New simulators offer realism and integration

Andrew MacDonald, a student at Holland College in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, practices on the school’s simulator, which was produced by Kongsberg Maritime Simulation. The design of today’s simulators is being driven by the demand for heightened realism. Courtesy Holland College

The technological revolution that has given video games unprecedented realism has done the same for ship simulators, with new training programs that can link multiple onboard systems in a world of swirling currents, fast-moving fires and other computer-generated challenges.

As the needs of the maritime industry have grown and become more complex, companies like Kongsberg Maritime Simulation and Transas have kept pace by providing specialized software for an expanding set of vessels including tugboats, liquefied natural gas (LNG) carriers, dredgers, military craft and icebreakers.

“Simulation technology has advanced from the generic bridges of the ’80s and ’90s," said Neil Bennett, vice president of Transas USA. “Today, the towing industry expects to train on a specific tug simulator or engine system, the offshore industry expects to train on a system accurately simulating the environment and equipment (its) personnel experience on a daily basis, and so on. Each sector demands highly accurate and realistic simulation of complex operations."

Mariners who trained on traditional instrument panels five years ago now might find themselves using touch screens and laptop computers. Expanded databases provide more accurate modeling of ports and weather conditions, with plasma displays contributing to a more lifelike training experience.

The Transas NTPRO 4000 shiphandling simulator can be integrated with its ERS 4000 engine room simulator

The demand for added realism has led simulator manufacturers to combine onboard systems in their programs, including the integration of engine room and navigation functions. This allows trainers to streamline their instruction and provide a wider variety of scenarios for students on the simulator “bridge."

The integrated approach has been embraced at the Mid-Atlantic Maritime Academy (MAMA) in Virginia Beach, Va., which installed a Transas ERS 4000 engine room simulator in September 2008. The simulator works in conjunction with a full-mission shiphandling simulator, also from Transas, that was brought online at the school in 2007.

“The two systems can actually link up and have joint exercises," said John Sitka III, vice president of academics at MAMA. “You can start the exercise by taking a student out to sea and introduce engineering situations that will definitely affect the bridge. In other words, you’re basically trying to improve the workability between the bridge and the engine room."

To allow for joint real-time training of deck officers and engineering personnel. (Photos courtesy Transas)

Different casualty scenarios can be explored and evaluated, such as how crewmembers react when an engine-room alarm sounds and the captain needs information. The bridge simulator can be converted to handle training for large ships as well as tugs and offshore supply vessels, while the engine room simulator can model a range of steam- and diesel-driven power plants. “(The combination) gives students a shipboard feel they haven’t had before," Sitka said. “They get to try various ships and various scenarios."

To make the experience as realistic as possible, many simulators are designed to replicate actual shipboard hardware. The Marine Training Centre at Holland College in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, has taken this approach with its tug bridge simulator, which the school says is the most advanced of its kind in the world.

Built two years ago in collaboration with Kongsberg Maritime, the tug simulator features a Kongsberg Polaris full- mission bridge with 280° visuals, Rolls-Royce Aquamaster controls and a full console. The setup mimics the bridge and systems aboard z-drive tugs produced by Irving Shipbuilding of Canada.

“The simulator has the same exact console as the tugs that they ship all over the world," said Steve MacFarlane, master mariner at Holland College. “The guy sitting in the chair in the simulator has the same experience as in the real world. The feeling in the chair when you have a line •tethered’ to another ship is incredibly realistic. It’s unbelievable how well it works. The hydrodynamics are as exact as you can make them."

Four additional bridge stations can be operated at the same time, allowing students to get a taste of the ship-to- ship interaction they’ll experience outside the classroom.

“We can have one of those booths be an LNG tanker and the four other booths can be tug models, with everything done in real time," MacFarlane said.

Harbors used in the school’s marine simulations — New York, Halifax and Boston are among the ports of call — are digitally reproduced in exact detail, day or night. Instructors can adjust environmental variables to mimic storms or thick fog. “When we run a simulation of New York Harbor at night, the Statue of Liberty is all lit up," MacFarlane said. “We can put in different current flows, tides and wind speeds. The environmental conditions are only limited by your imagination."

The technological advances that have dramatically improved on-screen graphics have also allowed manufacturers to expand certain applications to laptop computers. At the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, N.Y., cadets can bring their laptops into the simulator lab, plug in, log on and run exercises from a central server. A Kongsberg engine room simulator has been added to a ship simulator to provide an integrated training experience. Many exercises that were once limited to land-based, full-mission simulators can now be brought onboard via laptops, providing ship operators with a more cost-effective option for training personnel. As the technology continues to evolve, marine pilots, engineering instructors and ship officers will gain increased access to simulation technology whether in port or at sea.

“Berth time can now be transformed into high-value simulation training sessions, reducing the need for ship personnel to train during high-value family time on shore leave," said Herbert Taylor, president of Kongsberg Maritime Simulation. “It can also reduce expensive travel for a portion of required personnel training."

The shortage of qualified mariners is beginning to push the simulator market beyond training schools to the marine operators themselves. As the list of regulations grows and existing standards become stricter, both domestically and internationally, more companies are supplementing maritime school training with specialized courses for their personnel. U.S.-based companies like Edison Chouest Offshore of Galliano, La., and foreign-based firms like Maersk Line in Denmark and Evergreen Marine Corp. in Taiwan offer their own training regimens.

“The trend for companies to have their own training schools seems to be strongest in the Far East, where consolidation of fleets presents companies with a major task to ensure their personnel are all trained in a similar way to meet internal requirements," said Bennett of Transas. “In the U.S.A., certainly in our experience, we tend to see maritime training schools working very hard to meet the needs of their customers, the maritime operators, working often in close partnership with them to ensure that all of their training objectives are met."

A U.S. Merchant Marine Academy cadet views alarm indications on a Kongsberg engine control simulator installed on a laptop, an application that allows simulation training at sea. (Courtesy Kongsberg Maritime Simulation)

Compliance is also a major concern for the companies that manufacture simulators. Users want to know that the programs they are using are certified by the appropriate agencies and classification societies, including the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the U.S. Coast Guard and that they meet international regulatory requirements such as the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), and the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW).

“With the latest Det Norske Veritas standard (October 2007), we find that customers are taking due diligence very seriously, demanding to see proof of compliance for both simulation systems and the resident models, and the comprehensive training-course packages that include the use of simulation," said Kongsberg’s Taylor. “The market is becoming increasingly aware of the importance of standards, and so we are seeing the market shift more toward a regulatory environment. Suppliers must be compliant or go home."

At Northeast Maritime Institute (NMI) in Fairhaven, Mass., simulators will soon be put to the test in another way: to find the best shiphandler in the world. The school’s International Shiphandling Championship, scheduled for June 5-7, will challenge the skills of 50 mariners on Transas simulators. The contestants will guide virtual tugs and ships through a variety of geographic zones and operating scenarios, then be scored by judges and the Transas Evaluation and Assessment System. The winners will pocket a total of $50,000.

“We thought it would be a very interesting contest to provide for mariners to promote the skills that are needed every day that nobody really sees," said Robert Glover, director of education at NMI. “The only time you hear about it is when something goes wrong. You don’t hear about the infinite number of shiphandling incidents that occur on a daily basis when nothing is hit."

The contest is open to the first 50 licensed professional mariners who apply. •

By Professional Mariner Staff