New technology increasing safety and security of shipping traffic

New technology increasing safety and security of shipping traffic

Adam Wine

Glancing at his radar and making a quick scan of the horizon, Captain Kenneth Orgeron, skipper of Kirby Marine’s integrated tug and barge Caroline Guidry, checks to see who is moving in the channel.

Grabbing the microphone, Orgeron keys in, “This is the Caroline Guidry, Houston Traffic. Over.”

A crackly voice replies, “This is Houston. Go ahead, Caroline Guidry.”

“Roger, Houston Traffic. We are leaving Gulf Coast Waste with a 180-foot empty red-flagged barge heading for the San Jac.”

The crackly voice replies, “Go ahead Caroline Guidry. You are cleared of traffic in your area.”


As the Caroline Guidry begins its journey, it will travel along one of largest concentrations of petrochemical industry and maritime traffic in the world. The Port of Houston is the largest port in the nation for foreign tonnage and its ship channel winds for about 53 miles, from the turning basin near downtown Houston, through Galveston Bay and into the Gulf of Mexico.

The management and responsibility of overseeing the daily safe movement of all this traffic lies with the controllers at the Coast Guard Vessel Traffic Service Houston.

Until recently the controllers manually tracked the ship channel traffic, using a radio, closed-circuit television cameras and radar. But on March 18, the VTS evolved the way it operates by implementing two interactive systems: the Automatic Identification System and the Port and Waterways Safety System. These two systems combined with the Distant Early Warning line project significantly extend the distance at which the Coast Guard can detect ships approaching U.S. waters, and also has increased the nation’s maritime safety and security.

The AIS is composed of a VHF radio, a Global Positioning System and a Minimum Keyboard Display, with a digital text display showing data of the six closest vessels. Similar to the black box carried by aircraft, the AIS continuously transmits a ship’s position, course, speed and identification.

This information is continually updated and received by all AIS-equipped vessels in it vicinity,” said Cmdr. Edgar Wendlandt, Chief of the Vessel Traffic Services Division. “An AIS-based VTS reduces the need for voice interactions, enhances mariners’ ability to navigate, improves their situational awareness and assists them in the performance of their duties, thus reducing the risk of collisions.”

The AIS will eventually allow VTS controllers to send text messages and broadcasts to mariners, and will enable the controllers to send a message to all mariners, a select group of mariners or just a single ship.

PAWSS is a computer system that displays the AIS signals. The system is real-time and more accurate than the previous system, significantly reducing controllers’ workload, while also improving the overall accuracy of the system and enhancing maritime domain awareness.

Extending the DEW line is part of the President’s plan to extend out borders and key to the nation’s maritime defense.

The Coast Guard is leasing offshore communication towers to increase the detection range of the AIS. These offshore sensors will allow VTS controllers to monitor all AIS-equipped commercial ship traffic operating within 80 to 200 miles off the U.S. coast.

Prior to the use of AIS the Coast Guard’s monitoring and detection capability ended at the channel entrance buoys, approximately five miles off shore. The additions of offshore towers will expand monitoring capability throughout the Gulf of Mexico from Brownsville, Texas, to Pensacola, Fla., and eventually the entire U.S. coast.

VTS Houston is spearheading the development, use and integration of the offshore AIS sites.

“We presently have three AIS towers in our system,” said Lt. Cmdr. Ron Schuster, executive officer of VTS Houston. “They provide us with real time GPS shipping data.”

A major goal of the new technologies is to provide VTSs the ability to gather and disseminate information without adding an additional operational burden to the mariner. The development of AIS and PAWSS has allowed the Coast Guard to meet the need for increase ship traffic management in ever busier port complexes around the nation, such as in Port Arthur and Corpus Christi, Texas.

The Coast Guard has a statutory responsibility under the Ports and Waterways Safety Act of 1972, Title 33 USC 1221, to ensure the safety and environmental protection of U.S. ports and waterways. The PWSA authorizes the Coast Guard to “… establish, operate and maintain vessel traffic services in ports and waterways subject to congestion.” It also authorizes the Coast Guard to require the carriage of electronic devices necessary for participation in the VTS system. The purpose of the act is to establish good order and predictability on U.S. waterways by implementing fundamental waterways management practices.

In 1996, Congress required the Coast Guard to begin an analysis of future VTS system requirements. Congress specifically directed the Coast Guard to revisit the VTS program and focus on user involvement, meeting minimum safety needs, using affordable systems, using off-the-shelf technology, and exploring public-private partnership opportunities. Most recently, the Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002, included provisions that accelerated the schedule requiring mariners to carry AIS.

The Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002 requires certain commercial vessels, both U.S. and foreign-flagged, to install and use AIS. The regulations are part of the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, an effort to increase the security and safety of maritime transportation.

“We have led the way on various international fronts for acceptance and adoption of AIS,” said Wendlandt. “We have conducted or participated in extensive operational tests of several AIS precursors. The most comprehensive test bed was the Lower Mississippi River.”

The changes in VTS technology and the expansion of the DEW line is in many ways a return to the Coast Guard’s original missions. In 1790, Congress established the Revenue Marine Service to enforce tariffs, prevent smuggling and combat piracy. The Coast Guard is evolving from a strictly waterways safety management service to a key component of the nation’s maritime security.

“The VTS is the eyes and ears of the captain of the port and a huge part of maritime domain awareness,” said Lt. Cmdr. Ron Schuster, executive officer of VTS Houston. “Our focus is on preventing terrorists from using our waterways as a means of attack, a target and an avenue of smuggling.

The key to keeping our waterways safe is early detection and prevention, and the evolution of the VTS is a vital part of that process.”

Story and photos by CWO Adam Wine, PADET Houston


AIS Capability — 2004


** New York


** Houston/Galveston

** Berwick Bay.LA

** Port Arthur. TX

** LA/LB

** San Francisco

** Puget Sound

** Prince Wm. Sound

** Ste. Sault Marie

* St. Lawrence Seaway

* R & D Test Sites

** Long Island Sound

** Ft. Lauderdale, Key West

AIS Capability — 2005+

Ongoing projects:


* NOAA/NDBC buoys

* Contracts / Feasibility Testing

** Port Graham Corp. / MarEX AK

** ORBCOMM Satellite

* Co-ops Ventures

** VTS LMR & Port Arthur

** CVTS Tampa Bay / TPA

** CVTS LA/LB–Channel Is. NMS


** Corpus Christi Port Authority

** D8/VTS/PetroCOM oil platforms

COPYRIGHT 2005 U.S. Coast Guard

COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group