This article was originally published in the Nov/Dec 2017 issue of Tug & OSV. Robert Kessler, Program Manager, Maritime Global Data Solutions at Oceaneering International, looks at the continuing impact of online vessel tracking.
When the first web-based vessel-tracking tools emerged 10 years ago, they quickly proved their worth for enhancing vessel, port and terminal efficiency while also reducing costs and improving safety and security.
Leveraging real-time and historical Automatic Identification System (AIS) data and, later, radar and other data inputs, the tools were used to centralize logistics management in the oil & gas industry, and they have enabled tug and OSV operators to significantly reduce standby time at docks and terminals.
These accomplishments were achieved during a period of unprecedented growth in crude oil transportation traffic – and now, as the industry enters its next wave of traffic growth and evolution, these same tools are poised to deliver new and better ways to improve visibility and efficiency, while also protecting vessels and the assets that they navigate around.
In some areas, such as the Panama Canal, a shortage of tugs, OSVs and trained crews has created the need to do significantly more with fewer resources.
Don Marcus, president of the International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots, commented in May 2017 that the region was operating at just half capacity because of a tug shortage, saying it was “... like building a massive office tower without enough elevators to get workers to their offices”.
Other areas, such as the Gulf of Mexico, may have excess OSV capacity, thanks to structural market changes since the 2014 downturn at the peak of US OSV construction, but everything on the water is contending with rapid growth in overall vessel traffic.
This traffic was driven at first by crude oil finds in locations that included the Bakken shale fields in west Texas, and Mexico. This crude was initially banned from export, so it was used as cheap feedstock, and refineries ran to capacity as they transported growing volumes of refined product by water between ports and for export.
There was eventually a shift in the balance between imports and exports, pushing midstream providers to build new terminals and an associated infrastructure of trains and barges transporting product primarily between the Bakken fields and Gulf Coast refineries. As the crude oil export ban was gradually lifted beginning in 2015, ultra-light US crude shipments to the rest of the world grew to a million barrels a day.
Vessel-tracking tools augmented with specialized dock and terminal process management capabilities have helped to accommodate this traffic by improving a number of widely monitored key performance indicators (KPI).
As an example, many major operators have reduced average delay time per dock by as much as 35 per cent after the first few months of using a vessel-tracking tool, while increasing the number of monthly vessel calls by as much as 10 per cent within the first year.
Now, the industry is entering what looks to be a new period of even faster traffic growth, characterized by unique dynamics.
As midstream operators added more terminals to accommodate very large crude carriers (VLCCs) that are moving exports away from US ports, this is accelerating traffic growth while also introducing more complex loading dynamics, including partial VLCC loading at the dock followed by a second loading event nearby, using a smaller tanker and a ship-to-ship transfer in the deeper Gulf waters.
Gulf ports are also seeing a new stage of traffic growth and flow changes, following the Panama Canal widening, with a new flow. In addition, they are supporting newly deregulated Mexican exports, LNG trade to Asia, and bigger container ships arriving from the Far East whose movements often create restrictions for other traffic.
Over the past 10 years, AIS-based vessel-tracking tools have also introduced greater transparency and collaboration into the process of managing vessel traffic and protecting assets.
One area where this has been especially true is demurrage. Before the advent of vessel-tracking tools, tug and OSV operators often differed with terminal owners about the root causes of delays that contribute to demurrage costs, and who was responsible for the penalties. Now, these issues are discussed and disputed by using the same information about real-time and historical vessel movements, which also improves collaboration for identifying and correcting the root causes of delays.
Today’s collaborative tools also enable terminal and rig operators to more proactively manage the risks that tugs and OSVs pose to pipelines and offshore assets and infrastructure.
Before the advent of AIS-based vessel-tracking tools, asset operators generally set a radar ‘guard ring’ and associated alerting mechanisms so there would be a notification when vessels drew to within a set distance from the asset. Unfortunately, false radar alarms from the asset’s own support vessels often desensitized watch teams to what can become a high volume of alarms. Plus, radar guard rings could not provide information about the approaching vessel’s speed, so there was the risk of setting an alarm that was so large it could account for fast-approaching vessels but overwhelm watchstanders with false alarms – or so small as to provide inadequate mitigation notice.
Today’s tools eliminate these challenges. They ingest all required GPS positions from AIS transmitters, radar targets and other sensors, and integrate with a satellite AIS to deliver a complete offshore picture.
The tools can be configured to issue automated alerts that support predetermined parameters associated with each asset’s unique risk profiles. They are often also augmented by shore-based monitoring services that provide asset owners with around-the-clock ‘virtual watch team’ for assessing threats from vessels anywhere in the world.
Disparate data sets can be aggregated and transported to shore to deliver centralized visualization and actionable intelligence, so that these watch teams have everything they need to know about a vessel, a point of interest, or a user-defined zone. Meanwhile, the solutions filter out false-negative alarms so they can send alerts only about vessels’ interactions with the identified assets.
Throughout the monitoring process, the collected data is also used to optimize operational efficiency and emergency response. With easy access to data about historical vessel movements and triggered alerts, operators can establish and report KPIs on a regular basis.
Operators can also use historical data to target specific fleets or individual vessels for outreach and education, especially those that consistently appear to trigger alerts or that fail to comply or communicate with the asset watch team.
Rising vessel volumes and changing traffic patterns over the past decade have created a growing need for improved visibility and transparency, stronger safety and security, and better ways for tug and OSV operators to work with those managing terminals and offshore assets.
Collaborative AIS-based vessel-tracking tools and services have met these challenges while creating new opportunities to improve efficiencies and to operate against measurable KPIs in ways that benefit all stakeholders.