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Maritime transport: Shipping undergoes sea change

Vaibhav Arora
Assistant Editor
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From navigation to loading and unloading of cargo at the port, modern technology has permeated most aspects of maritime transport. Here’s a look at some of the technologies that have played a significant role in changing the face of the world shipping industry

Maritime transport or the shipment of people and goods by sea is one of the most ancient and widely used forms of transport known to man. From the times of legendary explorers like Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama who sailed the mighty seas on their archaic ships armed with just a compass and some other basic equipment, both shipping vessels and shipping as a means of transport have undergone a sea change. According to the International Chamber of Shipping, international shipping today transports about 90 percent of total world trade by volume. With increase in the number of vessels sailing at a time, there is growing need for constant innovation in the field of maritime surveillance. Shipping companies these days have begun to deploy modern technologies to ensure enhanced monitoring, efficiency and security of their fleet.

Importance of marine transport
Marine transportation is an extremely vital yet often the least publicly visible part of the world economy. The sea route is one of the major channels through which goods are moved across the world. According to Government of India statistics, about 95 percent of the country’s trade by volume is transported through the marine route.

For a developed economy like United States of America, too, maritime transport is equally crucial. Figures published in the book Geospatial Information Infrastructure for Transportation Organizations: Toward a Foundation for Improved Decision Making, reveal that the ports are particularly critical to the US economy with 95 percent of all foreign trade passing through them. Besides, the marine transportation system supports nearly 13 million jobs in the country.

Geospatial tech in marine transport
Owing to the rapid increase in global shipping traffic during recent years (Fig 1 shows the location of every vessel – over 20 meters long – in the world at one point in time), the vessel location and navigation systems have become the primary focus of the world. Vessel navigation systems are mobile information platforms, which integrate GPS, GIS and wireless communication to offer extensive data such as location, speed and status of a ship in real time mode. This data is processed and the location and moving track of the ship can be shown on digital maps.

GNSS or Global Navigation Satellite Systems have been used in the maritime environment since the late 1960’s as the TRANSIT system, which was used mainly by the US Navy. In 1996, the US offered GPS to the IMO (International Maritime Organisation) as an input to the World-Wide Radionavigation System (WWRNS). Following IMO’s recognition, GPS became the primary radio-based mechanism for navigation in the maritime sector.

With the advent of GPS, new applications came to the fore including the provision of accurate information to assist in the docking of large vessels. GPS info is used to aid the pilots and captains of vessels to determine how the vessel is moving when it is getting close to a jetty.

Describing how the use of GPS has revolutionised vessel navigation, Capt. Charanjit Singh, Master Pilot, Mumbai Port Trust says, “In the high seas, there are no landmarks and the ship’s crew had to depend only on the position of sun and stars to find out the course. GPS system gives you accurate positions and it has now become easier to find out if the vessel is deviating from its course. Thus, it helps you save time, save distance and save fuel.”

One of the most important initiatives in the field of marine transportation, which is set to revolutionise the way world shipping industry functions is E-Navigation. Led by the IMO, the initiative aims to bring improved safety and security in shipping through better organisation and exchange of data between ships and the shore.

One of the primary aims of the E-Navigation initiative is to integrate existing and new navigational tools such as Automatic Identification System (AIS), Electronic Chart Display and Information System (ECDIS), radio navigation, Vessel Traffic Management Services (VTMS) and the Global Maritime Distress Safety System (GMDSS) in an all-encompassing system that will result in increased navigational safety while at the same time reducing the burden on the navigator.

Automatic Identification System (AIS)
For a ship navigating at sea, the course of other ships in the surrounding area becomes extremely critical to make prompt decisions to avoid collision.

The AIS is an automatic tracking mechanism deployed on ships for locating other nearby vessels by electronically exchanging data with them. AIS functions by integrating a standard VHF transceiver with a GPS receiver and other electronic navigation sensors. Vessels fitted with AIS can be tracked by AIS base stations and satellites fitted with special AIS receivers.

“AIS is basically used as a tool for collision avoidance. But, it has also got other roles. It can be used to make a good surveillance network because you can track the movement of all vessels. Thus, it can be used to beef up the security of the coast,” says PP Sinha, Directorate General of Lighthouses and Lightships, Ministry of Shipping, Government of India.

Vessel Traffic Management Service (VTMS)
Similar to air traffic control systems, a VTMS is a marine traffic monitoring system established by port authorities to ensure smooth operation of vessels. A standard VTMS deploys a combination of radar, close circuit television cameras and AIS to track vessel movements and ensure navigational safety in a particular geographical area. The system presents real-time navigational data overlaid on an electronic chart system display.

“For the purpose of vessel traffic management, GIS is used for shore-based management of vessel traffic flow. For example, the monitoring of keeping an allocated tidal window of a ship is realised by means of supporting display functions integrated into the GIS,” explains Dr Michael Baldauf from World Maritime University.

At present, VTMS can only present a two dimensional picture of vessels moving within a designated area on an electronic chart, which has several limitations. The performance of radar systems is prone to adverse impact by weather conditions. Apart from that, the radar blips can merge when vessels are close together.

To overcome these limitations, a 3D VTS system has been developed recently, which draws on information from existing radar systems and supplements this with inputs from tidal gauges, meteorological stations and radio based automatic identification systems to present a three dimensional image and also gives realistic representations of all the vessels, the waterway, port installations and navigational marks such as buoys.

“VTS is essential for maintenance of maritime safety in port waters. These are used by harbour masters and their operational staff to efficiently manage traffic, guide mariners and prevent any dangerous situations from happening,” says Dr. Rafal Goralski from GeoVS Limited, the company which developed the 3D VTS system.

An ECDIS is a computerised navigation information system that has up to a large extent replaced the traditional paper nautical charts. An ECDIS system combines information from Electronic Navigational Charts (ENC) with positional information from the GPS, radar and AIS to provide continuous navigational safety and position information. Modern ECDIS systems are capable of generating alarms when the vessel is in proximity to hazards.

“Numerous functions are integrated into ECDIS which support safe and efficient navigation. These include warning and alarming functions to announce the approach of a waypoint, or depth alarm, in case a certain water depth is violated. ECDIS may also provide automatic calculation of the ship’s speed needed for in-time arrival at the next port of call,” says Dr. Michael Baldauf.

Some of the areas where geospatial technology has been used in marine transportation include:

Vessel monitoring
GPS-based tracking for individual and a fleet of vehicles was originally conceived for the shipping industry. Vessel tracking systems are generally deployed for reasons such as safety and security, compliance with international rules and regulations and better traffic management.

A tracking system consists of a GPS device, which is installed in each vessel to track its precise location via satellite. The device can also track and monitor other information related to the vessel such as its speed, route and deviation from planned course. The information is then transmitted to a remote user where it can be used to access available reports on vessel status via the internet.

Collision avoidance
The recent incidents of oil spill across the world have highlighted the devastating impact that marine accidents have on the environment. Such accidents, which are majorly a result of ship collisions, cost huge loss of life and property and threaten the environment. A majority of these accidents can be attributed to human error.

Combined together, AIS systems and radar technology can effectively contribute to warn the crew members of an approaching obstruction (such as icebergs) and thus help avoid a collision. While aerial surveillance is the primary method used to locate icebergs, satellite-based radar observations are being used increasingly to improve the accuracy and efficiency of these systems. Satellite images can effectively point out icebergs and also track their movements to help prepare a chart of threatening icebergs in a particular region. “Shore-based traffic coordination and support for avoidance of collisions with other ships or objects and even display of dynamical changing banks in fairways make use of georeferenced information,” explains Dr. Michael Baldauf.

Ship lane mapping
A ship lane can de defined as a regularly used route by ocean going vessels. Commercial ships and large boats usually move through internationally designated shipping lanes from one port city to the other. The shipping lanes ensure navigational safety by regulating maritime traffic. Besides, sticking to pre-determined route makes sure that the ship does not venture into unsafe waters and also saves valuable time and fuel. A GISbased electronic navigational chart is capable of guiding a ship’s crew to follow a particular path.

“If you want to go from one port to another, then the software offers the capability of laying the route. You can mark the waypoints from one point to another. Once the waypoints have been marked, the system selects the latest available navigational chart from its database and displays on the screen so you can plan the route, avoiding dangerous locations/activities in the sea. You can lay down the best possible, most economical, shortest and most fuel efficient route,” says a source.

Ocean currents
Knowledge of ocean currents has been extremely important for seafarers since the sail-ship era. Today, such knowledge plays a vital role in reducing fuel costs.

Although satellite sensors available these days are not capable of measuring ocean currents directly, remotely sensed data can be used to measure current. The most commonly employed method uses ocean vector winds and satellite altimetry to estimate currents.

Port operations management
“From the perspective of both the maritime shipper and the port managers, it is port throughput and efficiency which counts at the end of the day. And here GIS is being used in a number of ways to better manage port traffic and vessel loading and unloading,” says Terry Bills. The Port of Sines in Portugal uses GIS for vessel traffic management. The system functions by integrating berth and support scheduling with real time vessel tracking to optimise berth allocation and generate timely billing by integrating the system with billing systems.

Technology has also found use in vessel loading and unloading. When combined with real time truck arrival systems, these mechanisms can significantly reduce vessel turnaround time and, in turn, goods throughput.

Specially designed geographic information systems that use GPS technology can be used to monitor containers and signal alerts when a container deviates from its proposed path. A well established GIS can help in container security as they travel through the sea. On entering the port, the container can be tracked as it moves through the truck or rail route to its final destination.

A GIS can integrate port security information and display results on a map or satellite image to provide real time update. The system can be used to merge vessel tracking applications with output from live television cameras to obtain a comprehensive security view.

Vessel security
According to a report by the IMO, 489 actual or attempted acts of marine piracy occurred in 2010, which is 20.4 percent more than 2009. According to Bloomberg, piracy cost the international economy USD 12 billion in 2010. G-tech is being used to track the movement of pirates and create piracy hotspot maps, which can be used to warn ships.

Geospatial technology is used for other applications such as oil spill management and maritime security response tool. Geographic Information systems offer useful information in a graphical and timely fashion, which helps decision makers to deal with emergency situations.

Weather reporting: One of the major problems faced by seafarers till a few years ago was access to weather updates. Thus, ships had to either take a passage detour or were caught in stormy weather. However, technology has ensured that the oceans are now constantly being monitored by satellites. The satellites send updated weather information to ship based marine receivers, which helps to predict the movement of storms and to provide adequate warning to the seafarers.

Communication: Satellites have revolutionised the way communication was done between the ship and the shore. Not only can instant connection be made between two or more vessels or the ship and the shore, but the communication can also be recorded for future reference.

Search and Rescue: The entire SAR operations these days are controlled and coordinated with the help of satellite technology. The distress messages are sent to regional control centres located at faraway places using satellites. Homing beacons (EPIRB) are fitted on life boats, which directly pass the distress message and vessel position and thus help the approaching SAR aircraft in homing and locating. The satellites can also undertake surveillance of the SAR area and monitor progress.

Today, navigators onboard ships are using electronic position fixing systems. These sensors are more or less the major position sensors for onboard navigation, route monitoring, collision avoidance, shore-based vessel tracking, traffic management etc. Inaccurate position data or use of outdated chart data may lead to serious accidents. Even the best and high sophisticated presentation of the ship’s position in a 3D display of an ECDIS is of no use when the source of data is not reliable. Approaches to tackle the problem of integrity in terms of accuracy and up-to-dateness include cross-checking and fusion of data from different sensors. “The main challenge today regarding GIS and geospatial technology is the provision of exact/accurate and reliable data for integration into online navigation systems,” says Dr. Michael Baldauf.