Calling it "the most important technological advance" in the Saint Lawrence Seaway since its opening 60 years ago, the U.S. government announced this month that hands-free mooring was deployed on locks in the Saint Lawrence River connecting the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean.

Instead of workers and ropes, the technology uses vacuum pads and automation to get ships through the locks — cutting transit times and creating other efficiencies for foreign ships coming into the Great Lakes.

“This new technology is a significant modernization of the Saint Lawrence Seaway’s infrastructure and will enhance workplace safety, lower operating costs for carriers, and decrease vessel transit times through the locks,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said in a news release.

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Saint Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation announced the new technology following its additions to the Snell and Eisenhower locks on a section of the Saint Lawrence River making up the northeastern border of New York state.

The $23-million project is the first use of the technology on the inland waterway.

Hands-free mooring is expected to migrate to the Soo Locks sometime in the future. The Soo Locks connect Lake Superior with the remaining Great Lakes, and efforts to build another super lock next to the Soo’s 1,000-foot-plus Poe Lock are ongoing. Any new construction would undoubtedly feature hands-free mooring, sources said.

The Duluth Seaway Port Authority greeted the news by calling it a “win.”

“Time is money, so technology that reduces transit time through the seaway is definitely intriguing,” Executive Director Deb DeLuca said. “Hands-free mooring is designed to do that, and enhance safety, so it has potential to be a significant win-win. Plus, it could open the Great Lakes to new vessel operators.”

The system uses vacuum pads, each of which provides up to 20 tons of holding force, mounted on vertical rails inside the lock chamber wall to secure the ship during the lockage process as it is raised or lowered — always keeping ships a fixed distance from the lock wall.

The last step in the lockage operation consists of releasing the vacuum and retracting the pads so that the vessel can sail safely out of the lock.

Full implementation of the technology is important to the Great Lakes-Saint Lawrence Seaway System, the government said, explaining how with increased tonnage comes a desire to relieve congestion. A 7 percent increase in vessels transiting the Saint Lawrence Seaway last year resulted in moving 41 million tons of cargo through what is a binational waterway with Canada.

The increase in shipping through the Saint Lawrence Seaway amounted to the highest cargo total since 2007.

“Hands-free mooring will dramatically improve vessel transit,” Craig Middlebrook, of the Saint Lawrence Seaway Development Corp., said.