Pilot support systems: past and future



Captain Rein van Gooswilligen, President, Netherlands Pilots’ Corporation, member of the Advisory Board of the International Maritime Pilots’ Association, London, UK


Navigators in general and pilots in particular have through history used every means available to support them in the execution of their task. Perhaps a stick or a heavy object fastened to a line (or other such simple sounding devices) was used to enhance their specialised knowledge and expertise of specific areas including currents, winds, geography etc.

One finds however that it is not only the specific local knowledge but also the accumulated knowledge during a voyage that might earn a person the position of pilot on board a seagoing vessel. Thus when in 325 B.C Alexander the Great returned from his forays in the Indus area, his fleet made use of a local pilot to enter the Arabian Gulf. A Greek by the name of Timosthenes was employed by Ptolemy I (323-284 B.C.) to write sailing instructions for his new fleet. Such sailing instructions supported others to act as pilots for the fleet. An expedition of Ptolemy VIII in 120 B.C. to research the route from Egypt to India was thus guided by local Arab pilots. Much later pilots formed part of the crew as experts in navigation and drew their expertise from their own experience or the accumulated knowledge of other seafarers. Major changes in the opportunity for navigation support systems occurred in the nineteenth century, with the advent of electricity on board ships. This opened (in principle) the possibility for the use of electronic navigation aids (receivers) on board. In time, this culminated with the introduction of Decca, Loran, Omega and other electronic navigation systems.

The importance of such systems may be illustrated by the use of Decca in the Port of Rotterdam area, specifically in the entrance to Europoort for deep draught vessels. The supporting system that was developed for the specialists serving as pilots on these ships was called the Brown Box. Brown because it mechanically combined the signals received from the Green and the Red slave of the Decca chain. The Decca slaves were placed in such a position that the Red lines lay over the first leg of the approach channel, with the other pattern almost perpendicular to it (giving maximum position indication). On the last stretch two of them combined to form an ideal (Brown) pattern for the grid over the Europoort entrance channel.

Portable systems

Since the late 1990’s additional navigational decision support systems for pilots have been developed by var ious pilot organisations in the shape and form of laptop devices. This development has taken place, amongst other places, in Australia, the USA and Europe. One of the developments in Europe has been the development of the Innovative Portable Pilot Assistance (IPPA). Figure 1 shows the concept of such a system.

The outcome is of a project by the European Union in which, amongst others, the European Maritime Pilots’ Association (EMPA) participated. The IPPA project ran from 2000 until 2003 and sought to develop and validate an advanced prototype portable pilot equipment that would be able to receive data from a shore based Vessel Traffic Services (VTS) centre, such as track and environmental data, and thus, together with its stored data and other vessel’s AIS, display a comprehensive traffic image. It was envisaged that with a variety of communication interfaces, the equipment would also be capable of transmitting back to a VTS centre, data required for traffic and port management (see Figure 2). The effect was envisaged to be an improvement in navigational safety, a reduction in voice radio communications, and a provision of a beneficial impact on the efficiency of traffic flow. Interoperability with AIS was seen as a key requirement.

Tests that were conducted in various countries in Europe showed however at the time that it was not at all easy to implement all available technologies. At least in principle it was judged possible to fulfil the basic goals. In several countries, pilot organisations have taken this development a step further. The Dutch pilot organisation in co-operation with QPS (a subsidiary of the Holland Institute of Traffic Technology – HITT) developed the ‘Navigator Marginale Schepen’ (NMS). The pilot organisation provided the practical input and field testing while QPS provided the implementation and update of software applications. Two antennas are situated on the bridge wing while the system is provided with RTK signal input resulting in a very high relative accuracy (see Figure 3). The River Scheldt region took the lead in this respect and succeeded in introducing the SNMS (Schelde Navigator Marginale Schepen) in 2004. It was specifically designed as a support system for pilots on large vessels.

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