AIS Tracking Technology is the Safe Option

Posted by Jason Tieman


Jason Tieman, Maritime director of PortVision, looks at some of the latest developments in vessel tracking technology and their implications for improved safety at sea.

***This article originally appeared in the November/December 2014 edition of International Tug & OSV.

Understanding and monitoring maritime activities is vital to marine transportation safety, security, and efficiency, and is also necessary in order to protect natural resources and critical infrastructure. It requires a variety of ocean observation and maritime domain awareness (MDA) technologies, including those that use automatic identification system (AIS) data.

AIS technologies are now widely adopted in a variety of applications, and their use has recently been extended to help monitor critical pipeline infrastructure in order to prevent damage caused by encroaching vessels. AIS-based pipeline monitoring helps vessel operators keep their crews safe and reduce liability risks, and also gives the industry an important tool for protecting people, assets and the environment from the damaging and often disastrous consequences of pipeline strikes.

The availability of AIS tools that go beyond simple data aggregation creates many new opportunities for companies as well as US government organizations. These include scheduling vessels at oil refineries, supporting homeland security and law enforcement activities.

One example of a commercial AIS system is PortVision. PortVision (a registered trademark of Houston, Texas-based Oceaneering International) fuses AIS data with proprietary information about waterway points of interest (terminals, berths, buoys, etc.), and incorporates additional data such as weather and chart overlays. The intent is to provide a platform that solves business problems for the user, rather than simply showing individual points on a map.

Figure 1, below, shows historical playback in PortVision that was used to investigate the collision between a tug pushing barges and another vessel in the Houston Ship Channel at the Texas City 'Y', where the Intracoastal Waterway and shipping lanes from the Houston and Texas City all intersect with the channel to the Gulf of Mexico.


The value to shoreside users of AIS continues to grow. For instance, AIS has been used to support operations related to key incidents such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, major hurricane and weather events, and numerous compliance and law enforcement activities. Another AIS application is driving regulatory compliance. As an example, PortVision has participated with the Offshore Marine Service Association to identify and report Jones Act violators. 

In a similar type of application, port authorities use PortVision to enforce speed and emission reduction initiatives. Other customers in the US federal government use PortVision data and services to support homeland security and intelligence operations.

AIS is also helping the maritime business community accommodate today's surge of Gulf traffic, including vessels transporting crude oil shipments from new finds in locations including the Dakotas, West Texas, and Mexico.

AIS-based vessel-tracking solutions are now also being used for pipeline protection. Often, pipeline incident costs soar into the millions of dollars, not including the expense of associated reputational damage and, frequently, decreased ability to operate in the region; nor does it consider the incalculable costs of human injury or loss.

The industry is beginning to address these challenges with a strict set of policies and procedures that are augmented by the use of AIS-based vessel tracking. Pilot testing of these solutions has now been completed, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC0 in September 2014 issued PortVision a license to transmit AIS safety messages directly to vessels that appear to be encroaching on fixed asset infrastructure such as offshore pipelines.

This new development of transmitting a safety alert to the wheelhouse augments PortVision's existing practice of automatically notifying pipeline operations personnel when encroachments are detected.

The challenges of protecting the pipeline infrastructure are well documented. During the past 20 years, marine pipeline and vessel interactions have resulted in $120 million in pipeline damages (not counting the cost of lost or damaged vessels), more than 100,000bbls of product released into the environment, 29 fatalities and 35 injuries.

To protect against these threats, the federal government has regulated pipeline safety since the late 1960s. Congress created the Office of Pipeline Safety (OPS) in 1968 to oversee and implement pipeline safety regulations, and today this function is housed in the Department of Transportation under the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA). Companies must adhere to PHMSA mandates including Code 49 of Federal Regulations (CFR), Part 192, related to the transportation of natural and other gas by pipeline, and Part 195 related to the transportation of hazardous liquids by pipeline.

The biggest threats to the marine pipeline infrastructure include vessel anchors, spud barges and collisions of vessels with pipelines in shallow water. Changing coastal conditions due to erosion and subsidence are increasing risk in many areas, even with better regulation and expanded pipeline remediation programs by operators. Traffic volume can also be a factor, as in the Gulf of Mexico, where there are an estimated 102,000km or more of pipelines, in and area that is experiencing a surge in traffic.

Steps for protecting the pipeline infrastructure have typically included educating vessel operators about the dangers of encroachment, and implementing on-going surveillance using aircraft fly-overs or survey vessels, and a telephone notification system that relies on the public to call prior to any subsurface operation to verify the location of pipelines, or to report incidents and when they see threatening situations.

Each element has its own set of shortcomings. Unfortunately, a fly-over program can generally identify problems only after they have occurred, precluding the opportunity to prevent a strike while making it difficult to identify a culprit.

Inspection and surveillance programs using vessels on the waterway suffer from the inability to be where they need to be, when they need to be, when a pipeline strike is imminent. And - as helpful as public self-reporting systems can be - they still can't provide real-time, round-the-clock visibility into all potential encroachment by marine vessels across the entire pipeline infrastructure.

The solution is to continuously monitor all vessels in very zone of interest. This is an ideal application for AIS-based technology.

To implement vessel-tracking for pipeline encroachment monitoring, pipeline maps are first incorporated into the vessel-tracking too (see Figure 2, below). All required alerting parameters related to vessel speed near zones of interest and the duration of time spent there, each of which can be an indicator of a problem or a threatening situation that is worth scrutinizing.


Early pilot projects with the Coastal and Marine Operators (CAMO) group, US Coast Guard and major oil companies have yielded valuable results. In one example at a major pipeline company, and alert was received regarding a vessel in a zone of interest. A field inspector was immediately sent to investigate the incident and confirmed that the vessel was stationary at a pipeline location. The inspector notified the pipeline control center of the unauthorized encroachment, who then notified an operations supervisor. The terminal operations team was instructed to contact the vessel but was unsuccessful, so the field inspector found and was able to contact the vessel owner, who provided the vessel captain's phone number. The captain was contacted and asked for an 'All Stop' until further notice due to his close proximity to the pipeline. Once confirmation was received that the vessel was grounded, notifications were made to all the organization's stakeholders. Information was reviewed, and it was determined that the vessel should wait and relocate at high tide so as not to be a threat to the pipeline.

Pilot project participants have also been able to determine through data mining and other confirmation that certain threat risk levels are acceptable, and notification parameters have been modified accordingly.

In future, users may be able to apply historical AIS data to the task of further analyzing notification parameters that will be most effective for monitoring and managing pipeline threats. This historical data can also identify what segments of pipelines experience higher traffic volumes, and provide insight into specific vessels or fleets that appear to regularly operate near assets. This will assist in determining where to target awareness and prevention efforts.

Ship tracking data plays a key role in optimizing safety, security, and efficiency, and is now being added to pipeline protection programs. Today's AIS-based vessel-tracking solutions provide real-time visibility in most areas where encroachment could lead to a pipeline strike. In addition, these systems also provide automated alerting when a strike may be imminent and a collaborative platform for assessing risk, determining next steps, and coordinating action.

PortVision 360 AIS Vessel Tracking

Posted on Apr 21, 2016, 6:07:00 AM

Topics: Blog, Tools, AIS, Pipeline, Vessel Tracking