ERDC’s Ship/Tow Simulator Used to Assist the Francis Scott Key Bridge Response

Francis Scott Key Bridge Response Unified Command is utilizing simulation resources from the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center’s (ERDC) Coastal and Hydraulics Laboratory (CHL) to test shipping runs around the Key Bridge accident site.

Baltimore’s Francis Scott Key Bridge collapsed March 26, 2024, when a container ship struck a supporting pier which destroyed the bridge in seconds and caused it to fall into the river, stopping all shipping traffic. Using CHL’s ship simulation technology, members of the Association of Maryland Pilots are testing a planned limited access channel at the Key Bridge accident site that will allow commercial vessels in and out of Baltimore Harbor.

This virtual tool provides pilots with an opportunity to operate a variety of ship types and sizes in a simulated fashion and is equipped with modeling technology that allows them to analyze how a ship would respond to forces such as wind, waves or other ships. There are two simulators that can operate together or separately to assess changes to the environment and site designs.

Researchers from ERDC along with the Association of Maryland Pilots run virtual simulation tests on a bypass channel around the Francis Scott Key Bridge accident site using the Ship/Tow Simulator located at ERDC’s Coastal and Hydraulics Laboratory in Vicksburg, Miss., April 12, 2024. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Initial findings are positive, and the tool has allowed the Unified Command to explore and report possible ways to open a commercial port while salvage and wreckage removal continues within the main channel.

“Confirming the viability of the bypass channel and ensuring optimal buoy placement have been our biggest takeaways from this process,” said Dr. Keith Martin, a research physicist at CHL. “Once we were sent the initial buoy layout, we ran it in the simulator and got positive results. With this data, we can use it to get the buoys placed such that the pilots are able to move the ships safely into and out of the bypass channel. Also, we’ve proved the viability of the channel. Our goal is to give the pilots confidence in this channel and their ability to use it. We want to give the same comfort level to those in the state of Maryland by assuring them that our simulator could help open the port sooner.”

ERDC’s partnership with the Baltimore Harbor during the Key Bridge Response has been a significant help in working to restore cargo ship traffic.

“Once it was decided that simulation was necessary, the maritime pilots were very responsive,” said Martin. “Their goal is to ensure they get things moving again in Baltimore. Not only is Baltimore their home, but the city is also an access point for many things, so it’s important for them to be able to move things in and out.”


“Giving them this tool is vital,” added Martin. “ERDC continues to build upon its reputation of responding expediently on many projects. They knew that they could call us and that our team would bring everything to bear we could to turn around this project quickly.”

Eric Lindheimer, chief of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) Baltimore District’s Navigation Branch, appreciates ERDC’s outreach efforts. He applauds ERDC for extending its resources to help the district complete its mission.

“This is an all-in response effort, and it requires experts from many fields across our enterprise,” said Lindheimer. “ERDC has been a phenomenal asset and partner to work with. They quickly put together a scope of work to help ensure safe passage of the channel using cutting-edge ship simulation technology, an advantage that will help us accomplish this mission.”

Providing services that help others gives Martin and his team pride in their job.

“We love what we do,” he said. “We know that we can provide something that helps people. No one wants tragedies to happen, so I’m glad that we can help and bring value to the district and the nation during these times of need.”

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