Waze for Water

A water institute tool could transform river management and transport globally

May 27, 2021

For captains and their crews, moving goods can be a white-knuckle experience. Heavy with goods, boats must dodge each other through fast-moving and shifting currents, while also maneuvering around silt hidden under the water. The Water Institute of the Gulf is developing a service that will allow navigators to be more confident in where they direct vessels, while also providing data for better management of shipping channels. Based in Baton Rouge, the institute is pursuing federal funds to expand on its research and innovation in port operations, a shift that is starting with a first-of-its-kind digital technology that collects real-time data on sediment buildup along the length of the Mississippi River in Louisiana.

The additional data would be used to track currents, weather conditions, visibility, river congestion and even traffic conditions on nearby roads to benefit port operations. Tugboats already measure river depth as they travel the river, but the data are typically only used by the crew to pilot the vessel and are not stored. Knowing how much space there is between the vessel and the bottom of the river reveals sediment buildup over time, while offering information to train a forecasting model. The new tool improves the quality of data that is already collected by boats. The data can be transmitted to the cloud, where information collected by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and port survey vessels exists, to correct for waves, currents and other factors.

Survey vessel information is the “gold standard” for river measurements, but it is not collected all the time. “Your look at the present is dated and limited,” Ehrenwerth said. Expanding the SmartPort tool begins with nothing more than attaching two cables to existing sensors on all tugs on the river, an upgrade that takes about 30 minutes per boat. Some workboats may not need the cables, just an app to transmit the data to the institute’s digital repository. It costs tug operators nothing to participate in the SmartPort network. The more boats in the network “the smarter the tool gets,” Ehrenwerth noted. Read the full story here.