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Tracking Vessels on the Saint Lawrence Seaway

Thursday, June 25, 2020

This write-up was originally featured in a 2002 issue of Volpe Highlights.

When large cargo ships traverse narrow waterways, the careful management and navigation of their passage is critical to maximizing efficiency, safety, and security. The Center for Navigation at the Volpe Center has developed several systems that improve navigation in shipping channels. In December 2000, the Center completed the installation of a state-of-the-art system in the Panama Canal. Subsequently, similar systems were installed in Central American ports to restore navigation capabilities that were destroyed by hurricanes. Building on these successes, the Center designed and implemented a comprehensive vessel communications and tracking network that will identify and track all commercial vessels on the Saint Lawrence Seaway.

The network, based on automatic identification system (AIS) technology, provides signal coverage from Montreal to eastern Lake Erie. The system enables automatic vessel position reporting from vessels equipped with AIS transponders to the Seaway Traffic Management System. In turn, the shoreside AIS network provides vessel traffic services information, such as wind speeds, water levels, visibility conditions, and lock schedules to transiting ships.

RSPA Administrator Ellen G. Engleman speaks from a lecturn.

The project was developed by the Center for Navigation under the sponsorship of a consortium composed of the Saint Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation, the Canadian St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation, The Shipping Federation of Canada, and the Canadian Shipowners Association. The U.S. and Canadian Seaway agencies jointly operate the Seaway's locks and channels, and also provide traffic management for the waterway.

On September 5, 2002, the AIS network was inaugurated on the Seaway with a ceremony at St. Lambert Lock, the entrance to the Seaway at Montreal, Canada. Volpe Center Director Richard R. John, along with Center for Navigation Division Chief Mike Moroney and Division staff Messrs. Kam Chin, David Phinney, and Bryan Long, attended the inauguration. The team from the Center for Navigation gave briefings on the AIS and conducted successful demonstrations of the system's capabilities.

RSPA Administrator Ellen G. Engleman spoke at the ceremony. "AIS will enhance safety, reliability, and security of shipping in the Seaway," she said. "It's a clear example of transportation research and technology meeting today's needs."

Although only a few ships currently have AIS, all ships traveling through the Saint Lawrence Seaway during the next shipping season, which will commence in late March 2003, will be required to carry AIS transponders. Vessels that approach the Seaway without an installed AIS transponder will be equipped with a portable unit for use while traveling through the waterway. The Saint Lawrence Seaway is the first waterway in the western hemisphere to operationally employ AIS technology.

Since 1959, the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway System has been a vital waterborne transportation link for moving goods between the heartland of North America and international markets. The Seaway System, 2,038 nautical miles in length, encompasses the St. Lawrence River and the 5 Great Lakes, and extends from the Gulf of St. Lawrence at the Atlantic Ocean to the western end of Lake Superior at the twin ports of Duluth, Minnesota, and Superior, Wisconsin. Each navigation season, more than 2,000 commercial vessel transits are made through the Seaway System's locks to call on major U.S. and Canadian ports. The St. Lawrence Seaway is co-managed by the U.S. and Canadian Seaway agencies.

The Saint Lawrence Seaway

AIS uses Global Positioning System (GPS) technology and VHF digital radio transceivers to share vital marine navigation data from ship-to-ship, shore-to ship, and ship-to-shore in real time. Using the AIS communications protocol, vessels equipped with a transponder can be tracked by the three Seaway Vessel Traffic Control Centers (TCCs), which in turn transmit information back to the ships. All System traffic is thus aware of the exact location of any vessels in their vicinity, in any kind of weather. In addition, the TCCs transmit data such as lock order turn, water levels, current and wind speed and direction, and Seaway alerts or advisories, which can be accessed instantly via an onboard laptop computer. The information is displayed on a virtual map of the Seaway, which changes as the data change.

How Does AIS Work?

Instant information about other vessels, such as type, size, position, course, and speed, greatly increases the margin of safety for crews in inclement weather and enhances environmental safety. In a time of heightened security concerns, AIS offers law enforcement officials a much-needed tool for responding more quickly and effectively in any emergency. System administrators will be able to schedule inspections and services in a more timely manner, effect better speed control, and schedule lockages and vessel tie-ups more efficiently. And industry will see improved traffic and fleet management as transit times are reduced and ships save on fuel.

How Will AIS Improve Safety, Efficiency, and Security?


Above photo: At the Saint Lawrence Seaway AIS inaugural event in Montreal on September 5, 2002, RSPA Administrator Ellen G. Engleman emphasized the importance of AIS in increasing maritime situation awareness. Also shown: Albert Jacquez (right), Administrator, Saint Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation; Richard Le Hir (left), President, The Shipping Federation of Canada. (Photo courtesy of Kam Chin)

Volpe's vessel communications and tracking network, in use at the Eisenhower Lock vessel traffic control center in New York.

In the early 2000s, Volpe implemented a vessel communications and tracking network for the Saint Lawrence Seaway. The network, based on the automatic identification system, promises improved safety, security, and efficiency throughout the Seaway. Pictured here, the new system in use at the Eisenhower Lock vessel traffic control center in New York. (Photo courtesy of Kam Chin)