Ports and Terminals: Cut out the stress

Ben Hodgeson explains the Vessel Path Planner developed by BMT and Marimatech

Ben HodgesonGreater automation and computer control is gaining ground in VTS, but there is uncertainty over the limits, writes Martin Rushmere

Ahead of the implementation of the IMO E-Nav programme, nominally scheduled for introduction in 2018, human-computer balance is becoming more intense and controversial as Vessel Traffic Service systems become more comprehensive.

An equally thorny topic is the degree of control that vessel masters should have, versus authority of shoreside information services, and the comparison with Aircraft Traffic Control.

On one side of the scale is safety, weighed against the need to take into account of factors outside computer control.

The debate has become more intense following a simulation test that Kongsberg Norcontrol carried out to see what happens when VTS operators are loaded with extra tasks. BMT and Marimatech developed a Vessel Path Planner for the project, comprising a path planning server (developed by BMT), and a Marimatech Portable Pilot Unit.

Ben Hodgson, senior research scientist at BMT, says: “The path planning system defines a virtual channel and time slot which the pilot intends to be within. The master remains responsible for determining the ship's specific course but tells the VTS that they will stay within a corridor in space and time. The VTS operator and pilot are alerted if the ship exits the virtual channel or is going too fast or to slow.”

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Among its capabilities, the virtual channel sends weather reports, checks under-keel clearance, sends alerts of possible conflicts with other vessels and determine any warnings and notices associated with areas that the vessel will cross.

“We can also do automated path planning i.e. determine navigable routes from point A to point B and tune slot times to, for example, automatically schedule traffic through a narrow choke point. However, this functionality wasn’t the point of the project; rather we were looking at how the virtual channel concept could be used to reduce VHF communication and reduce cognitive burden on pilots and VTS operators.

“Currently for the trials it runs on a standard PC. For commercial use it would need to be scaled up possibly to multiple servers depending on the traffic conditions," says Mr Hodgson.

Operators had to deal with a variety of incidents and scenarios, where routine tasks such as monitoring radio channels were mixed with complicated developments such as having to suddenly re-route vessels because of weather and unavailable berths. In one case an operator missed identifying a collision.

“There was a definite increase in stress levels,” says Todd Schuett, training manager, Kongsberg Norcontrol, which ran the trials on operators from Halifax, Canada and Norway. “Eye blinks, heart rate, pulse all increased as the number of tasks increased.”


Stress test 

While these findings might seem to be fairly obvious, they do cast into serious doubt a prevailing notion that stress is more dependent on the types and difficulty of tasks than the amount, although more testing has to be done. “Also intriguing were the comments of the test subjects afterwards,” says Mr Schuett. “Experienced operators said they did not feel they were under more stress, even though our results found otherwise, while newer operators acknowledged that they were pretty fatigued at the end.”

Part of the reason for this might be the ability of long-serving operators to better deal with routine actions than their younger colleagues. “We have 13-year veterans who run through multiple daily tasks easily such as switching channels suddenly, redirecting vessels to another berth because of delays and dealing with new requests from inbound ships,” says Captain Kip Louttit, executive director of the Southern California Marine Exchange, which uses Kongsberg Norcontrol. “They have been doing it for years and it’s no big deal. The newer operators have to concentrate harder.”

He lauds systems such as Norcontrol that have cut out paperwork and tedious bureaucratic drudgery. “It even sends invoices and has a wide variety of features such as monitoring anchor alarms, when a vessel drags anchor.”

But he cautions about moving to the equivalent of Air Traffic Control and highlights crucial differences. “Remember there are large numbers of craft on the water that don’t transmit a radar target and don’t have AIS. At weekends we have 500 craft going out to Catalina, and they don’t show up on radar. Only the master of a commercial vessel knows they’re there and he is the one to make the decision."

Likewise, Capt Louttit notes there is strong opposition throughout the maritime community to getting rid of traditional navigation aids such as lighthouses (which the US Coast Guard was considering). “It’s penny wise and pound foolish.”

Mr Schuett favours greater reliance on shore-based information and reporting systems, particularly in the most congested areas like Singapore and Rotterdam. (Singapore is testing Kongsberg’s Sesame Strait project in a three-year trial). “Singapore devotes a huge amount of time and effort on improving its vessel management systems, but accidents still happen there.”

Proponents of an air traffic control-type system use a statistic being bandied around that the frequency of commercial maritime accidents is equivalent to two passenger jets crashing each week. The big difference is that while far fewer people die in maritime incidents, the environmental damage is potentially much greater.


Communication breakdown 

One big improvement needed in VTS is communication across different languages. “I reckon that 75% of my watchstanders say language is the biggest difficulty,” says Capt Louttit. “Automating the communication between a vessel and the AIS will greatly help overcome this. Whale warnings avoidance are a good example. On foreign ships the watchstander will often ignore the radio warning because he doesn’t understand it. An automatic text message in the relevant language will solve many of these problems.”


At least four vessel guidance and information protocols are at the forefront of greater VTS development. The EU is working on Mona Lisa, Kongsberg is rolling out Sesame Straits, the Lighthouse Association (IALA) is working with the IMO on the S-100 standard for E-navigation, while the Harbourmasters’ Association (IHMA) is wrapped up in Avanti for detailed nautical port information.

Mona Lisa 2.0 is drawing on commercial aviation traffic control and the EU’s SESAR project. A joint project between Sweden, Italy and Spain, one of Mona Lisa’s crucial elements is “joint private-public action to elaborate better standards for route exchange through a common interface and common data format, thereby allowing equipment from all manufacturers to be used for the concept.”

SESAME Straits (Secure, Efficient and Safe maritime traffic Management in the Straits of Malacca and Singapore), is a three-year project to “develop and validate a revolutionary concept for a next generation Ship Traffic Management System in the Straits”. Funding has partly come from Norway and its advisory board is made up of at least seven specialised industry groups.

The S-100 takes over from S-57 and is aimed at establishing general principles and procedures that all private and public sector groups must follow.

Avanti, developed by Envitia, is aimed specifically at ports and is being promoted by the UK Hydrographic Office. Its aims are “increased port efficiency; improved berth-to-berth passage planning; enhanced port safety; reduced emissions from ships in port; improved information in navigational charts and publications.”

The common feature of E-navigation and VTS systems of the future is to make sure that not only are shore-based facilities in full contact with vessels and vessel operators, but that relevant, non-confidential, information is transmitted among vessels. This applies both to maritime and administrative matters.

Transas is heavily involved in this area through its Port Management and Information System, along with its Navi-Harbour.

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