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Routing Ships on the High Seas

By Tom Logsdon

Researchers and technicians at Oceanroutes in Palo Alto, California, earn their daily bread using three different types of satellites for finding safe and efficient trajectories for large oceangoing vessels. Each optimum route takes into account real-time weather conditions, the physical characteristics of the ship, and the wishes of the ship's master -- who is given an updated trajectory twice each day. The Navstar constellation provides accurate positioning information that is relayed from the ship to Palo Alto through INMARSAT satellites. Weather satellites from various countries furnish the necessary meteorological reports. Sitting in their comfortable offices in Palo Alto and in several other cities around the globe, Oceanroute's engineers work with more than a thousand ships in a routine month. Each recommended route is custom designed for that particular ship "on that specific voyage, with the given cargo load, status of trim and draft, with the ship's own distinctive speed and sea-handling characteristics."

The computer program emphasizes emerging weather, but it also takes into account currents, fog, choke points, navigational hazards, and sea ice in northern regions. Some cargoes, such as fruit and oil, are temperature-sensitive; others, such as automobiles and heavy machinery, may shift under heavy waves. Still others have time-critical deliveries. The Oceanroute's program successfully takes these and numerous other factors into account whenever it makes its routing recommendations.

The cost of the service for a typical voyage is $800, a fee that is repaid 30 to 40 times over by shortened travel times and more efficient maritime operations. In 43,000 crossings aided by Oceanroute's computers, travel times have been reduced an average of four hours in the Atlantic and eight hours in the Pacific. Operating a large oceangoing vessel can cost as much as $1,000 per hour, so time savings alone can translate into enormous reductions in cost. Other expenses are also reduced. When Oceanroute's services were not yet available, the cost of repairing weather-damaged ships ran from $32,000 to $53,000 in an average year. Today, for some companies, these costs have plummeted to only about $6,000. Cargo damage has also declined. One international auto dealer told a team of Oceanroute's researchers that his cargo damage claims had dropped by over $500,000 per year.

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