A new vision for digital navigation

The digital transition calls for a staged approach to technology adoption and the evolving role of crew, writes James Collett, Managing Director, Sperry Marine

Navigation technology is on an evolutionary path that began several years ago. The challenge this creates for technology providers is the need for the navigation domain to keep up with the changes happening across the wider industry.

End users can choose from an array of systems that meet prevailing compliance standards, but which may not necessarily provide all the information they need in the right place or at the right time.

In normal times, vendors might have been able to upgrade the performance here, or update the interface there and carry on, but these are not normal times. The focus on digitalisation to deliver step changes in safety and operational efficiency means vessel operators need more from their technology providers.

An increased focus on integration, automation and connectivity can make a significant contribution to safety and awareness, simplify the human-machine interface and standardize maintenance, training and support.

In the medium term, technology providers will have to think smarter. In the longer term, we have to consider whether current configurations need a completely new approach.

With ship sizes still breaking records and pressure increasing to manage risk and improve performance, a fundamental question arises: to maintain safety standards and move towards sustainability, does the navigation bridge of today meet the need of a smarter, safer, cleaner industry of tomorrow?

2021: The Wheelhouse Bridge

Today’s bridge operations are served by discrete tools that have evolved from the original chart room, radio room and wheel house.

Integration of those tools usually refers to the physical elements such as shared power supplies, data networks and displays rather than assembling the data elements to create new, richer information sets. The outcome is that individual navigation operations still require the bridge team to bring together and interpret the right data to support the activity in hand.

Some data is duplicated around the ship but there is also a lot of manual communication between the officer of the watch, the look-out and the rest of the vessel. Today’s navigation includes advanced technology but does not leverage it to the extent possible.

Growth in data processing and communications will mean that bridge upgrades and changes will depend less on the physical layer and more on the intelligence layer. Evolution will be faster and the need for simple intuitive interfaces and remote support, service and upgrades will require manufacturers and users to work closer than they have ever done.

2025: The Connected Bridge

Already we can see enhancements to bridge procedures that create the intermediate step of the Connected Bridge. In this model, voyage planning takes place with more input from the shore and more collaboration between the ship and shore.

The risk assessments made by the bridge team are assisted and continuous, not something that is performed once or at a pre-set frequency. Instead, a constant stream of input provides the support and assistance required. The bridge team are still ‘looking out of the window’, interpreting what is going on in the local surroundings and responding by physically controlling the ship.

While the continuous lookout and interpretation of the surroundings is still in place by 2025, there will be greater situational awareness for the vessel. This include using radar, CCTV and Lidar during pilotage, berthing and navigation in high risk or congested areas and could include remote access to the vessel for closer shore co-ordination.

Improvements to energy efficiency can be achieved by integrating propulsion control and navigation systems with continuous energy and motion optimisation. An increasing number of remote applications will include voyage planning, continuous monitoring and smart maintenance of vessel navigation equipment, collision avoidance assistance and monitoring of navigation risk profiles based on the vessel’s behaviour.

203x: The Digital Bridge

The bridge of the 2030s will be transformed compared to today. It will be simplified, location-independent and highly automated, with better information flexibly available to the people that need it.

The 203x bridge will feature a high degree of automation for processes including equipment condition and maintenance, collision avoidance, auto docking, remote operations and propulsion control. Automated data feeds will provide insights and actionable recommendations, enabling managers to make qualified voyage decisions based on the information the system provides from its surroundings.

This puts the industry into the autonomy phase of vessel operations, though how far it can be applied will depend on prevailing rules, regulations and equivalence certification.

In an increasing number of cases, the people who also need the vessel’s situational awareness will not work on the bridge. They could be somewhere else on the vessel or in an office ashore – what links them is that they could be operating from any location.

The ultimate aim would be to make the bridge location independent from the functions it performs; serving the safety of the ship as well as operational efficiency aspects. This might ultimately result in the removal of the wheelhouse.

A future container vessel with a wheel house in the hull could, theoretically, have a better understanding of its surroundings than can be currently be achieved by standing on the bridge with visibility no further than 1.5 nautical miles.

A new bridge vision

The bridge of the future matters because it is not just shipowners who want to access to vessel and voyage performance data. Vessel managers, operators and charterers increasingly require data for decision making, for reasons of safety, fuel efficiency, emissions reduction, maintenance and equipment performance.

There is an overwhelming desire to see a ‘digital twin’ of the vessel in data, with insights on operational status, knowing if there are problems with equipment, remotely troubleshooting if possible and understanding if the voyage will be impacted.

The changes taking place in shipping require navigation system and service providers to come up with new approaches to vessel operations. That requires us to standardize, simplify and integrate today’s bridge portfolio, driving development faster towards adaptive, automated and location independent bridge systems, replacing humans with technology only where it makes sense.

Above all else is the realisation that we are part of the jigsaw, not the whole puzzle. We need to embrace collaboration that can drive integration as well as increasing automation. Do this right and the result is an improved user experience, better ergonomics and an enhanced working environment.

This won’t be a big bang but it cannot be a whimper either. We need to learn from previous developments and take a much bigger leap to the future. It is clear that ensuring that vessels operate safely, efficiently and sustainably requires more than just the deployment of technology, it needs a new Bridge Vision.

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About the Authors

James Collett

James Collett is Managing Director of Sperry Marine and President of the Comité International Radio-Maritime (CIRM), an organisation dedicated to developing and sharing global standards for marine electronics, digital ship operations, software supporting marine navigation and communication applications, equipment manufacture, installation and service and other matters relating to shipborne electronic equipment and systems.

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