Wireless Network to Help Commercial River Traffic

Beaver County Times
13 January 2013
By Michael Pound


PITTSBURGH -- The rivers in the Pittsburgh area have been used for commercial purposes for centuries. And in many ways, navigating those rivers hasn't changed much over time.

But the Port of Pittsburgh will soon set up 21st-century technology along the Ohio, Allegheny and Monongahela rivers to improve safety, increase efficiency and collect a lot of information about what's traveling up and down those waterways.

"The system will have plenty of benefits for plenty of groups," said James McCarville, executive director of the Port of Pittsburgh. "But I'm looking at it as a business attraction tool, because it's going to make our waterways look very attractive."

The Wireless Waterways project was born out of another high-tech navigational tool called SmartLock, developed a few years ago by the port and Carnegie Mellon University. McCarville said that system was designed to improve efficiency around the area's locks.

"For years, navigation around the locks consisted of a deckhand standing on the barges and telling the pilot he was about 200 feet from the entrance," McCarville said. "But one guy's 200 feet is different from another guy's 200 feet, and that can create some problems."

SmartLock is a virtual navigation system that gives pilots constantly updated information about where they are in relation to the lock's facilities.

"A pilot on a towboat looks on a computer screen and sees the exact position of the boat and barges," he said. "The information is very precise."

But to get SmartLock running, the port needed a wireless network in place. That spawned River-Net, a project to examine all modes of communication along the waterways and all the groups -- the Army Corps of Engineers, the Coast Guard, commercial carriers and officials from the port -- that use them.

"Carnegie Mellon developed concepts for the network from there, and we then issued a design request for proposals," McCarville said. "That primarily included the facilities we have in Allegheny and Beaver counties."

Last summer, after securing a U.S. Department of Homeland Security grant, the port awarded a $1.3 million contract to CONXX Inc. in Johnstown to build the first portion of the broadband network, which covers Emsworth, the port's offices in downtown Pittsburgh and the Army Corps' warehouse facility.

It won't take long for the network to be extended. By the end of February, it will be extended to locks on the Allegheny and Monogahela; by the end of May, it will cover Dashields at Coraopolis, and Montgomery in Potter Township.

The network will allow the port, the Army Corps and the tow companies to begin using SmartLock at those facilities. But McCarville said the network also will provide other benefits.

"With improved navigation and better efficiencies, we're going to be able to do a better job of coordinating intermodal transfers," he said, referring to transferring cargo between barges and trucks or trains. "That alone is going to save our commercial partners a lot of time and money."

Collecting data about the rivers and their traffic also will help entities that need it.

"The (state) Department of Environmental Protection, the National Weather Service, municipal water or sewer authorities will all get a much better, much more timely set of data about the rivers than they can get now," he said. "This is something that will extend well beyond the commercial traffic."

McCarville said expansion beyond the Pittsburgh region could be accomplished more quickly with further grant funds. He estimated that implementing the network nationally would cost between $10 million and $20 million, but he anticipated that the network would bring in some revenue as well.

"When our commercial partners see how much time and money they'll be able to save, I think we'll be able to discuss a contribution to the system," he said. "This is going to be a big bang for everyone involved." ___

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