NOAA 50th Anniversary
Office of Coast Survey
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
U.S. Department of Commerce

Precision Marine Navigation

What is Precision Marine Navigation?

Precision marine navigation is the ability of a vessel to safely and efficiently navigate within the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone and operate in close proximity to the seafloor, narrow channels, or other hazards. For large vessels entering a port—when space is tight and time is critical—mariners anticipate ocean and weather conditions by using observations, forecasts, and underlying foundational data in addition to nautical charts. In an effort to support precision marine navigation, NOAA is developing a way to collect and integrate data to create more accurate navigational products and tools that support the mariner’s operational decision-making process.

Why is Precision Marine Navigation Needed?

Ports and the associated trade flows are the lifeblood of the U.S. economy. By providing access to international markets, U.S. seaports support economic activities that in 2018 had a total economic impact to the national economy that exceeded $5.4 trillion and supported more than 30.8 million jobs. Today's ships are moving through U.S. ports with little extra room - under their keels, under bridges, and in narrow channels. As vessel size increases and port infrastructure remains the same, or increases to some degree, the margins of error become smaller and the need for better navigation data increases. The "just-in-time" supply chain upon which the U.S. economy depends demands that ports operate continuously, i.e., 24 x 7. However, delays and lightering due to the uncertainties posed by environmental factors can equate to millions of dollars a year in lost revenue for shipping companies and ports; this lost revenue extends to the economy. Unfortunately, the tools currently available to mariners for making safe operational decisions have not changed significantly over the last twenty years forcing increased vessel load and wait times in ports.

What is NOAA’s Precision Marine Navigation Program?

NOAA’s Precision Marine Navigation program seamlessly integrates high-resolution bathymetry, high accuracy positioning and shoreline data with forecast data—such as water levels, currents, salinity, temperature, waves, and weather forecasts—to provide our data in a format that could be easily accessed and integrated into maritime portable pilot units or decision support tools. As a result, mariners will be better equipped to make critical navigation decisions.

This means that by the time this program is fully operational, NOAA’s marine navigation data will be available in one location online and through navigation software systems and apps that mariners and recreational boaters are already using. The collective value of these datasets is even more powerful when they are integrated than when they are each disseminated separately.

Since this initiative involves many types and sources of data, it is a coordinated effort across several NOAA offices, including the Office of Coast Survey (OCS), the Center for Operational Oceanographic Products and Services, the National Geodetic Survey, the U.S. Integrated Ocean Observing System, and the National Weather Service. Additionally, NOAA is working closely with industry partners throughout this entire process to ensure that the service NOAA develops is effective at disseminating our data.

Port Highlights

There are many ways in which ports and regions will be able to benefit from efforts to integrate marine navigation data services. Here is a port highlight which demonstrates these integrated services in action.

Port of Long Beach, California - Case Study

In the Port of Long Beach, ultra-large crude carriers were vulnerable to potential groundings when waves arrived in long period swells. As a precaution, the port reduced the maximum allowable ship draft to 65 feet, even though the channel was dredged to 76 feet. NOAA collaborated with private industry to create a precision marine navigation model for the Port of Long Beach.

Due to the success of the model, the U.S. Coast Guard Captain of the Port removed the 65’ draft restriction. The port achieved the long-term goal to transit 69’ drafts safely. Lightering offshore is no longer required, improving operational efficiencies, safety, and reduce environmental risk.

The project at the Port of Long Beach proved the importance of providing NOAA’s datasets in an integrated, machine-to-machine readable format. This project, which started out at one port, initiated a program to integrate NOAA data wherever it is available.

As additional resources become available, NOAA is working to expand the available datasets in regions and ports across the country to meet region-specific data needs. These may include additional hydrographic surveys, deployment of additional sensors, or the collection of data necessary to generate models.

Revised: 5/28/2020