Digital buoys could expand inland navigation communications network

U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center
Published July 14, 2023
Updated: July 14, 2023
A group of people with blue, green and whit hard and orange safety vest stand next to a large green and grey concrete and steel bouy.

Crew members aboard Coast Guard Cutter Frank Drew discuss their plan of action before performing buoy maintenance on the Elizabeth River in Portsmouth, Virginia, Feb. 20, 2018. The crew worked through dense fog to hoist, assess, maintain, and deploy five buoys on the Elizabeth and James Rivers that day. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Corinne Zilnicki/Released)

With more than 12,000 buoys already playing a critical role in our nation’s inland navigation system, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is researching a way to use patented technology to make those buoys even more valuable.

Relying on these water markers for marine navigation, hundreds of millions of goods are transported annually along our inland waterways. According to an annual report published by USACE, more than 280 million tons were transported in 2020, mostly grain and petroleum products.

Leveraging digital buoy technology developed and patented by Tung “Alex” Ly, a computer scientist with the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center’s (ERDC) Geospatial Research Laboratory (GRL), USACE is now exploring the idea of turning buoys that are positioned and designed to mark shipping channels into critical components of an extensive inland waterways network.

Dr. Austin Davis, a technical director with GRL, said Ly’s research provided an example of an effective mesh network that could improve and expand the ability to share important navigation information along a waterway – a technology gap not covered by existing networks or cellular systems. 

“Right now, the Lock Operation Management Application (LOMA) system has a network around locks and dam sites to pass information to mariners as they approach the structure, but once they get further down the waterway – away from that site – there is no network access,” Davis said. “The thought is this network could push important navigation information to the mariners along the entire waterway, not just around the locks and dam locations.

“Cell phone towers are just focused on cities and interstates, not so much on the waterways. There are gaps in the ability to get information. This would provide a way to get maritime information – which is important to navigation safety – to the people who need it.”

Developed in conjunction with the Inland Electronic Navigational Charts Program (IENC) and USACE Louisville District, the technology was first targeted at providing the U.S. Coast Guard with real-time locations of its buoys. The idea has now grown beyond that.

“I think the real value to USACE is there would be a network that could disseminate navigation information by augmenting the Coast Guard buoy itself,” Davis said. “At the same time, this would provide trackability to where buoys are and how they move in the waterway. They don’t sit still.”

According to Ly, USACE is responsible for planning and constructing improvements to inland water navigation and dredging and maintaining thousands of miles of inland waterways.

“Water navigation safety markers (buoys) are designated national critical data,” Ly said. “This system of maritime aids to navigation provides the lane markers, street signs, stop lights for the nautical rules of the water, much like the driving rules of the road.”

Initial water-based prototypes and small experimentations were done on the Occoquan River in Virginia. The final prototypes and larger experiments were created and tested on a 10-mile stretch of the Ohio River around the Louisville District.

While the COVID pandemic slowed the expansion of this initiative, Davis said interest and effort in the next steps for the program have increased.

“The ultimate goal is trying to be a stepping stone to start converting navigation on the rivers to a virtual buoys system, but that is several, several decades away … a far future,” Davis said. “The next step would be a large field trial. We have to prove the reliability of the technology. This is about how you make the aids to navigation a little bit smarter and give them more capabilities.”

Davis said a large field trial would try to answer questions about how to augment a Coast Guard buoy best, whether the system can be stretched over one river or multiple rivers, as well as questions about power, reliability, durability and costs.

“In the laboratory effort, we have provided a proof of concept, but there are a lot of things not considered in that effort,” Davis said. But if a larger field test proves successful, “if it makes sense, hopefully, we could scale it into a national digital buoy system.”