New ‘Digital Buoy’ for River Navigation Needs

To improve marine navigation safety, enhance system efficiency, and reduce buoys-tendering operational cost for the government, computer scientist Tung “Alex” Ly (seen above) with the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center or ERDC recently developed a “digital buoy” system.

[Above photo by the USACE]

An ERDC researcher for 27 years with a background in electrical engineering, Ly used his expertise in both hardware and software design to develop a digital buoy and received a U.S. patent for his design in May 2022.

In an interview, Ly said digital buoys would help the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers or USACE make improvements to inland water navigation, as well as improve its dredging and maintenance operations for 12,000 miles of inland waterways.

“Water navigation safety markers or buoys are designated national critical data,” Ly said. “This system of maritime aids to navigation provides the ‘lane markers, street signs, stop lights’ for the ‘nautical rules of the water,’ much like the driving rules of the road.”

Photo by the Missouri DOT

He noted that inland waterways handled $232 billion worth of commerce in 2018, as the majority of U.S. grains and agricultural output for export moves through the inland river systems to reach the coastal ports.

Ly explained that the current buoys “drift” from the original positions and require manual relocation to the correct locations – a time-consuming and expensive process. There is also no current system in place for real-time remote, land-based monitoring and tracking of the buoys once placed in the water.

Ly built and tested prototypes of his digital buoy system from summer 2018 to the spring 2020, with initial water-based prototypes and small experimentations conducted on the Occoquan River in Virginia.

The final prototype testing occurred in a 10-mile stretch of the Ohio River near the USACE Louisville District.

U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) officials with the Louisville District, where the electronic buoys were tested, commented that this invention is a “game changer,” citing the low cost, low power and low maintenance advantages.

The digital buoy system “would help to reduce operational cost to the U.S. Government and provide real-time, reliable and enhanced marine navigation safety to U.S. private and public industries,” Ly said.

He added that the estimates for potential savings based on nationwide buoy deployment could total more than $300 million per year in buoy-tendering operation costs when combining the USCG and USACE fleets, using figures from the 2015 USCG operational costs.

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