Maritime safety gear, training balance on innovative technology

Mariners train on one of the largest and most robust maritime training simulator suites in the country at the Alaska Vocational Technical Center.
Mariners train on one of the largest and most robust maritime training simulator suites in the country at the Alaska Vocational Technical Center.
Mariners train on one of the largest and most robust maritime training simulator suites in the country at the Alaska Vocational Technical Center.


Anything can happen on the water and for commercial maritime vessels safety is a top priority, so it pays to be prepared.

Technology has worked its way into other aspects of the maritime industry – autonomous navigation or digitalized fleet planning, for example – but it can also improve ship safety through modernized equipment and up-to-date training for mariners.

One of the most noteworthy advances in maritime safety equipment debuted earlier this year with the unveiling of the world’s first personal locator beacon (PLB) that combines both Automatic Identification System and Near Field Communication functions designed to install on a life jacket, activate on inflation, and connect to the users’ smart phone. 

Designed by Florida-headquartered ACR Electronics and UK-based Ocean Signal Ltd., the ResQLink AIS PLB 450 rescue beacon combines the internationally recognized 406 MHz distress frequency and Automatic Identification System (AIS) distress messaging that offers both global and local rescue in one device extending connections to U.S. Coast Guard search and rescue, as well as commercial and recreational boats that could assist.  

ACR recently released the world’s first personal locator beacon to include both Automatic Identification System and Near Field Communication functions.
ACR recently released the world’s first personal locator beacon to include both Automatic Identification System and Near Field Communication functions.

The hybrid system also comes equipped with Return Link Service, which confirms to users that their distress message has been received and their location has been plotted by the Coast Guard.

“It’s a big deal to now be able to have a device that can now trigger a 406 MHz distress call, as well as an MOB,” said Rich Galasso, North American Sales Manager for ACR, adding that this type of combo beacon didn’t exist until the company released the product earlier this year. “This is the very first product of its kind in the world today. It’s totally unique…this is a unicorn.”

ACR acquired Ocean Signal Ltd. in 2017 with the blending of both firms’ resources resulting in the development of several other products including the MOB-1 AIS device, which automatically activates and alerts the vessel a mariner has been separated from, as well as other marine traffic in the vicinity, to speed rescue.

PLBs, on the other hand, only transmit distress signals on the 406 MHz frequency and send the coordinates of the user to search and rescue organizations. Once fixed-mount units started incorporating AIS and mandates softened up, it opened a path for the combination of the two complimentary devices into the ResQLink AIS PLB 450, which now share an antenna, but still require two battery packs.

The big challenge was trying to “squeeze literally two separate products into one package” and still make it lightweight, manageable, and functionable, in addition to the difficulty of building heavily regulated 406 devices that must be built to detailed specifications, said Galasso.

According to Jerry Dzugan, founding member and original executive director of the Alaska Marine Safety Education Association, ACR’s new hybrid safety device is a good example of innovative safety equipment for mariners facing the hazards encountered in their work afloat.

“Boats have modernized some of the risks, but stability and crew overboard, have remained the same,” he said, adding that high-tech safety gear that utilizes both a local and global alert system “is an important piece of equipment with technology also playing a key role in how modern mariners are being trained.”

The Alaska Vocational Technical Center (AVTC) in Seward, Alaska, is at the forefront of that effort with one of the largest and most robust maritime training simulator suites in the country.

The Center “is doing a lot of exciting training with their full mission bridge simulator,” said Dzugan, who recently retired after 38 years as Executive Director of the Association. 

AVTC Maritime utilizes a sophisticated Kongsberg™ simulator for a variety of classes including radar observer, polar operations, and bridge resource management, according to AVTEC Maritime Department Head, Kari Anderson.

The school also works with maritime professionals including marine pilots, tanker and oil transportation companies, and port engineers to conduct training in a variety of sea states and weather conditions to maximize safe vessel operations. 

The result was a simulation design team that has created highly detailed area databases to replicate bays, harbors, and ports of refuge throughout Alaska, she said.

ABB’s Ability Marine Pilot (AMP) is designed to enhance ‘situational awareness.’
ABB’s Ability Marine Pilot (AMP) is designed to enhance ‘situational awareness.’

AVTEC’s simulator has more than 40 ship models that can be operated from each of the three bridges and can interact with one another in real time allowing multiple students to be involved in the same exercise. The simulator also features more than 60 virtual targets, can generate any kind sea conditions and seasonal weather, and has a robust oil spill recovery simulation module.

The simulator was first installed in 2001 and has received annual upgrades as applicable technology continues to advance, said Anderson, noting that the module features a 300-degree field of view and meets all International Maritime Organization requirements for approved U.S. Coast Guard certified training, 

In terms of what risks the new mariners might encounter in their new careers, fire at sea – as it has been for eons – is at the top of the list with technology impacting not only mitigation measures and how ship crews fight shipboard fires, but what issues pose a potential hazard and spark a fire in the first place. 

According to Dzugan, on-board power sources, particularly rechargeable lithium-ion batteries, are an emerging fire hazard on vessels, while the volume and quality of electrical output on vessels has failed to keep pace with the increase in and need for more onboard electronic equipment. 

Earlier this year, for example, the National Transportation Safety Board was prompted to issue a warning stating that “lithium-ion batteries and other possible ignition sources could pose a fire safety issue in the transportation of scrap materials as cargo.” 

In the May 4 warning, the NTSB determined the probable cause of an earlier barge fire “was the ignition of a combustible material by an undetermined source, such as sparking from shifting metallic cargo, self-heating of metallic or nonmetallic cargo, improperly prepared vehicles and appliances, or damaged lithium-ion batteries.”

On-board fire safety and prevention was identified as one of the areas in the maritime industry that could benefit the most from innovative technology, according to a presentation by Roopesh Das, SVP of Digital Acceleration for Wallenius Wilhelmsen, at a February 2022 webinar hosted by Safetytech Accelerator. 

Cargo mixes are getting increasingly complex, he noted, and that can result in greater fire risk. 

“Being able to identify the risk of the cargo and the vessel upfront, along with better real-time monitoring and equipment to help stop the spread of a fire, can help minimize the damage when a blaze does break out,” he said. “I think this is an area which is ripe for more and more innovation to have fewer and fewer of these incidents happen.” 

While distraction, information overload and simple human error can have serious, often hazardous, ramifications, sophisticated and well-designed technology and autonomous control can provide precision and consistency.

However, industry analysts emphasize the need to maintain the human attributes of personal judgment and the ability to sort through complex uncertainties. 

As a result, in recent years, an ever-expanding variety of smart solutions have surfaced that can help mariners, and the vessels they serve aboard, function in a safer and more efficient manner. 

For example, ABB’s Ability Marine Pilot (AMP) assists in developing ‘situational awareness’ by providing a single point of control for maneuvering the vessel at all speeds and automating certain onboard tasks by interfacing with traditional technologies that meld with AI-powered computer vision.

AMP allows control of a vessel during all operational modes, including maneuvering, transit, and position-keeping and is designed for autonomous and remote operations using only one joystick and touch screen.

NAVTOR NavFleet monitors vessel fleet activities.
NAVTOR NavFleet monitors vessel fleet activities.

Another is NAVTOR’s NavFleet system which can improve vessel performance, enable better decision-making, enhance situational awareness, simplify workflows and save time. It includes tools to track vessels, overlay data layers and critical weather forecasts.

NAVTOR launched NavFleet in 2021 and has secured a landmark agreement with Japan’s Kawasaki Kisen Kaisha, Ltd. – “K” Line – that has the Norwegian maritime technology company supplying its NavFleet solution as a cornerstone in the development of the Japanese carrier’s global fleet monitoring and support system.

“Technology holds the key to making long term structural changes to maritime safety,” Inmarsat’s Maritime Senior Vice President of Safety & Security, Peter Broadhurst wrote in a 2021 company report on the future of safety at sea. 

Three years of research led to the company developing its Inmarsat’s Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS), highlighting a serious need for industry collaboration and technology support to prevent incidents and protect seafarers.

Using technology to be proactive about safety is the low hanging fruit that mariners can immediately implement.

“At Inmarsat, our vision for proactive safety is driven by the power of fleet data,” Broadhurst said. 

“We believe that the creation of an online anonymized data lake for maritime safety information will allow the industry to identify weak spots, identify solutions, allocate resources and measure progress.”