Pilotage Technology - A look inside a Pilot’s technology toolkit

02 Feb 2022 The Navigator

Ports around the world are investing in digital technology for better safety and commercial outcomes. Among other things, this is improving the efficiency of cargo movements, coordinating shipping arrivals more efficiently and enabling remotely monitored mooring hooks. Captain Ricky Rouse AFNI, a working Pilot and Chair of The Nautical Institute's Automation Technical Advisory Group, looks at what this means for pilotage.

Ports are continually looking at methods to improve their ability to handle larger and deeper ships within their existing infrastructure. In terms of pilotage, this means in particular the introduction of digital tools to enhance situational awareness. In this article, we examine some of these methods.

Portable Pilot Units
One of the most widespread pilotage tools is the Portable Pilot Unit (PPU). PPUs have existed in various formats for decades, though in recent years their use has become more widespread. It is fast becoming uncommon for a Pilot to board without one. The PPU provides the Pilot with an electronic chart that can enhance situational awareness in a format with which they are familiar, while also providing features and data that might not be otherwise available on ECDIS.

There are numerous different PPU hardware and software options. Equipment often consists of a tablet or laptop loaded with electronic chart software, and either independent antennae to obtain GNSS positional data or a unit that connects to the Pilot plug and uses the ship’s equipment-provided position, heading and AIS data.
Commonly used features are portspecific tidal and chart data This includes the ability to present the most up-to-date local hydrographic data, rather than what is available on official ENCs. This can be important in rivers and estuaries, where shifting mud or sand banks might result in the ENCs loaded on the ECDIS being long out of date by the time they are available to the ship. Live tidal data can also be incorporated, providing the Pilot with a visual representation of safe water, especially where the tide is above or below the prediction in the tide tables.

Manoeuvring data, such as predictors and lateral speeds, provide Pilots with greater confidence when operating in tight spaces, especially where visibility is restricted by obstructions such as containers. The PPU is often seen as a control measure in complex manoeuvres, so Harbour Masters might mandate the carriage of PPU for those manoeuvres. In some ports, they might be mandated for all movements.
Much like other electronic aids to navigation, the PPU has its limitations and should be used appropriately in conjunction with all available means. A Pilot will be trained in proper scanning techniques between visual references, the PPU, ECDIS and radar.

All members of the bridge team should feel confident asking the Pilot to explain the information that they are using on the PPU, if a safe opportunity arises. Usually, the PPU will be placed in a position that is easily visible to all users.

Under Keel Clearance Software
While ports are introducing longer and wider ships into their ports, they are also identifying ways to make it easier for deeper ships to call. Highly advanced software can calculate squat, heel and wave response using a combination of a ship’s stability data, live weather, predicted weather and tidal data, combined with complex algorithms and modelling. Some ports directly link their cargo loading to the UKC software, allowing an increased cargo load if the tides or weather are better than expected.
The reliability and accuracy of digital UKC calculations can not only improve commercial efficiency, but also provide alerts and notifications when poor environmental conditions or a change from the original ship loading plan and/or stability could adversely impact the UKC.
In this age of big data, electronic UKC software is often capable of continuous monitoring. It is becoming a valuable tool to analyse trends.
Some ports will provide a printout or electronic copy of the UKC data. However, if they don’t, you should feel confident asking the Pilot to show you the data that they are using, especially if it is below your company’s usual minimum static UKC requirements.

Port-provided routes
Navigators can spend hours preparing a route with hundreds of waypoints in a long pilotage to ensure that a berth-to-berth passage plan is available. Yet, within a few minutes of the Pilot boarding, they are presented with a new plan which everyone is expected to execute – and that plan will usually be quite different.

An increasing number of ports are offering ships a solution by providing their own recommended routes, either in the prearrival paperwork or through their websites. The result is a plan that has been carefully risk assessed with the local knowledge from the port taken into consideration. This port-provided plan should be the one that is mirrored on the Pilot’s PPU.

As a seafarer, you will now have measurable outcomes for the pilotage, allowing you to effectively monitor the Pilot’s (or navigator’s) execution of the plan and confidently challenge any deviation from the cross-track limits or speed where necessary.

Simulation is an integral part of Pilot training, used primarily to build competencies that are otherwise difficult to train on-the-water. These can include emergency response, adverse weather and abnormal situations. The standards of simulation are continuously evolving, with improvements in both graphics and hydrodynamics in each new generation of simulator. For most types of Pilot training, a highly realistic simulation is not necessary. The limiting factor in quality is how much the port is prepared to invest in collecting high-level bathymetric and current data, in addition to engaging graphic designers to accurately model the visuals.

Simulation is also used for port development, allowing Pilots to trial and train for new berths, ship types and changing conditions in the port. Some of the larger cruise operators invite Pilots to attend their in-house simulators to share competencies and knowledge, while port operators will involve shipping companies in trials of new ship types for the same reason.

Into the future
Port regulators are carefully considering future developments, calculating the different risks associated with autonomous ships and identifying best practice to safely facilitate their visits. While mainstream pilotage on board manned vessels will most likely remain the same for the foreseeable future, increased autonomy may drive an increase in remote pilotage. This could see opportunities for Marine Pilots to perform their roles ashore, perhaps as an integral part of a vessel traffic services team.

We are also seeing alternative fuels becoming available in both tugs and Pilot boats. Electric tugs are already in operation in some ports, while trials of remotely operated tugs are currently ongoing. Increased automation and technology will almost certainly require further investment in skills for the future Marine Pilot. Digital acuity will become a necessary skill in the training and recruitment of future seafarers – and Marine Pilots too.