Millions of dollars of goods are transported up and down the Mississippi every year. This transportation is made possible, in part, by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) Mat Sinking Unit and its crew, who work tirelessly each season to protect the riverbanks with concrete mats to prevent erosion.

The current Mat Sinking Unit was built in 1940, widened in 1960 and is being replaced over the next several years with a new and improved plant. The new design will double the number of mat squares that can be placed per season. The USACE Vicksburg District (MVK), USACE Marine Design Center (MDC), SIA Solutions LLC (SIA), Bristol Harbor Group, Inc. (BHGI), and Carnegie Mellon University’s National Robotics and Engineering Center (NREC) are working together to develop the design of the Mat Boat, which will increase production rates and improve the safety of the crew.

NREC is designing new robotic cranes and a tying gantry, which together will pick up concrete squares from the supply barge, place them on the Mat Boat launch deck, and tie the individual mat squares together to form one large mattress. As more squares are placed on the launch deck, winches payout cable, allowing the concrete fabric to slide down the launch deck. Once the appropriate number of squares have been connected, automatic clamping and tying units will cut the cables and let the mat slide off into the river. This concrete fabric protects the river banks from erosion and holds the Mississippi in its current place.

NREC is currently in the prototype phase of the project. The lifting arms, tying gantry, and mat deck have been built and are under testing. The lifting arms have passive alignment systems that align the mat squares with the correct location on the launch deck.

On the current Mat Boat, crew members are responsible for aligning, tying, clamping, and cutting the launch wires while walking on a moving mat deck. The new robotics remove a high percentage of these dangerous operations.

The robotics systems will be integrated on to the Mat Boat, which has been designed by BHGI. The Mat Boat is a double ended raked barge with another rake along the length of the starboard side to allow the Mat Boat to come into shore as close as possible. The Mat Boat will be larger than the one currently in operation to help accommodate the faster production rate.

Additional improvements have been made to the barge to increase crew safety and operational ease. Four deck houses, one at each corner of the Mat Boat, will allow operators to see the entire launch deck and supply barge operation as well as provide redundancy. The cable reels have been increased to hold more cable, which will reduce the number of times crew members have to splice and work with the cable. Electric hoists and monorails move the larger reels in and out of the reel alley.

The team has been working closely together to ensure a smooth integration of the systems as well as thinking of potential integration issues in order to try to mitigate as many as possible when the final design is built. The construction of the Mat Boat was awarded to Thoma-Sea Marine Constructors, LLC in Houma, LA. SIA Solutions LLC and its team (NREC and BHGI), were recently awarded the next phase of the robotic systems development. During this phase, BHGI will finalize the detailed design of the Mat Boat and provide technical oversight of the installation of the robotics systems onto the Mat Boat.

BHGI is a full-service naval architecture, marine engineering and consulting firm located in Bristol, RI. BHGI has been in business for more than twenty-five years and produced numerous designs, to which hundreds of vessels have been built. BHGI specializes in commercial vessel design and consulting and has experience with tugs, barges, Articulated Tug/Barge Units (ATB), passenger vessels, workboats, dredges and floating dry docks. To learn more you can visit our website: