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Maritime Digitalisation & Communications

Portable pilot devices improve ship towage safety

Thu 19 Oct 2017 by Martyn Wingrove

Portable pilot devices improve ship towage safety
Navicom’s GyroPilot PPU combines navigation data with electronic charts on a laptop

Portable pilot units help reduce risks of tug accidents during ship manoeuvring by providing independent navigation information to pilots and masters 

There is greater need for portable pilot unit (PPU) technology as pilots and tug masters are faced with guiding ships with unfamiliar bridge equipment and inexperienced crew. Pilots and tug masters are required to handle larger ships in congested waters in and on the approach to ports, which reduces manoeuvring margins while operating timelines are shrinking.

All this can lead to human errors from mistimed or misunderstood communications, resulting in fatal tug accidents, as the UK’s Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) reported in July this year. An MAIB report highlighted that a lack of communications was a major factor in the capsizing of tug Domingue in Madagascar on 20 September 2016 while it was manoeuvring container ship CGM Simba (Tug Technology & Business, Q3 2017).

PPUs were developed as decision support tools to assist pilotage and navigation. They usually consist of sensor software and hardware that is interfaced with a display unit, such as a laptop or tablet computer, that is loaded with navigation software and charts. The sensors measure vessel data parameters, such as its position, heading and rate of turn, along with velocities and relative positions of other vessels and fixed infrastructure. This data is then fed into the software to create a synchronised and real-time image of the vessel and its surroundings, said PPU supplier Navicom Dynamics executive chairman John Tamis.

Like other e-navigation tools like AIS, radar and ECDIS, PPUs “provide complete and accurate situational awareness to the pilots and the crew they communicate with,” he told Tug Technology & Business.

“PPUs provide complete and accurate situational awareness to the pilots and the crew they communicate with”

This navigational equipment provides situational awareness between vessel and tugs for pilots. “This not only reduces incidents and errors but also improves operational performance,” he said. PPUs provide an onscreen representation of nearby assets and an accurate prediction of the effect of forces on the vessel, which contribute towards efficient vessel manoeuvres.

A PPU planning feature can be used during pre-activity meetings between pilots, tug crew, harbour master and shore-based personnel. “Precise identification of tug positioning procedures and tug power and velocities can be carried out and communicated clearly,” Mr Tamis said.

Pilot and tug master interaction remains invaluable during operations to prevent accidents. A tug would be operating in a complex and changing hydrodynamic environment where waves, wind and currents affect the smaller tug differently from the manoeuvred ship. “Knowledge of this interaction is vital to both safety and efficiency and can be partially inferred from the PPU data,” he said.

Changes in acceleration, position or other parameters of the ship when being assisted by a tug can be easily monitored in real-time using a PPU. “This means that quicker repositioning, changes in power or other amendments in tug configuration can be rapidly implemented,” said Mr Tamis.

“This means that quicker repositioning, changes in power or other amendments in tug configuration can be rapidly implemented”

PPUs are invaluable for manoeuvring in low visibility conditions, when it is difficult to maintain relative position with a vessel. They help pilots identify trends during port approaches to determine the level of intervention required by the tug in the manoeuvre.

They are also vital during emergencies, such as a tug engine failure or if the vessel moves dangerously close to the tug. “With the inclusion of PPUs, tug assistance and escorting becomes greatly enhanced and much safer especially during critical manoeuvres like tight swings and turns or entering narrow locks,” said Mr Tamis.


* Navicom introduced an updated version of its GyroPilot PPU in October to help improve the safety of tugs during vessel manoeuvres. GyroPilot V3 is a compact unit with a suite of enhanced applications that pilots can use for precise navigation, monitoring ship handling in ports, coastal pilotage and ship manoeuvring in congested harbours.


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