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Improved piloting of ships through oceans of information


The passage of ships in and out of ports could be safer if only pilots and masters had online access to vessel traffic service (VTS) information. The IPPA system fulfils this need and received a warm approval from ships’ pilots and harbourmasters alike.

The objective of the IST programme-funded IPPA project was to tap into the VTS information and make it available to pilots and ships’ masters in a user-friendly graphical format.

On trial at three ports

The system was trialled at three different ports. "First of all, we went to Tromsø, in Norway," says Mike Hadley of QinetiQ and IPPA coordinator. "We chose this port because it didn’t have VTS, but instead we had full access to data from the Norwegian Coastal Directorate. We could extract the relevant information and make it available to ships’ masters and pilots. Next, we took the system to Rotterdam, which has one of the world’s most advanced VTS’; we encountered problems with sending all the track tables over AIS [Automatic Identification System] and so had to settle for a small proportion of the non-AIS targets in the vicinity of the trials vessel. However, this only served to bear out the project’s view that that this was not a proper use of AIS. Finally, we took the system to the port of Genoa, where we were able to transmit the entire traffic table without a hitch."

One of the participants in the trials, Captain Allan Johansen, was very positive. "I took part in the Tromsø demonstration, and the IPPA system fulfilled all its performance requirements. Tromsø was selected for the trial in order to prove the capabilities of IPPA when operating outside a specific VTS-controlled area. Feedback from participants in the trial was very positive, and useful suggestions were made regarding improvements the capability of the IPPA equipment. The Norwegian company, Norsk Data Senter [, based in Moss], is now putting IPPA equipment into production."

Helping to minimise human error

The cause of around 70 per cent of maritime accidents can be traced back to human error of one sort or another. When pilots assist vessels to move through a port, they rely on visual and auditory information, VHF radio communications and radar. The accuracy of this is often outside their control, and when groundings or collisions occur it can sometimes by put down to over reliance on this information. Matters aren’t helped by language problems or misinterpreted messages between vessels, and the terms VHF- and radar-assisted collisions are consequently sometimes heard.

Since 2002, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) has made it mandatory for vessels to carry AIS equipment. Vessels use AIS to broadcast data, such as the vessel’s identity, course, speed and position; supplementary information can also be broadcast if needed, such as tide height and keel clearance. The rate at which this information is broadcast is determined by the vessel’s status; more frequent updates when the vessel is manoeuvring, fewer updates when it’s stationary.

AIS data is available to ships’ masters and pilots, but it is not user-friendly, nor is it integrated with the main navigation system. VTS, however, makes good use of all this information, and uses it to produce up-to-the-minute situation reports.

"AIS was sponsored by IMO as a safety device," says Hadley. "Supplementary data could be transmitted via AIS. However, it can easily become overloaded; at the port of Rotterdam, there are typically 500 tracks at any one time, as vessels move, moor, etc. It doesn’t really have the capacity to carry large amounts of supplementary information, something that will become even clearer when AIS spreads to smaller and inland waterways vessels."

"We decided quite early on in the project to use GPRS (GSM packet radio service) to provide a readily-available data link for non-AIS VTS information," adds Hadley. "With IPPA, pilots only have to take is a pilot suitcase, which contains the AIS and also a stand alone heading device based on GPS when they board vessels, and they can receive updates on the tracks of all vessels in port, meteorological and hydrographical reports, and other information."

Looking ahead for IPPA

"Everyone who has seen the system is very impressed,” comments Hadley. “I have been struck be the level of interest that people are taking, including the harbourmasters from some of the largest ports in Europe. So, although the project was initially driven by the needs of pilots, it’s finding growing acceptance by harbourmasters too. We have even received very positive comments from US and Panamanian pilots."

"The future of the IPPA system looks pretty good,” says Hadley. “HITT, with whom we worked in Rotterdam but unfortunately were not partners in the project, are developing a carry-aboard unit for pilots, and this reflects the enthusiasm of the pilots for this technology. The harbourmaster of Rotterdam devoted an entire seminar to how to get IPPA fully integrated with future VTS. Whereas AIS is primarily a safety-related system, IPPA enables ships’ masters and harbourmasters to operate more safely through greater efficiency. It enables ports to operate closer to their maximum throughput for given weather and tide conditions because a lot of the uncertainty about conditions has been removed."

Tara Morris | alfa
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