Pittsburgh Brings Wi-Fi to its Waterways

The Port of Pittsburgh Commission is developing an infrastructure backbone and suite of apps and devices that could refresh river transport technology across the country.

by / June 17, 2013
PIttsburgh's waterfront Shutterstock

Airline passengers who find themselves 30,000 feet in the air can browse the Web, but if they traveled on a riverboat, they’d be out of luck -- something Pittsburgh is looking to change.

River vessels, used for both moving cargo and people, are often viewed as an outmoded form of transport, in part because of their reliance on old technology, such as VHF radio, with nary a Wi-Fi signal in sight. So to bring these river vessels up to snuff, so to speak, Pennsylvania's Port of Pittsburgh Commission (PPC) has launched its Wireless Waterways project.

Working with students from Carnegie Mellon University and with volunteers, the PPC built a backbone for marine technology and Internet applications that expands across Pittsburgh’s three rivers -- the Monongahela, Allegheny and Ohio rivers. 

About six miles of each river is covered by the network, which is connected by high-bandwidth Wi-Fi and a fiber backhaul. Beyond the three rivers, four nearby locks and dams are also connected with less complete coverage, said PPC Executive Director James McCarville. The entire system, he said, provides a backbone for both commercial and recreational boaters to have better information and make better decisions on the water.

“This is really opening up a new arena -- here we have a segment of the economy that the Internet hasn’t been developed for yet," he said, adding that the PPC is providing the backbone for the river’s Internet, while an interoperability test bed is offering outside companies the opportunity to test their equipment on the PPC’s network. “We just finished our first week of testing."

The first week of testing applications and products on the river network included trying out 3D infrared glasses that helped barge pilots see through fog; robots that check the water for environmental pollutants; video conferencing functionality; real-time depth sounding; and vessel tracking.

Many riverboat workers spend two weeks out at a time, McCarville said, with little access to outside services or a reliable way of talking to their families. “With this type of network, not only can they talk to their families or balance their checkbook," he said, "they could take college courses or do all kinds of things."

Before this network was built, McCarville said that boats operated much the way people did prior to cell phones being commonplace. Most rivers run through rural or low-income areas, he said, where there’s no Internet availability and cell phone reception is spotty.

“Well, that’s what we’ve got with the barge transportation system -- we don’t have a reliable way of verifying when and where people will show up," he said. "As a result, we’ve got a tremendous amount of lost time in trucks ordered, trains ordered for barges that don’t appear on the predicted schedule. This is going to bring transparency to that schedule and take a tremendous amount of inefficiency out of the waterway intermodal connections.”

Offering river-goers all of this data is the Wireless Waterways Maritime Situational Awareness Portal (MSAP), a Web-based GIS interface with layers of information offered by the PPC, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), and will eventually offer information from the people via crowdsourcing, McCarville said.

Through the MSAP, vessels can be tracked on a map with Google Earth overlays, with updates to vessel location every 30 seconds. Environmental layers like weather, water depth and water quality are also available.

The system can manage information for 1,000 vessels, and users can toggle layers that include the locations of things like locks and dams, marinas, terminals, businesses and government agencies. And this initial functionality is just the beginning, said McCarville, whose work with the PPC on this project was recognized by the White House, which named him a “Champion of Change” for his efforts.

“The government has an awful lot of data that is important to the safety and efficiency of the system, but they have no way of pushing that out to the industry,” he said, adding that government and organizations won't be the only entities that use this network for new apps and systems, but the public will also be able to participate. Tow boats or recreational boats that want to allow their depth sounding equipment to be hooked into the system will provide commercial boats with updated information about the changing landscape of the river bottom after storms.

The hope, says McCarville, is that the system might someday be expanded across the entire country’s riverways, so that the kinds of efficiencies and functionality gained in Pittsburgh can help the barge industry nationwide.

“This is the future. Barging is going to be here for a long time to come, and hopefully this will stimulate some public reinvestment in the locks and dams, which have been poorly maintained,” he said. “The benefits are just beginning to be felt.”

Colin Wood former staff writer

Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.

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