April 17, 2020

Amir Bijandi watched in horror as a marine pilot tumbled from a 20-foot ladder and down into a churning sea, where he was almost sucked into a ship's swirling propeller before being rescued. The pilot had been attempting to transfer from a small boat onto the 1-million-ton vessel, so that he could help the captain navigate it into the port of Baltimore. Regulations require that large ships entering local waterways take these expert marine pilots aboard to help avoid navigational hazards. But these individuals' transfers from small boats onto big ships by way of rope ladders in choppy seas often prove extremely perilous.

That particular memory has always haunted me, and it is one of many near-misses I saw during this kind of transfer. Watching those maneuvers, I always felt I was living in the 18th century, said Bijandi, who spent seven years in the U.S. Merchant Marines and now works as systems engineer for Saab Sensis USA developing systems to make air travel safer and faster.

Added to the human danger is the fact that the current system is not only inefficient, but also delays in- and out-bound vehicles, and requires significant time to coordinate.

Considering all this, I thought to myself 'There has to be a better way to do this,' he said.

So for his final Systems Engineering program project, Bijandi set out to solve the problem.

The result is the Remote Pick Up Drop Off System (RGPDOS), which uses vertical takeoff and landing air vehicles to safely deposit (and later, pick up) experienced and knowledgeable marine pilots onto cargo vessels.

The remote-guide pickup drop off system (RGPDOS) represents a dramatic step forward in maritime transportation; it is an on-demand service that economically, expeditiously, reliably, and safely provides its users with point-to-point transportation in complex port facilities and shipping waterways while minimizing the impact on the environment, he says.

His innovative system is the first-time application of remote-guide AVs in piloting operations, and it is scalable, allowing it the potential to integrate into urban air transportation systems he believes will become a reality very soon.

Here is how it works: RPGDOS enables a remotely guided, vertical takeoff landing air vehicle (VTOL AV) to pick marine pilots up at the ship's harbor and fly them downriver to drop them on board of the larger vessel they need to help find its way. The VTOL AV is navigated from a virtual cockpit located on the ground, so that the ship's pilot can sit back and relax during the flight.

Before actually sitting down to design the system, Bijandi conducted extensive research.

I did not initially know what the best solution was, but I knew how to get it. System engineering processes enable to come up with the best and the most cost-effective solution for any complex problem: a faster and safer system of transportation that costs less, he said.

So Bijandi analyzed data models of the current technology and used systems engineering techniques (such as system black-box diagramming, functional context diagramming, and causality diagramming) to conceive of his system.

The result is what he calls a scientifically and economically feasible solution.

My technical background includes the operation and maintenance of navigation systems. I used to play a role in operational positions like a navigator, the shift supervisor of vessel traffic management, a ship's safety officer, and a ship's pilot in the Persian Gulf. Maybe that is why I was able to technically define the use cases for this project since I could approach the system from the prospect of expected users, he said.

The Systems Engineering program at Johns Hopkins Engineering regularly highlights the design projects and in-depth thesis research of its students. We will continue to make these presentations available so that they can benefit the entire systems engineering community.