Water Institute Of The Gulf Continues Buildout Of ‘SmartPort,’ Real-Time Shoaling Forecast Tool

In the summer of 2020, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, economic developers and leaders from the state’s maritime industry gathered on the east bank of the Mississippi River in Baton Rouge at The Water Institute of the Gulf. They announced the launch of a “smart port initiative” aimed at crowdsourcing real-time shoaling data at harbors up and down the river. Their aim was  to, eventually, develop a predictive model to aid in harbor maintenance and vessel traffic planning.

Just over two years later, around 70 vessels working on the Mississippi River in Louisiana are part of the “SmartPort” project, or what’s more formally called the “Lower Mississippi River SmartPort & Resilience Center.” Officials from the Water Institute, an independent, nonprofit research organization, hope to raise that number to 100 vessels, with all of them passively collecting draft data that is stored, anonymously, at the institute’s campus in Baton Rouge. That data will be analyzed to develop an application that will help ports, terminals and operators better schedule maintenance and time vessel movements.

Solving A Practical Problem

Bobby Landry, a senior advisor to the Water Institute, offered an anecdote from his time with the Port of New Orleans, where he was vice president and chief commercial officer, as an example of how crucial the forthcoming SmartPort application will be for ports and terminals on the river. In 2018, Landry got the call every port official dreads: a containership calling on the port’s Napoleon Avenue Container Terminal couldn’t reach the dock because of shoaling. Because of the demand on dredges, Landry said, that issue is usually anything but a quick fix.

“It took us a week to demobilize a dredge from the mouth of the river and reposition it to the container terminal,” Landry said.

Sign up for Waterway Journal's weekly newsletter.Our weekly newsletter delivers the latest inland marine news straight to your inbox including breaking news, our exclusive columns and much more.

What SmartPort aims to do is to gather data from vessels—usually tugs and passenger vessels—and use artificial intelligence and machine learning to predict and address draft issues before they can impede vessel calls.

“We think we have a way of improving what really is a rule-of-thumb type of system right now,” Landry said.

Andrew Courtois, a research scientist with the Water Institute, overviewed the system at the annual meeting of the Western Dredging Association’s Gulf Coast chapter, held November 8 in New Orleans. Typically, Courtois said, harbor and channel surveys are costly, require special equipment and are, thus, conducted infrequently. Officials at the Water Institute realized a solution was already in place, however, crowding the AIS map almost continuously.

“There are vessels transiting up and down the river every day, and the majority of those vessels are outfitted with a GPS unit, a depth transducer, and they’re constantly taking measurements, but that data is not recorded anywhere,” Courtois said. “So the idea was to crowdsource data from vessels working on the river, primarily the tug fleets. From that, we can use that data to then inform a tool to help forecast going into the future.”

The team at the Water Institute developed an application that is installed on a partner vessel’s computer system. With that app in place, draft data—depth, a time stamp and GPS coordinates—are recorded rather than being immediately discarded. That information is then automatically uploaded to the cloud and stored on site at the Water Institute. 

“It works in the background,” Landry said of the on-vessel application. “That was our intent all along, to be invisible to their operation.”

The artificial intelligence and machine learning aspect of the application is able to aggregate all of the sounding data from a particular location and weed out the inaccurate, outlier information, Courtois said. Thus, the system is able to keep a real-time record of harbor draft data. The system also aggregates data from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ eHydro system, river gages operated by the Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Geological Survey, port survey data and river forecasts from the National Weather Service. The completed system will synthesize all that information in order to offer a predictive model for scheduling maintenance and making other cargo-related decisions at ports and terminals along the river.

“Overall, SmartPort is looking at eight ports along the river in Louisiana, from Lake Providence down to the Port of Plaquemines,” Courtois said. “The project has multiple objectives. First, it’s to develop a shoaling forecast tool to predict shoaling in the river days to months into the future. The second is to develop a resiliency strategy for individual ports, as well as create customized dashboards to help inform system management for the ports. Lastly, [an objective] is to establish a physical center located in Baton Rouge that can be used for emergency operations for the ports when needed.”

For that latter objective, Landry said the real-time data will prove quite useful during hurricanes and other emergency events. He compared it to the crowdsourced vehicle navigation app “Waze.”

Initially, the SmartPort application will benefit and be available for ports, terminals and operators in Louisiana, Landry said, but the system could be of interest to insurers, cargo owners and even other river systems.

“I think once you do it on the Mississippi River, it will give you some cachet to walk into other river systems around the world,” he said.

Locally, though, Landry said the partnerships at work right now to bring SmartPort online demonstrate what makes the maritime industry so special.

“The partnerships are really good to see, and they’re laying the groundwork for developing the model,” he said. “To me, it’s a good story of the people on the river, working together to solve something that affects all of us.”

For more information on the SmartPort project, look for it online at