Studying Aids to Navigation (ATONs) to reduce risk and improve effectiveness


Waterways in the United States are an essential part of the economy, with $5.4 trillion moving through them each year. Mariners rely on Aids to Navigation (ATONs) such as buoys, beacons, and ranges to chart safe courses and reduce the risk of collision, allision (a ship striking a stationary object), or grounding. However, the United States Coast Guard (USCG), which is responsible for deploying and maintaining the ATONs, has no quantifiable way to determine whether ATONs are optimally deployed or which should be given priority maintenance under disrupted conditions, such as after a major storm or GNSS (global navigation satellite system) failure. We aim to measure and model the reduction in risk provided by each ATON and to provide a software tool for waterway designers to explore different scenarios.  

This project has three thrusts. The first thrust involves measuring human pilot abilities to navigate in various scenarios. Pilots typically use visual perception of the ATONs along with radar and ENS displays to navigate. To measure the impact of these various navigation cues, we will conduct experiments with human subjects and a ship simulator at the Coast Guard Academy. By measuring human perception and reactions, we can model the effect of ATONs on navigational accuracy. 

In the second thrust, we will develop a fuzzy logic model, which is a human-readable way to combine risk factors with different modalities into a single overall risk assessment. It will incorporate many elements affecting risk in the waterways, including waterway configuration, marine traffic composition, weather, and the effects of ATONs on navigation.  

The third thrust will focus on modeling the consequences of waterway incidents. While any accident is to be avoided, the severity of consequences from incidents can be much greater than the loss of the ships, cargo, or crew immediately involved, depending on when and where they take place. For example, the grounding of the Ever Given in the Suez Canal in 2021 not only delayed that ship’s cargo from reaching its destination in a timely fashion, but also caused ripple effects of €2 to 2.5 billion in damages to the global economy by blocking a major waterway for almost 7 days. 

The U.S. Coast Guard is deeply invested in the outcome of this project. Deploying and maintaining ATONs is expensive and time-consuming. There have been few previous studies on the effect of ATONs on navigation. The last set of major studies that attempted to assess the overall risk reduction by ATONs and develop rules for optimal ATON placement were conducted about 30 years ago, before GNSS and electronic navigation displays were widely used. No full-featured risk model has ever been developed for the waterways that both included the effects of ATONs and modeled consequences. This program will support decision-making to balance safety, cost, and resilience of the ATON network. 

This research is funded through UIUC's Critical Infrastructure Resilience Institute, a Department of Homeland Security Center of Excellence.