electronic charting software.

The computer program, which taps into Automatic Identification System (AIS) data, showed Wansley each commercial vessel in the vicinity with heading, speed and even its name.

“There’s barge traffic, high (tug)boat traffic and containerships coming through. It gets real busy. It’s crazy sometimes,” Wansley said as he checked his laptop. “You’ve got people who don’t make security calls or can’t hear their radio. This helps a lot. You’ve got a lot of useful stuff at the click of a button.”

Navigation-electronics developers such as Rose Point have recently introduced upgraded software programs with highly integrated, customizable presentations of charts and traffic data. Although previous systems tapped into AIS and gave vessel positioning information, the newer software is more user-friendly for the mariner in the wheelhouse.

“They’re a really, really good tool to have for situational awareness,” said Capt. Paul Amos, president of the Columbia River Pilots Association, which has developed its own integrated laptop system. “It gives us a vessel traffic system that is on the bridge of the ship. You put the information right in the hands of the decision-maker.”

A Jeppesen Workboat Navigator display showing the entrance to New York Harbor. This system allows a pilot to view all the AIS targets in the vicinity and helps to compute the best routes and meeting points. (Courtesy Jeppesen Marine)

Another similar system is the Jeppesen Workboat Navigator offered by Jeppesen Marine. That software was first marketed to mariners on the inland waterways, but is now being deployed in coastal vessels, said Joel Meltzner, program manager with Jeppesen Marine, based in Englewood, Colo.

Jeppesen Workboat Navigator provides detailed vector-based digital charts, location data, Notices to Mariners and even input from other onboard sources such as GPS, radar, AIS, heading sensors and cameras. Charts and notices are updated weekly.

A feature called River ETA assists the mariner with arrival times and predicting passing locations.

“This is really geared at safety and situational awareness,” Meltzner said. “The intent here is really to develop a system that takes in all these various disparate data sources and integrate it on an on-screen display. … Our goal was really to get the captains to focus on piloting instead of trying to find their way through all the data sets. We make it easy.”

In 2008, Jeppesen Workboat Navigator has been deployed in vessels for operators including Excell Marine, Tidewater Barge Lines and Magnolia Marine Transport.

Rose Point Navigation Systems, based in Redmond, Wash., introduced Rose Point ECS about a year ago. It is designed to help the mariner improve operational efficiency, plan voyages, predict courses and passing points and overlay charts and sensors.

McAllister Towing and Transportation Co. acquired the system for 16 of its New York Harbor-based tugboats, said McAllister’s port captain, Pat Kinnier. The software is installed on portable IBM ThinkPad laptop computers.

The Columbia River Pilots developed their own system called TransView 32. The computer display, shown here aboard a containership being guided up the Columbia River, incorporates regular updates of Army Corps of Engineers bottom surveys – crucial data on a winding, shifting channel. (Alan Haig-Brown)

“After looking at other systems, Rose Point was the most user-friendly,” Kinnier said. “It also has excellent graphics and chart display. The reason behind the investment is to provide our crews with the best possible navigation tools.”

Aboard the 4,000-hp McAllister Sisters, Wansley said the laptop software is a godsend near the Bayonne Bridge and in the East River, where strong currents make it necessary to avoid other vessels as much and as early as possible.

“It’s good in restricted visibility, like when it’s raining and your radar is picking up a bunch of different targets,” Wansley said. “Or if you want to know the name of the vessel. It pulls all its information up on the side. You can see who he is and his course and speed and where he’s going, and if you want to call him, you can call him by name.”

Older software may have almost as much information available for display, but Rose Point ECS organizes it in a way that is much simpler for the mariner to find. When a user clicks on a choice, the information is often displayed in a box alongside the chart. That means it can display several types of data on the screen simultaneously without blocking other aspects of the chart.

Therefore, the master is able to click and glance at the laptop very briefly while continuing to face forward, without struggling with the computer. Nor does he need to stare at the chart table behind him as often.

“It makes it a lot nicer to not have to turn around to get a fix of where you are on the river,” Wansley said. “Plus, you’ve got all the other boats on there. On the paper charts, you don’t get the perspective of where you are compared to where they are.”

In March 2008, Furuno USA Inc. began selling NavNet 3D. The Camas, Wash.-based company says its product is the first bridge-navigation system that fully integrates electronic navigation charts, radar, AIS and satellite photographs so the mariner can use all of the tools simultaneously to view the shipping channel in three dimensions.

“This changes the perspective, and it kind of mimics what you see if you look out the window, (but) you can actually see much farther ahead of you,” said Jeff Kauzlaric, a Furuno spokesman. “In addition to being able to see the depth contour, there’s an overlay called ‘Draft Shading’ that lets you color it, so you don’t even have to look at the (depth) numbers.”

Kauzlaric said NavNet 3D is the first system that integrates Internet Protocol cameras. A software version of NavNet 3D for laptops is scheduled to debut in mid-2009.

“Furuno’s NavNet 3D system has broken the barriers in many aspects of electronic navigation. With innovative 3D charts, radar and variety of components, NavNet 3D has the potential to change the way professional workboat captains do their jobs,” Kauzlaric said.

The Columbia River Pilots recognized about 10 years ago that they would benefit from specialized navigation software to help them guide vessels on a curvy river with constant bottom changes and dangerous currents. Eventually, they developed their own product called TransView 32.

The project began with a visit to their counterparts on the Panama Canal. The canal pilots already had their own computerized vessel-monitoring system. The Columbia River Pilots then worked together with the John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center in Cambridge, Mass., to develop a computer program for use on their river. Amos said the ability to predict passing points on the winding waterway was the original priority.

“We wanted a program that gave us heading so we could monitor all the traffic, so we could take earlier and smaller actions instead of later actions where we would have great reductions in speed, and not have to come to a dead stop at a bend, waiting for the other vessel to pass,” Amos said.

TransView 32 incorporated real-time AIS data to provide a “meeting locator” that estimated passing points with other vessels. On the laptop chart, a red line follows the contour of the 40-foot-deep channel so the pilot knows where the navigable water is.

Eventually, the Columbia River Pilots added other useful features to TransView 32, also known as TV32. About five years ago, the system became the first laptop-based software to provide mariners with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ regular bottom surveys, which the pilots are able to download within just a few days of the actual soundings.

A similar AIS-based system developed by the Volpe center has since been deployed on the St. Lawrence Seaway. Amos said more pilot associations have become interested in standardized computer-navigation software as a result of the Cosco Busan oil spill in 2007. Audio recordings of bridge conversations show that the San Francisco bar pilot had trouble understanding the images on Cosco Busan’s radar and electronic chart in the moments before the ship struck a bridge tower.

“It does give us a chance to have something we know, and it is independent of the ship’s system in case something on the ship fails,” Amos said of the laptops. “It’s not a silver bullet. It’s a tool that we can use to check other equipment” on the bridge.

In addition to the safety benefits, Jeppesen promotes its system’s ability to save mariners money on their transit. Recognition of a likely vessel-traffic bottleneck later in the voyage may convince a captain to reduce engine power.

“You have vessels going full throttle — going as fast as they can — and when they get there they find out maybe there’s eight vessels already waiting in the queue and maybe there’s bad weather conditions,” Meltzner said. “Now they can make (earlier) decisions and maybe go half-throttle instead of full throttle and they save fuel.”

Wansley, 38, emphasized that a laptop system such as Rose Point ECS is not meant to be a substitute for traditional navigation skills. The captain still must pay close attention to the water and his radar. The laptop’s tracking shows him only commercial vessels carrying AIS transponders. The system doesn’t include non-participating vessels like pleasure boats, sailboats, anchored barges, or other hazards.

Like any piece of electronics, the laptop can go on the fritz. Any professional mariner still must be proficient in navigating via traditional means, including paper charts.

“Overall, I think it’s a great thing, as long as people understand that you should not navigate 100 percent on one piece of electronic equipment,” Wansley said. “It improves safety, if it’s used right. But you also have to keep up the old ways.” •

By Professional Mariner Staff