What the Suez Canal Situation Taught Us About Dredging’s
Public Perception

Next Gen measurment

How can we better support dredging engineers and operators moving forward?

The Invisible Industry

In an earlier article, The Hidden Hands that Hold Our World Together, we put the spotlight on mining to illustrate how that industry underpins civilization as we know it. Recently, dredging has been thrust into everyday conversation thanks to the Suez Canal situation. Like mining and oil and gas, the details of how the industry works only make it onto the popular radar when a collapse or catastrophic spill occurs.

Yet, society has developed around humanity’s ability to modify waterways, maintain ports, and construct dams. Man-made waterways created new maritime shipping routes, connecting formerly isolated civilizations, allowing people to taste nutmeg for the first time. The Spice Routes not only brought cinnamon to the Dutch, but it brought new ideas, art, and culture from east to west and vice versa, sparking huge leaps forward in global innovation. 

Importance of Dredging from the Suez Canal Authority

For some background on the importance of dredging, we reached out to our friends, who happen to be experts on this particular topic – the Suez Canal Authority. 

“World trade (food, fuel, machinery,…..) are all sea transported through international supply chains. Constraints in the shipping industry include harbor capacity and routing. To save time and money and expand trade size, shipping companies headed towards mega-ships, resulting in heavy loads on whoever wants to be a link in the chain of supply or a world trade hub; as marine civil works have to expand continuously.

First step of all harbor expansion projects is dredging also for canals and waterways. Advanced technology dredging became a must for accurate efficient dredging. Dredger output mixture (quantity and concentration) is the measurable success for the dredging project.

Flow meters (accurate and reliable) with processable signals made it possible to transform the data into information used for closed-loop dredging control to dynamically modify the dredging variables to gain max. Possible Q and concentration.”

The Role of Dredging in Modern Life

Dredging is used for a number of essential processes ranging from river and lake clean up, mineral processing, land restoration and development, and perhaps most importantly, the maintenance of waterway navigation and ports. The world as we know it has grown and civilizations have been able to thrive based on the creation of these systems. We have benefited economically, scientifically, and technologically from dredging operations.  

Dredgers use an array of different types of vessels and tools to move earth sediments ranging from sand, clay, silt, and other organic matter. This can be achieved by a mechanical function or by the use of a hydraulic pumping system that cuts into the ground below the water. The movement of these materials is strategic and helps to protect from floods, support dikes and dams, store water for hydropower, and maintain the depth necessary for large ships to pass through what would be shallow canals.  

The development of passageways such as the Panama and Suez Canals are perfect examples of maritime connections that shorten ship routes by thousands of miles, providing the means by which populations can efficiently share and exchange resources. These routes require constant maintenance to be performed by dredgers. Without them, we would be forced to rely on land bartering, expensive and limited air cargo travel, or longer, more treacherous ocean seafaring. 

Luckily, we have modern dredging equipment and companies that specialize in this type of work. They bear the burden of keeping up with the demand of rapidly increasing globalization.  

Aside from creating and maintaining mercantile waterways, dredging is a key technology in strengthening shorelines against floods and erosion. The construction process for dams or dikes would also not be possible without dredging.

With the role that dredging plays in shaping our world, you’d expect most people to be able to describe, at a very high level, what dredging is. At the very least you’d think most people could name a single dredging company off the top of their head. 

Dredging’s Public Perception

Kent Stewart, founder of the Maritime Engineers consultancy, decried the public’s lack of awareness about the industry in a 2019 column. “Let’s face it, the public don’t see dredging as a sexy subject”, writes Stewart. “Dredging has never featured in a blockbuster movie, never been used as a secret weapon, or as a form of terrorism.”

It does seem that Hollywood has, to date, missed an opportunity for a maritime action flick set on a dredging barge. 

How Can We Support Dredging & Dredge Operators?

So, what can we do to support and empower dredge operators and engineers? One way is to bring them innovations, technology and interfaces that make their jobs easier and help lower the chances of future “Suez Canal Situations.” 

For starters, accurate data of the materials being dredged can have a major impact on improving dredge performance. How does knowing the density of muck help with the dredging process?

For one thing, dredging pumps get clogged, and like all the other equipment on a dredging vessel, these pumps are massive and expensive. If a pump takes too heavy a hit from a particularly dense clot in the line, it can break. This leads to massively expensive downtime while the pump gets repaired. Rather than just listen to the sound of the pump’s motor to determine whether it sounds like it’s getting clogged (yes, this is how many currently mitigate this risk), an in-line density meter can tell them in real time if the concentration of solids in the line is getting too high. They can respond quickly by backing off of the pump before it gets into the red zone.

 

The other key challenge for dredgers is billing. How does one determine how much material was removed during a given job? One of the more common methods is to take a hydrographic survey of the bed beneath the water, then dredge, then take another survey afterward. This becomes tricky however, when you consider that dredging projects can take months, and aquatic beds change over time with tides and currents. Also, there are layers of silt on many aquatic beds that don’t get read on hydrographic surveys. Either way you look at it, someone is getting the short end of the stick when it comes to billing.

 

With an in-line density meter, a dredger can immediately determine the amount of solids that have moved through the suction pipe. Red Meters’ software actually spits out Accumulation reports that detail the amount of mass or volume measured between any two periods of time, providing an audit record to use in the billing process.

Conclusion

As Kent Stewart observes in his column, despite the many headaches with which the industry currently contends, “Dredging people are naturally stoic in their attitude to jobs, overcoming every obstacle placed in their way.” As a tough industry that literally plows through barriers by job description, they don’t seem to mind their place outside of the spotlight. Regardless of whether or not the dredging industry needs more recognition from the general public, we hope to empower dredge operators and engineers with innovations and data to make their jobs easier and more efficient. 

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