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Virtual beacons: Unseen sentinels protect mariners, underwater assets

Vesper Marine’s WatchMate system uses virtual AIS beacons to mark marine assets, track vessels operating near infrastructure, alert asset owners about potential threats and send safety messages to vessel operators.

Courtesy Vesper Marine

Mariners have long relied on the automatic identification system, or AIS, to track nearby vessels and spot potential hazards. New programs launched recently in New York and Louisiana have taken the technology a step further.

Vesper Marine, Oceaneering and other marine navigation firms are using virtual aids to navigation to highlight sensitive underwater infrastructure on wheelhouse displays. These systems feature special software that monitors traffic around a particular asset and identifies risky behavior, such as a vessel slowing or stopping above it.

With these programs, boats or barges that appear ready to anchor, lower a spud or otherwise damage submerged equipment automatically receive AIS safety messages letting them know what’s below. The asset owner receives notification when these incidents occur.

Vesper Marine and Oceaneering also offer live monitoring services, playback capability and data collection and analysis, and help clients understand what’s happening around their infrastructure. The core of these programs, however, are the virtual beacons that appear on AIS like a traditional buoy, yet do not actually exist in the waterway.

“We have this ability to make virtual aids to navigation on people’s charting system or radars, so someone approaching the cable is going to see where that cable is located,” said Jeff Robbins, CEO of Vesper Marine, which is working with the New York Power Authority (NYPA) to mark underwater cables in Long Island Sound. “The idea here is people don’t want to cause damage, so by showing them where (the asset) is, that is step one for providing the visibility to avoid anchoring there.”

The NYPA began looking for ways to prevent anchor strikes in early 2014 after an articulated tug-barge dropped anchor in Long Island Sound, damaging one of four transmission cables transecting the western end of the waterway. The incident cost up to $30 million to repair.

Robert Schwabe, the NYPA’s director of asset and maintenance management, said the utility had two main goals. One was to make its transmission cables more visible on AIS and electronic chart display and information systems (ECDIS), which previously showed only roughly where the cables were located. The utility also wanted to be able to quickly contact vessels that appeared ready to anchor over the cables.

The NYPA ultimately partnered with Vesper Marine of New Zealand for its pilot program, which began in May 2016 and ended six months later. Coast Guard approval is required to create virtual aid to navigation beacons, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) must authorize transmission of messages through AIS. Both federal entities agreed to the initial experimental period.

Robbins said the Vesper program allows a client to set certain “rules” for vessels operating near its infrastructure. Vessels that violate these pre-set and programmable rules receive a message on AIS or ECDIS displays. The program can be tailored to watch for certain vessel types, speeds or headings that could threaten the asset. Vessels that routinely work around the submerged equipment can be granted “trusted” status to prevent repeat messages.

“You can set all that up,” Robbins said. “The analytics engine is constantly using the behavior of these vessels and detects when a vessel is behaving in a way where it might anchor, and then it sends an alert to the asset owner on screen or via text or email, and it immediately sends a message directly to the vessel.”

Robert Schwabe of the New York Power Authority describes how virtual beacons warn vessels via AIS if they appear ready to anchor in the utility’s cable field in Long Island Sound.

Courtesy Vesper Marine

In that scenario, the vessel operating near the infrastructure is the only one that would see the AIS warning message, he said.

The NYPA is working with the Coast Guard and the FCC for full authorization for the AIS-based program in Long Island Sound. Schwabe hopes to have it running early this year.

The Long Island Sound initiative isn’t the only one using AIS to protect underground infrastructure. In the Gulf of Mexico, Coastal and Marine Operators (CAMO) has spent the past decade exploring ways to prevent accidents involving oil and gas pipelines. These incidents occur with surprising regularity and often lead to injuries, pollution and costly repairs.

From 1987 to 2007, there were 118 pipeline strikes in the Gulf that caused 25 fatalities and 17 injuries, according to CAMO data. These strikes spilled about 100,000 barrels of oil and cost $100 million to fix. Each year there are untold close calls involving this infrastructure that are much harder to track.

CAMO, whose members include Chevron, Shell, ExxonMobil Pipeline and Kinder Morgan, turned to Oceaneering for a pilot program in Port Fourchon, La. The pilot tracked vessel activity around two key pipelines and also tested whether AIS messaging was an effective way to prevent pipeline strikes and close calls.

“We started tracking how much of this activity was going on, and instead of trying to point fingers, we tried to come up with a proactive means, hence AIS, to prevent these incidents and give mariners some tools to help them do their jobs safer,” said Ed Landgraf, CAMO’s chairman. “Protecting the people aboard your vessels is job one, and by knowing ahead of time where this oil and gas infrastructure is, you can plan and work better and help prevent those types of incidents.”

The CAMO program focused on two main corridors around Port Fourchon transited frequently by offshore supply vessels, spud barges and other workboats that could damage the pipelines. Oceaneering used its PortVision system combined with a virtual aid to navigation to trigger automatic safety messages.

Vessels slowing rapidly inside an established safety zone, or those that stopped above a pipeline, received a message on the AIS display saying “Pipeline Below.” Pipeline owners also were notified of these incidents.

“Anecdotally, we have been hearing there is more awareness about the pipelines’ location,” said Jason Tieman, director of maritime solutions for Global Data Solutions, a division of Oceaneering. “Before, they just wouldn’t have known.”

The Port Fourchon pilot program received Coast Guard and FCC approval to begin in summer 2016 and wrapped up about five months later. CAMO considers the pilot program a success and is looking to adopt it on a larger scale.

Virtual aids to navigation, shown as blue dots in the diagram above, highlight four NYPA cables. An anchor strike in 2014 damaged one of the cables and cost $30 million to repair.

Courtesy Vesper Marine

“Port Fourchon was basically implementing proof of concept,” Landgraf said. “Now, as the technology advances and the industry gets more on board, hopefully we can start to close that gap and prevent these interactions (between vessels and pipelines).”

Virtual aids to navigation, of course, can be adapted to numerous maritime applications. In the Gulf, Landgraf said they could be used to alert mariners about nearby drilling platforms, oil field equipment and other hazards. Meanwhile, in Niagara Falls, the NYPA is planning to use Vesper’s system to mark shoals, shallows and unsafe areas transited by icebreaking tugboats.

In other projects around the world, Robbins said Vesper’s program has been used to mark channel openings and submerged objects in remote places where buoys require frequent upkeep. The program also has been used to create safety zones for events such as the America’s Cup.

Although CAMO and the NYPA are satisfied with their respective pilot programs, not everyone is thrilled about adding new wheelhouse warnings. Capt. Leslie Eadie, a professor at Maine Maritime Academy, said these systems can add “clutter” to already busy displays.

Eadie believes they will require mariners to develop another layer of familiarity with wheelhouse technology that many already find confusing. He also envisions potential for false alarms and other distractions with too many virtual aid to navigation beacons.

“Yes, it could be helpful at times as long as it doesn’t clutter up the screen and distract from the important thing, which is keeping vessel afloat,” said Eadie, who is master of Maine Maritime’s training ship State of Maine.

Robbins said clients can work with trusted local vessels to prevent false alarms. They also can make safety messages private, so they appear only to certain vessels. Federal approvals needed to create virtual beacons or transmit messages also will limit their use.

That said, Robbins added that the Coast Guard and Army Corps of Engineers are already using virtual aids to navigation along the coasts and inland waterways, and many mariners are already accustomed to seeing them on wheelhouse displays.

“It’s not our objective to populate these all over the place,” Robbins said, “because that would remove their effectiveness.”

After all, he said the goal of these programs is to provide mariners with more information to improve their safety and protect against accidents.

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