The number one question in any maritime accident is why did it happen. New requirements from the International Maritime Organization (IMO) are seeking to end these nautical mysteries by upping the amount and types of information recorded during an incident at sea.
As of July, the organization has revamped its rules around voyage data recorders (VDRs) — devices that aid in post-disaster information recovery, much like the function a black box serves after a plane crash. Prior to 2002, there were no standards for such devices, but now the IMO has doubled down on its initial request from that year that all passenger ships of 3,000 gross tonnage or more have VDRs, and now they must record more information for a longer time frame than ever before.
The new regulations state that all new ships or ships in need of a new VDR after July 1 must have an onboard recording medium and a free-floating recording medium, meaning that recovery of disaster data after a crash won’t require a tedious ocean-bottom search for a device. The length of time a VDR must log has changed, so ships must store all data items for up to 30 days on a long-term recorder and at least 48 hours of data on both the fixed and free-floating recorders.
The IMO now requires storage of more than one radar display, electronic chart and display information, inclinometer data and automatic identification system data.
The change is massive, but with the Korean ferry Sewol disaster and the Costa Concordia sinking fresh in many mariners’ minds, this push for added safety couldn’t be timelier.
“It’s a lot of data going into the VDR according to the new standard as opposed to the old standard,” said Danelec Marine Chief Executive Hans Ottosen.
He said there are two approaches to the new standard — attempt to build on older VDR technologies that came out of the initial 2002 rules, or start from scratch. Danelec opted for the latter, and focused on limiting the time a ship would stay in harbor for repairs by making a system that can be hot swappable so a ship can sail again within hours.
“We developed from scratch a little one unit, which has a unique feature that you can truly separate the hardware and the software,” Ottosen explained.
Danelec’s DM100 VDR uses what the company calls SoftWare Advanced Protection (SWAP) to accomplish this. Previously, when a VDR failed, a ship might have to stay in harbor for long hours or even days, and coast guards will not let a ship leave port without a functioning one. Danelec’s new product features a flash card that contains all of the ship’s VDR information, so a repair requires a technician to pull out the old hardware drive, install a new one and slide the flash card back into its slot. This process can be accomplished in five hours.
Ottosen said the new standards are a welcome change, particularly the longer recording time, which will likely shed better light on any future incidents.
“In numerous cases it’s clear that 12 hours simply is not enough, because when an accident happens the VDR continues to run,” he said. “If today you have an accident and the vessel is not sinking, the VDR will still run, and if you don’t stop it and … take out the data before 12 hours after the accident, the data is not existent anymore. So therefore, they decided to extend that time to 48 hours to ensure that data is still available.”
AMI Marine also opted to create an entirely new system, its X-Series VDR, to comply with the standards.
“What it effectively meant is that all the VDRs that were available prior to July cannot under any circumstances fulfill the requirements of the new IMO regs, so our design now is from scratch,” said Steve Houseman, salesman for AMI Marine. “I believe there are other people that have essentially upgraded existing VDRs, but ours is being done from the ground up, purposely to meet and exceed the requirements of the IMO.”
The X-Series features a compact design cable gland for this mountain of new data needed to be recorded, allowing many cables to run through a small space. The system leverages PC-based software to enable the collection of audio, video and electronic data into one device.
Houseman said the new regulations’ emphasis on storage time will paint a clearer picture of what occurred when an incident does happen.
“It is inevitable that you do tend to reach the storage limit, so often if there is a fairly minor incident when the ship is on a long voyage, the current requirements may not suffice to cover the time from when you can download the data. … The longer storage and the increased storage space has to do with the volume of data and the piece of mind, I think, from the IMO’s point of view of having an increased storage time where all the data is captured and remains available,” he said.
Houseman said the initial market will be limited, because the requirement is only directed at newbuilds and those wishing to upgrade. He sees a future for more rigorous standards that will task VDR makers with adding more features. He said the regulatory change could be beneficial to ship management, regardless of whether or not there is an incident.
“In essence, I think it’s a very good tool, not just for reporting of accidents and incidents,” he said. “It can also be used to collect the data, extract the data without interfering in the integrity of it in order to add to the management capabilities on the bridge.”
Danelec’s Ottosen believes, in the future, standards for VDRs could be leveraged differently, making the technology more proactive instead of reactive.
“Have we really taken this to the best possible level, which is the best we can do? Because what happens now is the voyage data recorder in many, many cases is only used after an accident,” he said. “It’s like saying, well the patient died, let’s find out why. But what it doesn’t do is say, well, we have a new patient. Let’s see if we can cure him before he dies. The next step will be to investigate and find out how data from the voyage data recorder can be used proactively to avoid accidents instead of only being used to investigate why an accident happened.”
Ottosen citied studies that say for every incident at sea, there are 20 near-misses that occur. Applying what happens that one time to avoid what nearly happened those other times is the future of this technology.
“The investment is made. It’s there,” he said. “It’s just a matter of using it in a smart manner.”