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From the Ground Up: Charting a clear course.

February 28, 2003
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A new application of mapping, GPS and GIS technology is changing the tugboat, towboat and barge industry.



The tugboat, towboat and barge industry is a vital part of our nation’s commercial transportation system, responsible for moving nearly 800 million tons each year of raw materials and finished goods and adding $5 billion a year to the U.S. economy.* This industry, however, still often relies on old-fashioned paper charts for navigation. That, however, is about to change thanks to a new application of mapping, GPS and GIS technology.

In the early 1990s, businesses and governments spent millions of dollars on GIS projects to create comprehensive databases of their critical location-based information. These databases are now in place, providing fast access to vital information about our land-based infrastructure. Today, GIS technology is diving into a new area: the U.S. inland waterway system.

In 1997, Photo Science Inc. of Lexington, Ky., entered into a direct and continuing partnership with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Topographic Engineering Center to develop the standard for inland electronic navigation charts (IENCs). Together, they evaluated current software and digital navigation data formats used in the United States and internationally, identified user needs by engaging with professionals in the commercial towing industry and cooperated with six Corps districts as well as the U.S. Coast Guard and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to assemble source data and translate it into a single format known as an International Hydrographic Office S-57 dataset.

For the past two years, the firm has been collecting data to construct a single GIS dataset for a 200-mile section of the Mississippi River and another for the entire 1,000 miles of the Ohio River. At the same time, 3001 Inc. of Sulphur, La., was collecting data to construct a dataset for a 1,250-mile section of the Mississippi River and the Black Warrior/Tombigbee system in Alabama. Source data from Corps districts, the Coast Guard and others included current navigation charts, photogrammetric maps, CADD data, depth soundings, field collection, permit files and orthophotos (precise photographic maps)—all in multiple formats, at various scales and at times with conflicting information.

As the public engineering organization responsible for developing, managing, protecting and improving our nation’s water resources, the Corps is charged with seeking the best economic, environmental and social solutions. By leading the development of the first complete reference database for the inland system, more importantly one that leverages a technology-based solution, the Corps has shown it is responsive to its mission.

The IENCs provide detail and accuracy not found in paper charts.

Caution: Danger Ahead

Navigation on our nation’s inland waterways is a hazardous occupation. One wrong decision can be disastrous, not only for the towboat’s crew, but also for the public and our environment. In 1993, 47 people were killed and scores more injured when Amtrak’s Sunset Limited rolled blindly across the CSX Railway Bridge in southern Alabama. Unknown to the train’s conductor, just moments before, the bridge had been rammed by a flotilla (a small fleet) of barges pushed by the towboat Mauvilla. Lost in the fog, the towboat’s pilot inadvertently steered out of the main channel of the Mobile River and into a shallow waterway not suitable for commercial navigation.

In 1998, the towboat American Heritage, pushing 33 hopper barges loaded with grain, was downbound on the Lower Mississippi River when another towboat, the Christine Cenac, loaded with 20,000 barrels of crude oil, attempted to pass it at a sharp bend in the river. Misjudging the distance between the shoreline and the American Heritage, one of the lead barges of the Christine Cenac struck the stern of the American Heritage, unleashing 70,560 gallons of crude oil into the river, threatening the water supplies of communities as far as 40 miles downstream.

And just this past year, 14 people were killed on May 25 when their vehicles were dumped into the Arkansas River after a towboat pushed an empty barge into the pillars of the Interstate 40 bridge, causing it to collapse. The pilot of the barge tow, who was short on sleep, had lost consciousness. The last thing he remembers before the crash was passing a marker on the river. (For a comprehensive report on the collapse of the I-40 Bridge, see “Supporting the Collapse” in POB’s February 2003 issue.)

Could GIS technology have helped prevent these incidents? Most decidedly. Had the Mauvilla and the Christine Cenac been equipped with GPS receivers, transponders and real-time electronic charting systems, the pilots would have known their precise location and also been aware of their position in relation to other vessels, the support piers of the bridge, the safe depth for navigation and the shoreline. Furthermore, electronic charting system alarms triggered to sound when the GPS-determined location and heading of a vessel are approaching navigation hazards or unsafe water may have prevented the tragedy on I-40.

While these specific examples gained a lot of notoriety due to the number of lives affected, there are still other incidents that do not make front-page news. The Coast Guard received reports of over 12,000 towboat accidents in the 10-year period spanning from 1982 to 1991. And 62 percent of these were attributed to “human error.” Better inland navigation aids will go a long way in reducing these accidents.

Navigation on the nation's inland waterways is challenging. Mistakes can result in loss of life or harm to the environment.

Bridging the Gap

Because traditional USGS maps end at the water line, there has been a disconnected or “gray” area for features found within the limits of the river. The IENC project eliminates this gap, providing a single, standardized dataset containing comprehensive features of the nation’s inland waterway system. More importantly, it is a “confident” dataset; updates can be made immediately and electronically, ensuring users of highly accurate data.

According to Tony Niles, coordinator of the IENC initiative for the Corps’ Topographic Engineering Center, “IENCs provide users with a level of detail that has previously been unavailable in a single source.” In addition to reference features such as shorelines, sailing lines, water depths and river miles, other significant features that are charted include:

Navigation Aids—Day beacons, lights
Hazards—Bridges and bridge piers; pipelines and cables (overhead and submerged); dams, dikes, wing dams, weirs; mooring facilities; ice breakers; water intakes; ferry crossings; wrecked vessels; permanently moored vessels
Warnings—Restricted areas; areas of uncertainty (submerged pipelines, water intakes); caution areas
Locks—Gates, walls, chambers, guide walls, arrival points
Other References—River gauges, docks/fleeting areas, marinas, roads, railroads, buildings, storage tanks, airports, urban areas, non-navigable rivers, levees, boat ramps

The thought and effort put into this project by the Corps will serve as an important asset as other countries begin the development of IENCs for their inland waterways.

Most of the information in printed navigation charts dates back to the 1960s, and veteran river captains know rivers change constantly.

Multiple Use Data

Beyond the towboat industry, other areas can benefit from the accessibility of accurate, real-time inland charts. Erosion near bridge piers and abutments can be more quickly and accurately assessed. And in environmental emergencies, such as spills, response actions can be improved significantly.

In addition to greatly improving the safety of navigation on our inland waterways, the IENC project provides the first single-source dataset that will benefit the Corps in its ongoing Regional Sediment Modeling Initiative. The goal of this initiative is to model the downstream effects of navigation channel dredging so that sediment movement can be better predicted and maintained. Moreover, the instantaneous availability of “smart” GIS data enhances the productivity of engineering teams when designing any type of project located on or in proximity to a U.S. waterway.

Municipal entities and urban planners can use IENCs for development planning along waterfronts, as well as for monitoring permitted or taxable fleeting or mooring facilities. Even security and law enforcement can benefit from the new technology. Consider the new area of homeland defense. Accurate charts of the nation’s waterway facilities are an invaluable resource, allowing response units to quickly monitor the movement of potentially hazardous cargo or identify vulnerabilities, such as water intakes and submerged utility pipelines.

The tugboat, towboat and barge industry is a vital part of our nation's commercial transportation system.

A Complex Task

This project is the first large-scale use of inland electronic navigation charts (IENCs) that are fully compliant with the stringent International Hydrographic Office S-57 format. It required the development of a detailed conversion for all existing channel data. A full array of GIS, CAD and S-57 software was utilized to facilitate conversion and ensure quality control of the large quantity of data compiled.

The data presented a number of challenges, including synthesizing the various scales, working with multiple projections and datums as well as multiple overlapping source formats for single features, and reconciling conflicting source information. Moreover, developing a data model for inland waterways was significantly more complex than what was already in place for open water navigation. For example, new standards had to be developed for the many important features found on the inland waterways—icebreakers, river gauges, dikes, dams, etc.—that open water navigation is not concerned with. And unlike open water navigation data where the shoreline is at a constant elevation, the elevation of the shoreline for rivers is always changing.

Fred Spickler, Photo Science’s GIS manager and the firm’s coordinator for all IENC work, explained the importance of the early planning for the new standards. “The task was very challenging. A lot of effort went into the data evaluation and development of standards that would apply to river navigation before actual conversion began. The extensive planning and research led to a solution that was based on thorough knowledge of the rivers and the existing navigation data.”

A Valuable Plan

The team’s efforts were validated in successful river trials of the IENCs in the fall of 2001. The trials were conducted using a Corps survey boat and two industry towboats. In all, 40 miles of river were transitted and various structures were navigated to test the horizontal accuracy of the charts. The testing verified the completeness of the data and also allowed the project team to obtain valuable feedback for charting the remaining miles of the U.S. waterway system.

America’s inland waterways are vital to the well-being and defense of our nation. The electronic navigation data on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers is now available to the public. Through the leadership of the Corps, the IENC project has economically delivered a great safety and security benefit to the nation. Niles summed it up well: “This has been an unique and exciting initiative. We will continue to see the benefits on our inland waterways for years to come.”

*Facts About the American Tugboat, Towboat and Barge Industry, The American Waterways Operators, www.americanwaterways.com.

Editor's Note: Photo Science Inc. was recognized as a winner of an Honor Award at the national Engineering Excellence Awards competition held by the American Council of Engineering Companies (ACEC) for this project.

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