Go slow on the use of virtual aids to navigation

Over the last few years, there has been a lot of talk about the rising costs of placing and maintaining fixed aids to navigation (ATONs) on our nation’s waterways. With it, there have been discussions about electronic or virtual aids to navigation as a viable option to replace aging fixed aids. 

I operate on the inland river system, one of the most critical waterway systems in the U.S. It consists of approximately 12,000 miles of commercially navigable waterways and handles over $70 billion worth of cargo. Given the value of this important transportation system, not to mention the safety of mariners, passengers and the environment, we should be very cautious about eliminating permanent navigation aids in favor of virtual or electronic aids. 

Physical buoys, lights and day marks are still critical. Fixed ATONs are expensive. The Coast Guard dedicates significant manpower, time and money to maintain them. But before hastily removing fixed ATONs, we should first perform a risk analysis to determine which navigation routes are high risk or particularly hazardous and keep fixed buoys and markers in these areas until we are comfortable that we have reliable alternative technology available. 

Global positioning systems are improving and automatic information systems are now widely used in the maritime industry, but I am concerned that we do not know enough about the potential vulnerabilities of these technologies to completely abandon using fixed aids to navigation. To further complicate matters, with cybersecurity threats now more prevalent, what are the dangers to mariners, the economy and the country should a virtual navigation system be hacked and rendered ineffective? 

I am old school and comfortable with paper charts. But I am also a business owner who understands that change is inevitable and is often good for everyone. At the same time, I believe that we need to move slowly when it comes to virtual aids to navigation, and we need to train our young mariners to navigate the rivers and waterways in the traditional way first. 

About the author

Capt. Alan Bernstein

Alan Bernstein, owner of BB Riverboats in Cincinnati, is a licensed master and a former president of the Passenger Vessel Association. He can be reached at 859-292-2449 or abernstein@bbriverboats.com.

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