The Port of Pittsburgh is pioneering an innovative broadband wireless network that it says will improve efficiency, communications, and navigational safety on the nation’s inland rivers.
The wireless waterways network, which is in an early phase of development, already covers 120 miles along the Monongahela, Allegheny and Ohio rivers in the Pittsburgh area at a cost of about $2 million. Funding has come from the Department of Homeland Security, Allegheny (Pa.) County and the Port of Pittsburgh Commission (PPC). Two tests have been held that offered outside companies a chance to test their equipment on the network.
Project organizers are applying for federal transportation grants to advance the project and eventually go national, with coverage along the Ohio and Lower Mississippi rivers and the inland lock and dam system. The port sent out a request for information for a possible public-private partnership for the wireless service. The submission cutoff was April 15.
The network is designed to generate revenue from a broad customer base and be self-supporting, said James McCarville, Port of Pittsburgh’s executive director who will step down from his post at the end of June after 20 years.
“A system like this just doesn’t exist on the waterways and coverage now can be spotty,” McCarville said, adding that since many inland rivers are located in remote, rural areas, telecommunications companies have shunned investment in broadband networks in such locations.
Most users of the inland rivers rely on old technology such as VHF radio or a combination of new technologies such as cellphones, which have unreliable coverage in many rural areas, or require expensive satellites to communicate. Wi-Fi connectivity is not available on large swathes of the inland system, putting inland navigation at a competitive disadvantage against other transport modes like trucks and railroads.
The wireless waterways network would provide high-speed, two-way digital communication that will connect different wireless systems already found along the rivers. It would augment the current Automatic Identification System (AIS) which is used by the Coast Guard at major U.S. ports to track, locate and identify vessels, with unrestricted, confidential communications. This could include cargo information, updated nautical charts, crew timesheets, crew email, locking information and security camera streaming video.
Part of the network, the Maritime Situational Awareness Portal, joins a GIS (geographic information system) management interface with standard Web-browser technology that layers information from the PPC, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. It will eventually offer data from the public via crowdsourcing.
Several years in the making, the project has been a collaborative effort of the towing industry, academia, the Port of Pittsburgh and the Corps of Engineers. It is an offshoot of another Pittsburgh innovation, the SmartLock, developed by students at Carnegie Mellon University, which demonstrated how a towboat could navigate a narrow lock chamber in poor visibility.
Benefits of improved broadband coverage are numerous, according to McCarville, who was recognized by the White House last year for his work on the wireless system in Pittsburgh.
Towing companies will be able to monitor performance of the engines on vessels in the fleet, host video conferences with crews, announce vessel arrivals, report and receive information about hazardous river conditions, river depths and weather, and improve communications between home offices and vessels.
In addition, companies will be better able to identify cargo and determine the exact cargo location, which will improve coordination of barge shipments with rail or truck, and receive timely bulletins about lock outages and locking wait times.
Mariners will see more reliable connectivity, allowing them to keep in touch with their families onshore, check bank accounts, or take online courses. Connectivity to the Internet is an essential tool for recruiting young workers, companies say.
For the Corps, which manages the nation’s river system, the system will allow it to better schedule limited manpower for lock repairs and maintenance, communicate timely navigation information to mariners and collect environmental and industrial data along the waterways.
“Our interest is broader than navigation. This will allow us to do integrated watershed management,” said Richard Lockwood, chief, Operations and Regulatory Division at the Corps Pittsburgh district. “It will provide a portal to aggregate information and data from the watershed and share it” with other users of the watershed, including mariners, environmental interests, sanitation companies and water managers.
“Right now people make decisions with old, partial or no data,” he said. “This will provide us with real-time data and a broader spectrum of data.”
Once this is available in one place, Lockwood predicts that tech companies will develop applications for a range of operations, from voyage planning to safety training.
COSTS, COVERAGE AND SECURITY
As with all new technologies, there are still many things to work out. Some companies are reluctant to jump in as customers in this early phase, worried about the security of putting their information on an untested public platform.
“We were early starters on this, but for us, to put our system fully on it, there are security issues,” said Peter Stephaich, chairman and CEO of Campbell TransportationCompany, a Houston, Pa.-based barge company that operates along the upper Ohio River. As of now, the system is broadcasting with Wi-Fi but it is not secure, he said.
Coverage area and cost are also concerns. At present, coverage is too limited to make it worthwhile for most companies and they haven’t figured out the pricing, Stephaich said. “We need a broader coverage area down the Ohio River.” And, he added, “They must get cost and pricing to the point where it pays for itself. Ultimately, it must be self-sufficient.”
Once these issues are resolved, Stephaich said the network would offer many new opportunities to barge companies.
“This creates communication foundation on the river between the towing industry, the Coast Guard, and the Corps of Engineers, on a bandwith. So if there’s a man overboard and everyone is on the same Internet, everyone gets the alerts at once,” added Timothy McCahill, director of IT at Campbell.
“If this develops throughout the river system, it would change the way we communicate to vessels, by electronic means or voice. If given enough bandwith, we could do webinar training with our boats. We could detect malfunctions of vessel engines, and it would provide a better link for our crews to their families. It’s very exciting.”
The system could also find customers among industries in rural areas and along river valleys, such as sanitation systems and water supply systems, McCarville said.
The Port of Pittsburgh would own the system, while the port’s newly created non-profit subsidiary, Pittsburgh Port Technology, would manage its operations and growth. Partnerships with big technology companies are part of the plan.
“We are just at the beginning of what we think will be a very big development,” McCarville said. “This will open up a world of efficiencies, not all at once, but it will have a very big impact down the road. It will change how we do business, improve efficiencies and help us compete for new and emerging cargoes.”
The timeline for the project will be driven by how successful they are in winning federal grants. “If it gets funded, we could build it out in two to three years and have a major national presence,” McCarville said.