An Australian sea-going software developer is taking the pilotage business into the cloud to avoid maritime disasters.
From the demise of the unsinkable Titanic a century ago to the grounding of the cargo ship Rena in New Zealand's Bay of Plenty last October, disasters at sea have always hit the headlines.
Preventing environmental catastrophes in the Great Barrier Reef and Torres Strait, is top priority for Australia's Maritime Safety Authority - so much so that all large vessels entering the area are required to take a local pilot on board to ensure their safe passage.
Brisbane-based Australian Reef Pilots is the region's lead supplier of marine pilots, with 38 licensed contractors with back-of-the-hand knowledge of the far northern waters on its books.
One of them is Warren Wood, a former naval officer, who, in a previous life, managed a team of developers in Data#3's Microsoft applications arm, after selling his own firm f5 to the publicly listed reseller in 2003.
Wood headed north for a sea change in 2006 but says he saw an opportunity too strong to ignore in a sector which specialist software developers had overlooked.
"I couldn't help myself. I noticed a business need and set to work," Wood said, who is based in Cairns.
The result was a new company, Ports and Pilots, and a vertical solution for the marine pilotage industry based on the cloud-hosted Microsoft Dynamics CRM Online platform.
Custom designed for Wood's employer and signature client ARP, his DutyPilot database has transformed the way the firm tracks and manages its pilots and the 160 ships a month that use their services.
Until recently, ARP relied on a couple of Excel spreadsheets to administer the complex business of registering email bookings from ships and their agents, matching them with available pilots, collating shipping information and environmental data and ensuring stringent safety regulations, such as pilots' mandatory rest periods between assignments, were complied with.
"It was a clunky way to manage a dispatch and allocation system," Simon Meyjes, ARP chief executive said.
"You can't automate any part of it. You're having to type all the information all the time. Mistakes could lead to a service failure or an unqualified or unrested person being allocated to a job. Or a pilot could turn up and it's the wrong ship. Or they've developed a passage plan for Ship A and it's Ship B. There are a range of consequences."
Once entered on the old system, information was also subject to frequent, time-consuming changes.
"For example, ships can change their expected time of arrival four or five times in 24 hours and they need to communicate the changes," he said.
"We used to run a single snapshot spreadsheet once a day and in between there would be lots of SMS's, phone calls and emails between lots of parties over one simple change."
Since going live in December, DutyPilot has cut the ARP office workload by one full-time staff member, reduced error rates to zero and attracted interest from potential customers from as far away as Rotterdam.
Every one of the world's 12,000 ports runs some form of pilot service; many of the smaller ones along similar manual lines to ARP, Wood says pointing to the system's potential appeal.
"We've certainly found a spot in the industry that's not been looked after well by independent software vendors in the past. It's highly specialised the way the game works – and it screams out for a cloud-based model."
Wood has linked the DutyPilot system to DutyPilotNetwork, a secure website for working marine pilots to share messages and technical knowledge about ships which he describes as "our own Twitter".
Some 150 pilots from 18 countries have already joined the site, with an average of five more signing up each day.