Pacific Maritime Magazine - Marine Business for the Operations Sector

Track Your Fleet's Data from the Office


February 1, 2018

The ioCurrents DataHub in the in wheel house of Western Towboat's Arctic Titan can monitor hundreds of sensors from engines, tanks, PLCs, and other assets onboard and communicate with the cloud over integrated cellular and satellite connectivity. Photo courtesy of ioCurrents.

There's no doubt the maritime industry is steeped in tradition. No sector of the industry embodies this tradition more than the tugboat, towboat & barge sector. Many of the most storied names in the business have a rich and colorful history dating back a hundred years or more. Everyone who's been around for any length of time knows the stories inside and out. There's Thea Foss starting Foss Maritime with a single rowboat out of Tacoma while her husband Andrew was off working in the woods. Similarly, Thomas Crowley got his start with a single Whitehall rowboat shuttling people and supplies to sailing ships at anchor in San Francisco Bay. And of course there's Michael Moran hand-painting the first "M" on a tugboat stack in New York Harbor back in the late 1800's. While not discounting the history surrounding the sector, it's also worth mentioning that the tug and towboat fleet has also been an industry leader in adopting new technologies around emissions and other forms of pollution reduction, vessel propulsion, hull design, electronics, and safety. The next big technological leap for the fleet may be just around the corner. And in fact, some industry leaders on the west coast have already made this leap with early great success!

Enter ioCurrents and the use of cloud-based computing and machine-learning analytics. Company co-founders Cosmo King and Bhaskar Bhattacharyya seem an unlikely duo to revolutionize the industry. Coming from the lower Eastern Shore of Virginia and Calcutta, India, respectively, their backgrounds couldn't have been more different. It wasn't maritime that brought them to Seattle, but rather the booming tech industry. After almost three decades of combined experience with tech firms Isilon, Microsoft, EMC, Pogo Linux, and others the two met in 2013 at a tech startup, working on the integration of large amounts of data with geo-spatial information. In other words, all the data stored in the database would have a specific time and location "stamp" to go with it. In 2015 the two founded ioCurrents and began work on what would evolve into the MarineInsight fleet monitoring system.

The system starts with a box. More specifically, a very small computer that fits into a box that can be easily mounted in even the most cramped engine room. This computer connects to the engine, generators, logic controllers, tanks, refrigeration, or any other systems that are properly instrumented for data acquisition. For modern, electronically controlled assets this connection can be as simple as plugging into a port. Older assets might require an instrumentation upgrade and sensor installation in order to capture the relevant information. In situations like this the ioCurrents engineering team, working with partner Fusion Marine, can design and install a solution to bring even the oldest engines and generators up to speed.

The MarineInsight fleet management system consists of two main components. The first component is the previously mentioned computer. This on-board monitoring device collects information on fuel usage, engine temperature, oil pressure, and up to 75 additional parameters per asset, depending on the configuration. The on-board system collects data at 1-second intervals and stores the information for up to 1 year on a local flash drive. When in range, the data is automatically uploaded to storage in the cloud via WiFi, cellular, or satellite depending on the vessel's location. The uploaded data is stored securely and indefinitely.

Once in the cloud, MarineInsight uses "machine learning" and advanced analytics to proactively monitor vessel conditions and predict failures before they happen. The system can be configured to send real time alarms via text message or email, on any number of parameters. These alerts can be sent to the wheelhouse, port engineer, vessel owner, vessel manager, or whomever else you designate to receive them. Customers are also able to use a custom log-in to access the cloud website and view location data, engine statistics, and alerts from their own devices.

Imagine that you manage a fleet of tugs operating in Puget Sound, the Columbia River, the Inside Passage and the Gulf of Alaska. You have five boats in particular that keep you up at night. Using the MarineInsight fleet monitoring system you could literally view them in real time from your desktop or laptop computer, your iPad, or your smart phone. Let's say you're concerned about particularly high fuel usage on one boat. You're worried about a slow drop in oil pressure on another. You've been having concerns related to an unreliable generator on a third boat. And you're trying to coordinate arrival times for the two remaining boats. With the MarineInsight system in place, as the fleet manager you can have unprecedented visibility into each of the boats and work with relevant onboard personnel to make real-time adjustments as necessary.

With the first boat you can communicate directly with the skipper to adjust RPM and other parameters to optimize fuel efficiency. You can detect tiny, almost imperceptible drops in oil pressure on the second boat and direct the skipper to take corrective action days before the issue becomes critical. Working with the engineer on the third boat you can figure out where the "sweet spot" is to run the generator for maximum effectiveness. With the last two boats you can consider a number of different factors including wind, tides, and weather conditions to better coordinate arrival times. And rather than calling each vessel to get the necessary information, pulling the skipper, engineer, and crew away from other vital tasks, you simply need to turn on your device and log in.

At least one company has already gone from the imagination stage to the implementation phase. Ed McEvoy at Western Towboat Company has the system installed on several of the company's tugs. After trying a number of different systems with little success, Ed notes the MarineInsight system "has saved us multiple times on potential problems and is basically a 24-hour monitoring system. There is very little hardware to install, nothing like the gear that was installed the last go around. I'm happy with it. It's easy to use. I get the information I want and it'll notify me if it's not in the range we set."

One tug in particular has had problems with a fuel actuator. In the past the engineer has had to go down below several times per day, plug into a USB port, and run a diagnostics program. That gives the engineer a snapshot of information every so often. Being able to monitor the actuator percentage at 1-second intervals, 24 hours per day with MarineInsight is a huge improvement over that. But even more important than simply the monitoring part is the ability to predict problems in advance. In one instance ioCurrents was able to predict actuator failure days in advance and alert the fleet manager who then alerted the boat. They were able to take corrective action before the part failed, allowing them to complete the trip.

In another instance ioCurrents was able to remotely diagnose a high-pressure fuel injection pump issue and alert the fleet manager. When the fleet manager called to check in with the boat they were unaware of the issue. The manager then directed the crew to take corrective action, thus preventing engine failure. While that delay may have been inconvenient, it was definitely better than blowing the engine and being dead in the water with a barge in tow.

But MarineInsight is not limited to the tug and towboat sector. Several North Pacific fishing companies are also utilizing the technology. Take B&N Fisheries for example. B&N owns and manages eight trawlers fishing for Pollock and cod in Alaska. The company has very little control over the size of the quota, the price of fish, and the price of fuel. "So we try and control what we can," says B&N fleet manager Jerry Downing. "When you have a fleet of eight vessels, there are probably 40-plus engines on those boats running that you need to maintain and operate," he says. "So that's a lot to keep track of on a given day."

The system has already provided B&N with a level of visibility on their vessels that wasn't available before. Within days of installing MarineInsight the system detected problems with an oil temperature sensor. "If it had not been for the erratic sensor action we noticed in the ioCurrents data, there is probably no chance you would have ever noticed that sensor going out until it was complete failure. Had the sensor finally gone into complete failure mode the engine could have shut down. At that point we would have lost power. Then there is a Coast Guard notification. So just diagnosing upfront with ioCurrents already saved the vessel a lot of headache. And we were able to order the part in advance and have the part waiting when the vessel made a routine call to port. That is a huge deal. It's no fun being on a ship when the engine goes down and the lights go out and you're in the middle of the Bering Sea with no steering and no power. That tends to get adrenaline moving quickly," adds Downing.

While the MarineInsight system is currently being used primarily to optimize engine and generator performance, minimize fuel usage and vessel wear, and better manage maintenance schedules, the sky is the limit in terms of potential applications going forward. The company is currently working on a pilot project with the Washington State Ferries to help monitor that fleet, minimize unanticipated breakdowns, and better coordinate their planned maintenance schedule. There are also on-going discussions with a classification society about how to use this technology to reduce the burden and costs associated with maintaining class, particularly when it involves travel to remote locations. Another company that produces electric motors and generators for offshore oil installations is interested in using the ioCurrents technology to correlate data from tens of thousands of sensors into a single location aboard the rig. And finally, several insurance companies have expressed interest in the technology for addressing accident or other claims and possibly even to negotiate better insurance premiums.

ioCurrents has also recently expanded the capability of the MarineInsight system to include real time emissions monitoring. Using methodology developed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), ioCurrents is able to calculate emissions for a number of different pollutants in real time. Using these calculations and linking the data with time and area information, the company can now develop "heat maps" that show exactly when, where, and how much emissions a particular vessel may produce. This information can be particularly useful for Harbor operations or when operating in environmentally sensitive areas such as marine sanctuaries or protected areas.

Western Towboat's Bering Titan on sea trials late last year with ioCurrents installed. Photo courtesy of ioCurrents.

"This product has incredible potential," adds B&N fleet manager Jerry Downing. "I don't believe that we have even begun to tap the potential. I know there is a lot more I would like to hook to it and see and help us better monitor and manage from a maintenance and operational standpoint. I think this is something the industry has been wanting for a long time and really not knowing where to find it."

Mark Gleason has more than 22 years of experience in the maritime industry, and has also worked on the advocacy side as a trade association Executive Director and government affairs representative. He currently owns a small consulting firm focused on maritime and fisheries issues, business development, and seafood sustainability. In his spare time he is the VP, Business Development for ioCurrents.


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