FAPESP and the Sustainable Development Goals

Novel portable device weighing less than 1 kg helps harbor pilots maneuver large vessels into port

Novel portable device weighing less than 1 kg helps harbor pilots maneuver large vessels into port

The device is at an advanced stage of development and is awaiting certification by ANATEL, Brazil's telecommunications regulator (photo: Navigandi)

Published on 10/30/2023

By Fábio de Castro  |  FAPESP Innovative R&D – Maneuvering a large ship into port is a complex and hazardous task. Many oceangoing vessels are now more than 300 meters in length, or the horizontal equivalent of a 100-storey skyscraper, and weigh more than 100,000 metric tons. They do not have brakes. Great skill is required to avoid collisions in busy shipping lanes, let alone running aground. Both incur huge losses to ships and port facilities, with cascading effects throughout supply chains and logistics systems.

The highly trained professionals responsible for these maneuvers are harbor pilots, whose job is to steer ships through confined waters on the approach to ports, estuaries and cargo terminals. They work with a support structure comprising tugboats, launches, dry docks, command and control centers, and sophisticated communications and monitoring systems.

São Paulo-based Navigandi, has developed a high-precision portable device with integrated hardware and software to assist pilotage in confined or restricted waters by transmitting dynamic real-time information via a smart platform. 

The firm was founded in 2019 and specializes in maritime equipment. The project was funded by FAPESP’s Innovative Research in Small Business Program (PIPE).

The first prototype of the firm’s Maneuvering Support System (MSS) is now ready. “Each port is unique in terms of natural characteristics, and the captain and crew simply don’t have the wherewithal to pilot vessels to port terminals everywhere. Every port in Brazil has pilots accredited by the Navy and technically trained to maneuver ships in waters they know inside out as far as the specific conditions and risks of the area are concerned,” said engineer André Seiji Sandes Ianagui, one of Navigandi’s founders.

Ianagui is familiar with the work pilots do. He has a master’s and PhD in mechanical engineering from the University of São Paulo’s Engineering School (POLI-USP), and is a researcher at the Numerical Trial Tank (TPN), a cutting-edge laboratory similar to a swimming pool equipped with computers that simulate waves and currents to test vessels and their materials. It can also be used to simulate the kind of maneuvers harbor pilots perform in offshore and port operations.

“The TPN is a refined simulation environment which we can use to create conditions identical to those affecting ships in confined waters. It can even simulate the bridge of a ship to enable the pilot to carry out simulated maneuvers,” Ianagui said. “I’ve long had direct experience of pilotage in restricted waters thanks to this facility. It was a matter of time before I realized we could use this experience to help surmount several challenges.”

Situational awareness

Besides Ianagui, Navigandi is crewed by Rodrigo Barrera, also a researcher at the TPN; Carlos Eduardo Caparroz Duarte, the engineer responsible for the electronic part of the platform; and Edgar Szilagyi, a software engineer. At the TPN, Ianagui has worked on simulation interface software to enhance situational awareness by means of sensors that extend the pilot’s own sense of sight from on board ship. These are mandatory sensors required by the International Maritime Organization (IMO).

“There are many of these sensors, and many maintenance and quality programs have to run simultaneously. My job was to create interfaces that facilitate all these operations to enhance the pilot’s situational awareness,” he said.

Based on interviews with pilots, Navigandi’s team decided to develop an innovative Portable Pilot Unit (PPU), with high-precision antennas tuned to the global satellite navigation system (GNSS) and inertial measuring units (IMUs) used by the pilot to track the vessel’s position, orientation and velocity.

“The PPU weighs about 1 kg and is really important to the pilot’s situational awareness. Pilots take the box with them when they board the vessel and connect it to a computer or tablet, which requires an appropriate user interface so they can access nautical charts, maps, graphics, and so on,” Ianagui explained.

Integrated hardware and software 

The main problem with existing PPUs raised by the interviewees, Ianagui recalled, was that there are only three producers in the world, making maintenance expensive, time-consuming and frustrating. “There’s no technical support. When maintenance is needed, these PPUs have to be sent abroad. Customs procedures and paperwork slow everything down. The unit may still refuse to work properly when it comes back from the maintenance people. In addition, the makers of the hardware and software are different, resulting in many configuration and compatibility problems,” he said.

All this obliges pilots to devote time to tweaking the equipment and its complex programming, while also keeping a close eye on the ship and its maneuvers. Navigandi’s engineers found out that pilots often decided to do without the PPU and rely on their own senses and experience, as well as the ship’s navigational systems.

“We concluded that it would be a good idea to develop a platform with integrated software, a world first. It has to be easy to operate, otherwise the pilot will just cast it aside too,” Ianagui said.

High precision

By late 2019, the idea had gathered momentum and the group founded Navigandi, applying to FAPESP for support under the PIPE program. The first stage, completed in early 2021, involved development of the prototype, which weighs a little over 1 kg and has a diameter and height of 10 cm, making it one of the most compact devices of its kind on the market. It uses real-time kinematics (RTK) to assure centimeter-level positional accuracy and 0.01° heading precision.

“We’re now in PIPE stage two, refining the control software and pursuing all the necessary international certifications. The main challenge from here on out will be technical difficulties relating to nautical chart images displayed by the software,” Ianagui said.

Vector charts are best, but these are published by specific companies linked to the IMO, and to include them in the system Navigandi will have to meet a welter of requirements, including certification and accreditation by global entities.

“The device is at an advanced stage of development. It's being tested, and we’ve applied for certification by ANATEL [Brazil’s telecommunications regulator]. In a few months, we’ll have the final version,” said Ianagui, adding that the business model does not involve sale of the equipment but leasing and service provision. “We expect our main customers to be harbor pilots. It would be too expensive for them if we sold the device outright, so we’re offering a kind of subscription service that includes the hardware. It's more affordable for them, particularly because they can trade in older models, as well as being assured of regular maintenance and software updates. There are also a number of features and upgrades that add value to the software. We can charge separately for these as we roll them out.”

Navigandi is also exploring the development of other products for pilots and similar professionals. “Software we’ve written is already being used by river convoys, for example. We've achieved mastery of the technology, which isn’t limited to PPUs and has many potential applications. We can develop systems to track vessels of all kinds, as well as land vehicles. We also plan to develop products for other markets, such as police launches, motor boats, sailboats and so on,” Ianagui said.

Source: https://agencia.fapesp.br/50108