WAYPOINT - Portable Pilot Units

01 Oct 2017 The Navigator

Dr Andy Norris, an active Fellow of The Nautical Institute and the Royal Institute of Navigation, takes a closer look at Portable Pilot Units.

It is now very common for Pilots to come on board with a Portable Pilot Unit (PPU). This is a compact system that gives them easy access to relevant navigational information, including charted data. The huge advantage to Pilots is that they are completely familiar with setting up and using the equipment. Their particular PPU may also give them ready access to local real-time data that may not be available to the ship’s regular systems.

PPUs generally have access to the data transmitted and received by the vessel’s own AIS, via the connection on the bridge known as the Pilot Plug. The Pilot may also bring on board an additional unit that is generally mounted in an external position, close to the bridge. This second unit collects relevant navigational data, communicating it wirelessly to the main PPU. Data can include the vessel’s position and motion, as well as independently collected AIS data and local real-time data transmissions.

This is all great for Pilots, not to mention the overall safety of the vessel, provided it does not isolate them from the bridge team. PPU displays are small and designed for single-person use. Aspects of the displayed information are likely to be only familiar to the Pilot. Use of a PPU effectively allows the Pilot to put a reduced emphasis on viewing the ship’s own systems, although a primary interest in the vessel’s radar displays in particular must always be maintained.

Problems and perks
Importantly, Pilots and bridge teams must be aware of the benefits and potential problems in the use of PPUs. Ideally, their use increases communication between the Pilot and the bridge staff, but it takes positive action from all parties to make this happen. For instance, the PPU can be a useful aid for making checks on the ship’s own navigational equipment – are all readings from both systems consistent? Equally, such checks can also highlight potential problems with the information displayed on the PPU.

It should always be borne in mind that the international standard (IEC 61162-2) used for the vessel’s AIS Pilot Port states: “Since there is no provision for guaranteed delivery of messages and only limited error-checking capability, this standard should be used with caution in all safety applications.” The Pilot’s specific knowledge is required to know whether the source of any information displayed on the PPU is the vessel itself via the Pilot Port, or the equipment that the Pilot has brought on board.

Bridge staff should therefore show an interest in the data displayed on the PPU, initially by asking the Pilot about it at a suitable time. After that, an occasional glance over the Pilot’s shoulder to view the PPU screen could assist the Pilot in detecting any anomalies and therefore should generally be acceptable.

Unlike most navigation-related bridge equipment, PPUs are not covered by any specific IMO requirements for their design and performance. Although this potentially makes them all very different, it also has the benefit that they can readily evolve to meet the area’s specific requirements and use the most modern technology and concepts.

Fortunately, since the main users are such experts, especially in knowledge of the area in which they are used, any performance issues would be readily noticed and reported. In some ways, modern advanced PPUs are the precursors of IMO eNavigation, integrating navigation sensor information with digitally received data in a way that is easy to understand. Will they perhaps lead to the regular use of hand-held displays by bridge staff to aid safe navigation, such as when walking around the bridge, comparing the optical and electronic views in detail?