The Water Institute of the Gulf, an applied science nonprofit that seeks to respond to economic and environmental challenges facing coastal and river-oriented communities, recently received a $1.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Agency to further a pilot project that seeks to create a digital platform, or what the Institute describes as a “Waze app for the Mississippi.” The platform will enable ports, barges and other vessels to gather real-time information on river conditions, particularly on how shoaling affects river depth.
If the technology is successful, the project, based in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, could eventually be deployed on other U.S. inland river systems.
FreightWaves recently chatted with Justin Ehrenwerth, the Water Institute’s executive director, to learn more about the project.
This question-and-answer interview was edited for clarity and length.
FREIGHTWAVES: How did this idea for the digital platform come about?
EHRENWERTH: “In 2018, I was asked by Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards to join him on a trip to Israel. The trip focused on water and cybersecurity, and he asked me to lead the water aspect of the trip. And so I did, and there were a lot of important and interesting things that came out of it.
“One thing that was not on the agenda was issues related to riverine ports. However, as part of the delegation, Brandi Christian, the head of the Port of New Orleans, was on the trip. And I asked Brandi what type of issues troubled her and the Port of New Orleans, and she mentioned the fact that the port had to expend recently at that time about $2 million on an emergency dredging contract because the silt and sediment from the Mississippi River had piled up in and around the Port of New Orleans, causing the port not to have the desired level of depth. …
“I was surprised to learn how reactive the port industry tends to be to these sedimentation issues — shoaling as it’s called. When we returned to Louisiana, we brainstormed with the Water Institute’s technical team about this challenge. … We figured that we can use data from working vessels operating on the river to get a better picture of shoaling, in the hopes of helping the ports and other rivering stakeholders avoid the need to be so reactive rather than proactive. And that’s really where this idea was formed.”
FREIGHTWAVES: Can you explain how shoaling affects river conditions?
EHRENWERTH: “The Mississippi River is a tremendously dynamic river. It is moving large quantities of sediment and sand and silt. And so, there are many different conditions that influence the amount of sediment that’s moving in the river: everything from rainfall further upstream to the operation of various structures. And so, the bottom of the river is quite dynamic.
“Shoaling is this phenomenon of sediments accumulating in a particular area. And it’s certainly a problem when you see that sediment accumulate in and around a riverine port. It’s also an issue in the operation of larger vessels moving up and down the river. Ultimately, by having better data … we’ll be able to make more informed decisions about the movement of goods up and down the river, as well as the most strategic deployment of dredges that are working the river to maintain a particular level of depth.”
FREIGHTWAVES: Where will the data for the data platform come from?
EHRENWERTH: “We have access to survey data. The Army Corps of Engineers periodically surveys the Mississippi River, as do many of the ports. They will pay for their own survey vessels. Those data are available today.
“But one of the challenges is that the surveys only occur periodically: different schedules according to where on the river you’re talking about, as well as how often ports will have their own survey vessels measuring the depth. So, the advantage of having a crowdsourced fleet is that you’re picking up much more data.
“The idea behind this initiative is that tugs, barges and other working vessels are constantly collecting this imagery data. The challenge is that the data is not typically stored or beamed to the clouds. But rather, vessels’ crews use that data to pilot the vessel.
“What we’ve done in the pilot project that we’re running now is that we, along with IBM, developed an app that is downloaded onto a laptop on the tug, and it runs in the background and it collects this imagery data — the depth and the GPS location of that measurement — and it beams it up to the cloud. From there, we’re able to use it in the larger workflow of ultimately generating a real-time imagery product as well as an ultimately forecasted imagery product.”
FREIGHTWAVES: You mentioned this was a pilot project. What’s the next step?
EHRENWERTH: “Through federal support from the Port of New Orleans, we have been working on a pilot where we put about a dozen workboats and tugs from Crescent Towing online to do a proof of concept. We still have more work to do but we’re finishing up that pilot project. Now, we will have $3 million in funding to continue to work on this effort. So, we’ll be able to take the work we have piloted in and around the Port of New Orleans, build on that, and also expand the domain not just in and around the Port of New Orleans but to go from north Louisiana all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.
“The funding will also allow us to add some additional aspects, including developing resilience strategies and interactive resilience strategies with the eight ports on the river in the state, as well as a dashboard that will be able to display not only the real-time shoaling forecast but also … incorporates the data around weather, around river traffic conditions as well as road traffic conditions coming in and out of the port.
“So, we’re really excited and very grateful for the support from the federal government through the Department of Commerce’s economic development administration, as well as support from the State of Louisiana.”
FREIGHTWAVES: How do the road conditions affect the operations?
EHRENWERTH: “The road traffic is an important data point for the ports who are bringing cargo in from the river onto land and oftentimes transporting it from there via rail or road. It’s not directly related to the real-time shoaling forecast tool that we’ve been discussing, but it’s certainly within the ecosystem of smarter ports. It’s an important data point.”
FREIGHTWAVES: Who do you see as being the audience for this app?
EHRENWERTH: “We anticipate that this will be very valuable to ports, valuable really to any stakeholder that has an interest in seeing more efficiency when moving goods up and down the Mississippi River. And I should say that this technology is not necessarily limited to the Mississippi River. It could be leveraged and expanded to really address this set of issues on any inland waterway: the Mississippi, the Missouri, the Ohio, just to name a few major ones.
“We anticipate that a stakeholder with an economic interest in efficiency on the river might find some benefit to this technology. We’re an applied science not-for-profit with a focus on an environmental mission, so in addition to seeing things become more efficient and making some exciting scientific advancements, we’re also enthusiastic about the emissions reductions that might come from the use of this technology.
“For example, if a barge knows that there is an issue further downriver, the pilot may be able to ease on the throttle … and go a little slower and burn less fuel. Conversely, if we have a better set of metrics around the depth at a port of call, that will enable barges to make more informed decisions about how much weight and cargo that they can put onto a vessel.
“At the end of the day, if we can use science and analytics to inform decision-making, then we’re meeting our mission as an applied sciences organization.”
FREIGHTWAVES: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
EHRENWERTH: “It’s not a perfect analogy, but we draw an analogy to the traffic app Waze, which, by taking data from users in their vehicles as well as data that users input, is able to suggest efficient ways to move about in traffic. And we are inspired by that crowdsourced methodology, and that is really the insight behind this, that we will continue to need the high-accuracy-level data that we receive from surveying vessels. …
“In addition, by supplementing what we see from surveyed vessels with data from the many, many boats moving and working around the river, we’re excited to have a clearer picture of things.
“Ultimately, if we can make the ports more efficient and assist the other stakeholders that are working up and down the river, that is all to the good for the things that we’ve already covered, as well as the fact that inland navigation represents probably the greenest form of transportation when contrasted with rail and roadways and air. And so, at the end of the day, if we’re able to make that form of commerce and transportation more effective and efficient, then we expect some really exciting economic and environmental outcomes.”