Charting the Course: Ohio River test bed explores future of navigation

Billions of barrels of oil, tons of cargo and bushels of crops travel on America’s rivers every year on the way to local gas stations, shopping malls and grocery stores. The prosperity of the American Heartland pumps through the vital economic arteries of the Ohio, Mississippi and Missouri rivers. Now, the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are pioneering the future of navigation in Louisville, Kentucky. The test bed area covers most of the Ohio River and part of the Mississippi River.

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A commercial Electronic Chart
A commercial Electronic Chart System (ECS) shows both electronic Aids to Navigation (eATON) and enhanced Marine Safety Information (eMSI) being broadcast in the vicinity of Olmsted Lock. The blue diamonds are eATONs that assist the mariner in navigating around the lock. The Yellow dots are eMSI, which provide the mariner critical pieces of information that enhance situational awareness, the eMSI broadcast selected displays the current water level at that location.

Written by Walter T. Ham IV

Billions of barrels of oil, tons of cargo and bushels of crops travel on America’s rivers every year on the way to local gas stations, shopping malls and grocery stores.

The prosperity of the American Heartland pumps through the vital economic arteries of the Ohio, Mississippi and Missouri rivers. These rivers are among the inland marine transportation corridors collectively known as the Western Rivers.

A 25-foot response boat from Coast Guard Sector Ohio Valley patrols the Ohio River in Louisville, Kentucky. The Ohio River Enhanced Marine Safety Information Test Bed is located in Louisville. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Carlos Vega.
A 25-foot response boat from Coast Guard Sector Ohio Valley patrols the Ohio River in Louisville, Kentucky. The Ohio River Enhanced Marine Safety Information Test Bed is located in Louisville. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Carlos Vega.

Many critical American industries rely on these waterways and approximately 15 percent of the total U.S. freight travels on the Western Rivers. The rivers also reduce air pollution and traffic on America’s roads and railways. Two tow barges can carry as much cargo as 80 train cars or 300 trucks.

Now, the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) are pioneering the future of navigation in Kentucky’s largest city.

Because of Louisville’s strategic position on the Ohio River, a major inland waterway that crosses five states before merging into the Mississippi River, the location was selected as the home for the Ohio River Enhanced Marine Safety Information (e-MSI) Test Bed.

The Coast Guard Office of Navigation Systems and Coast Guard Research and Development Center are working with the USACE Research and Development Center at the test area, which covers most of the Ohio River and part of the Mississippi River.

“The e-MSI test site brings together two of the principal agencies that are charting a course for a more effective and efficient maritime system,” said Coast Guard Capt. Scott J. Smith, chief of the Office of Navigation Systems.

A 25-foot response boat from Coast Guard Sector Ohio Valley patrols the Ohio River in Louisville, Kentucky. The Ohio River Enhanced Marine Safety Information Test Bed is located in Louisville. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Carlos Vega.
A 25-foot response boat from Coast Guard Sector Ohio Valley patrols the Ohio River in Louisville, Kentucky. The Ohio River Enhanced Marine Safety Information Test Bed is located in Louisville. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Carlos Vega.

From the test bed, the Automatic Identification System (AIS) is being used to transmit messages to vessels from the Ohio River locks around Louisville, including messages on weather, bridge clearance, hazardous cargos, safety and security zones, lock status and Aids to Navigation (ATON).

The test bed is helping the services determine the equipment and infrastructure needed to modernize U.S. waterways and make them safer, more efficient and more resilient. The Coast Guard is also using the test bed to explore how to best integrate AIS into its existing MSI and ATON systems.

“The test site will not only help improve service delivery on our inland waterways but also across the entire Marine Transportation System,” Smith said.

Maintaining Aids to Navigation is the Coast Guard’s oldest mission, tracing its roots to the ninth law passed by Congress that created the U.S. Lighthouse Establishment in 1789.

As the multi-mission, maritime service responsible for the safety, security and stewardship of American waterways, the Coast Guard maintains the U.S. Aids to Navigation system, which includes more than 48,000 buoys, beacons and electronic aids.

The Aids to Navigation System safely guides millions of mariners and trillions of trade into U.S. ports. The U.S. ATON system supports military, commercial and recreational mariners across the 25,000 miles of coastal, intracoastal and inland waterways of the U.S. Marine Transportation System (MTS).

The Coast Guard, USACE and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have a shared responsibility for U.S. navigable waterways. NOAA produces nautical charts and provides tidal and weather information while the USACE conducts hydrographic surveys, maintains locks and dredges waterways.

A tug pushing 35 barges passes under the Vicksburg, Miss. Approximately 15 percent of the total U.S. freight travels on the Western Rivers. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Lally.
A tug pushing 35 barges passes under the Vicksburg, Miss. Approximately 15 percent of the total U.S. freight travels on the Western Rivers. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Lally.

On busy American waterways, Coast Guard-maintained Aids to Navigation save lives, protect property and enable commerce – and much of that commerce travels down America’s rivers past cities like Louisville.

Together with other AIS initiatives, like the “Digital Lightship” capability that enables the Coast Guard to provide safety information in austere locations and to quickly reconstitute ports following disasters, the Western Rivers Test Bed is part of the interagency Future of Navigation initiative.

Smith, a Cleveland native, said the initiative will help to bring American waterways into the 21st Century.

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