Crowdsourcing Bathymetry Could Provide Near-time Picture of Nation’s Inland Waterways

The more the merrier.

That common saying could be the motto for an effort within the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) to create a near real-time system that would track the safety and accessibility of our nation’s inland waterways.

Taking advantage of vessels already on the water, an effort in the works at the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC) will use those vessels’ depth finders and GPS to create a snapshot of a channel and any obstructions that may exist.

This information, crowdsourced for private and public vessels, would support USACE’s existing survey fleet and reduce the impact of any threats to navigation on the 25,000 miles of inland waterways USACE maintains. 

“The Army Corps of Engineers has a fleet of surveyors that do highly accurate, precise surveys on a periodic schedule for all of the waterways,” said Dr. Brandan Scully, a research civil engineer with ERDC’s Coastal and Hydraulics Laboratory. “But given the nature of those surveys, cost, time, available vessels, etc., we do not have the ability to continuously monitor.

“In order for us to do that with traditional resources, it would cost millions of dollars.”

Scully said crowdsourcing bathymetry would use equipment that already exists on vessels, such as depth finders and GPS, and supplement it with a device that would transmit that data. Once collected in a cloud, the data would then be quickly analyzed and aggregated with data from other vessels in the same area to give a picture of that portion of the waterway.  

“It’s relatively simple. It’s like plugging into a router at your home for the internet, and it aggregates the position and the depth observed by the vessel and sends it off to a cloud computing resource,” Scully said. “And because there are many more waterway users, because they’re working all the time, we can have a rolling picture of parts of the waterway based on who is in the crowd and how much they are moving around.”

Scully said this information – this picture – could then be used to prioritize the actions of the USACE survey fleet and its ability to capture accurate scans to better observe any concerns with navigation. It also provides the ability to watch the waterways between scheduled surveys.

As for the next step, Scully said ERDC is currently working with public and private organizations to determine the best device and setup to roll the program out on a larger scale for a proof of concept. In addition, he said there is still work to be done on where to best house the data and distribute the information.

In a discussion at the recent national meeting of the Association of the United States Army, Lt. Gen. Scott Spellmon, 55th Chief of Engineers and Commanding General of USACE, said he envisions the use of this crowdsourced bathymetry as a sort of digital traffic map for inland waterways, much in the same way as popular apps on cellphones provide updates on highway traffic. He also said a program such as this would help in USACE’s response to natural disasters, such as hurricanes.

“An example I would use is we just had Hurricane Idalia come through the state of Florida just a few weeks ago and the South Atlantic Division has five survey vessels that have to cover 12 ports in the state,” Spellmon said. “And that takes time after a storm. You have to get our survey crews there and work with the Coast Guard to reopen those ports.”

Spellmon said being able to pull data from public and private vessels already navigating in the area would provide “real-time processes of the federal navigation channel, and we would not have to put a survey vessel in that area right away.”

Scully said the analogy of a traffic app is a good one.

“Those apps tell you the speed of traffic and where the police might be and stuff like that,” he said. “But what this is telling us, essentially, is where are the potholes? Where are the speed bumps?”

The critical portions of this research are determining the technology to use to transmit and collect the data (whether that is a private or public solution), finding ways to aggregate and analyze it, and then figuring out how best to push out the information to those who need it, such as commercial operations and teams tasked with clearing any threats to navigation.

“That’s one of the nice things about ERDC … we filter the solutions and find the right answer, or we find the best available answer right now,” Scully said. “We have to have a good match between the Army’s mission and the provider’s capability.”

While the program continues to wait for additional funding to advance the technology, Scully said the exciting part is there is already buy-in from some Districts and Divisions, who believe such a technology would help their inland waterway operations.

“The Districts and Divisions really want this. I have been working with the Mississippi Valley Division and the Great Lakes and Ohio River Division. They want this as fast as they can,” Scully said. “They have shippers willing to go out and buy this on their own.”

Scully said this technology and idea are not novel — similar technology is already being used by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for ocean and coastal operations, but it would be the first use of this technology on inland navigation.

“Mariners on our inland waterways are not necessarily going to benefit knowing the channel is in good shape,” Scully said. “They will benefit more knowing that there’s an obstruction and where that obstruction is.”

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