Designing the digital crew member

19 Apr 2022 Institute News

Nic Gardner MNI talks to Jaquelyn Burton MNI and John Owen MNI from the Nautical Institute’s Automation Technical Advisory Group [ATAG] about the impact of your newest shipmate: the digital crew member.

Nic: There is an ever-increasing rate of technology change that drives many tools in our lives. From entertainment to information and calculation, our tools are more potent than ever before, and could improve our work, safety, and even the quality of our lives. The challenge is in realising that potential.

At sea, today’s tools are digital representations of analogue traditions and methods: plotting lines of position, tracking target bearing changes, monitoring speed in knots. Even in the engine room, analogue gauges show pressures in automated systems.

The regulatory and technological focus has been on providing mariners with all the data they may need – but it hasn’t necessarily looked at how they can process and use that information. This leads to information overload and criticisms of inadequate training, which in turn leads to regulations requiring specific information, data points, tools, and options to be provided in digital systems such as ECDIS and Integrated Bridge Systems (IBS).

That data requires mental processing for context and meaning, helping shape the mental model that the individuals in the bridge team hold and update as they receive new data. This has driven the need for greater focus on bridge team management.

As we re-evaluate what technology can and should do to support maritime operations, safety and training we must consider:

  • Why mariners need data;
  • The contexts that make it informative;
  • When it becomes significant in decision-making; and
  • How information processing can help mariners create a shared mental model.

The future will be about one display with more sensor inputs that make up an integrated and assistive tool. To quote Ann Till of Ocean Infinity, another member of the ATAG group, this display could be considered your new “digital shipmate.” It should help navigators prioritise tasks, and reduce stress when workloads are intense.

Does history have to repeat itself?

We’ve had problems with new technology, from VHF and radar-assisted collisions, to ECDIS-assisted groundings. Will it happen again with next-generation automation?

Jaquelyn: Many problems with ECDIS lie in how regulation drove the design. For example, regulation defined the screen size and list of functions and descriptors such as what must be included in standard display.

John: The user (the mariner) needs to be distinguished from the customer. Too often, the customer is the shipyard building the ship at the lowest price.

Jaquelyn: For three years, I’ve represented Kongsberg Maritime in the SIGTTO Human Element Committee Working Group for Cargo Control Room Design Recommendation. We produced three documents that are available on their website.

We concentrated on:

  • ensuring design thinking and human-centred practices are embedded in the process for development of the control room human-machine interface (HMI)
  • ensuring the tools are built for human operators to use over long periods of time; and
  • reducing accidents caused by human fallibility.

Unfortunately, with most type-approved technology the system creates the tasks instead of assisting mariners to work safely. Third-party focus on minimising capital expenditure (capex) has an outsized effect on the marine industry, training requirements, and risk. Like automation systems, IBS and other onboard technologies have fallen into third party capex and regulation-driven development cycles.

Seafarers are trained professionals. Why didn’t training prevent problems when new technology was introduced in the past?

John: Working in insurance, I’ve seen too many accidents not to have a jaundiced perspective on where technology is being misused or abused. Many navigators have only basic STCW training, and BRM still clashes with the on board culture on many vessels.

Were manufacturers’ training courses designed to promote their equipment rather than what the user needs?

Jaquelyn: As for the training courses, makers often have few mariners working for them, and the mariners don’t write the courses. Often, the curriculum must be approved by flag or industry reps who are also not mariners; the key points in the curriculum are mandated by regulators who have never been to sea, and if they have, it was decades ago.

From my perspective, that’s the primary reason the training courses aren’t worth it. That training often isn’t for the mariner’s benefit, but for lobbyist groups to make money. I’ve sat through many expensive courses that were a waste of my time and my company’s money. I often learned nothing, and was frequently fed erroneous information by the instructor who was out of practice and under-qualified.

How can we use technology to reduce the regulatory burden on the seafarer?

John: Maintaining logs and paperwork to comply with the Safety Management System (SMS) conflicts with the real world. Paperwork should be reduced, and secure electronic records established by default.

Jaquelyn: Logs, including work and rest records, should be kept via electronic ledgers. Port papers should be automatically compiled from these ledgers, and SMS systems should reduce paper and improve processes. That will, in turn, improve seafarer welfare.

One step further would be tying Planned Maintenance Systems (PMS) systems to these ledgers and accurate parts inventories. This would avoid hours spent accepting tasks in both systems, and account for reality rather than the fantasy world of manual records. To implement this, there needs to be less criminalisation of the mariner when things don’t go as planned.


What about the future?

How can we avoid repeating the same old implementation problems with new technology?

Jaquelyn: English is the second language of the working world; however, multi-language support is possible in the future.

Mariners must have a background understanding of industry developments, while manufacturers and regulators need to understand mariners’ working environment and regulatory complexity. In future, shipowners, operators, manufacturers, and shipyards must collaborate to simplify current solutions for safety and efficiency using evolving technologies.

To get the message to those who need to hear it, we must break it into short messages and different formats. It’s essential to engage with other industry sectors to represent mariners’ interests before regulators latch onto a single-solution approach.

How can industry engage better with users during product development? For example, developing fewer, more powerful tools that add value.

Jaquelyn: The development comes down to the business cases for the yards, the manufacturers, and the vessel owners. Good design has a cost, especially good design that encapsulates building great user experiences across many products, each with a lengthy and expensive approval processes.

For example, LiDAR could mitigate false echoes and for target tracking. However, the components are costly, and there is no standard user interface (UI).  We have been working on this, - see - but not all owners of all vessel types can spend money beyond the minimum requirements.

John: Smartphone user interfaces (UIs) are intuitive. How can we standardise the UI in the same way for new marine technology?

Jaquelyn: This isn’t about standardisation, it’s about usability and using affordances and signifiers [that is, making it clear what action a button or lever etc can take, and what state it is currently in] , and creating structured choices.

Mariners should have a say in the trade-offs between algorithms, AI, and proven traditional practices. My LinkedIn group connects maritime innovation teams, designers, and researchers with their products’ user groups. This connection is the only way to ensure technology provides safe operations rather than creating a burden.

How can modern automation and technology help mariners?

John: Camera-based systems like Orca-AI, a collision avoidance assistance system, are becoming popular, and are developing to help with situational awareness and prioritisation. It will be interesting to see how this and similar initiatives in the industry become part of a new standard installation rather than an extra.

Jaquelyn: Orca AI uses tech similar to Kongsberg Maritime’s autonomous navigation system. I see no reason why an IBS in the future wouldn’t integrate more sensors, similar to using ECDIS, AIS, and radar from different manufacturers feeding into the IBS.

John: Situational awareness is fundamental to best practices. Too often, it’s the most significant contributing factor to a collision, grounding, or allision.

Another example: pilot inputs on port entry passage plans are important. Many pilotage areas produce a PDF, but ECDIS-downloadable files might be preferable. However, sharing passage plans complete with notes and metadata needs to be straightforward and secure. Cyber security is a massive challenge.

Jaquelyn: Cyber security can be a challenge, and each ECDIS has its own structure of route metadata. By design, no manufacturer imports the notes and drawn objects with a route, only the waypoints, as the regulations don’t mention route-relevant user-created data, and the ability to link that data to the voyage.

How can we ensure safety during the transition to new technology?

Jacquelyn: Machine learning, AI, and advanced sensors have their place at sea. Mariners’ roles will change, but there will be a place for them on board for many years.

AI can help mariners deal with “alarm overload”, but good structure is a prerequisite – as set out in the SIGTTO Guidance on Alarm Management.

John: Many seafarers are only trained to basic STCW standards because that’s all that they require. However, insurance claims show that the tanker trades, oil and gas, are statistically better operated than the dry bulk trades.  Very large container ships have unique characteristics, and time will tell whether technology, revised manning and safer operating procedures will reduce the high-value claims from the past year or so.

Jaquelyn: We need technology to become a tool and partner of the bridge team for a safe transition. There are many approaches to AI and autonomous system introduction, but most of them target niche markets, such as small ferries or offshore wind. Many of even these applications are for human-crewed vessels.

Beyond decision support, deep sea ships are likely to see unmanned bridges, like unmanned engine rooms. Autonomous systems can’t do everything, but they could do the monitoring tasks that humans aren’t good at. It’s about leveraging skills to get the best out of the computers’ and systems’ capabilities, and the best from the mariners’ skills, while compensating for human factors like fatigue, distraction, and personal problems.

OCIMF has promoted the use of VDR information to enhance safety of navigation. How might industry evolve that concept so near-miss scenarios become a learning experience rather than a witch hunt?

John: Mariners still don’t report near misses, although AIS tracking allows the industry to monitor for such events. We should dispense with the stigma around making an error of judgment or being ignorant of the possible consequences. Aviation is well ahead of us, and the maritime sector should learn from this.

Jaquelyn: When I was sailing on LNG FSRUs, we would often review events on the VDR repeater, discuss how they were handled, and consider alternative approaches. Near-miss reporting will happen when the fear of prosecution or job loss disappears. I don’t see it improving much until system transparency pushes it into the open in five to ten years.

Any last words?

To close, I’ll leave you with some resources:

About the panel: After a major engine room fire in 2016, master mariner Jaquelyn Burton MNI shifted her career focus, completing an EMBA (hons) in 2018. She now runs the Kongsberg Maritime design department in R&D for holistic hardware and GUI product design.

After 17 years at sea, master mariner John Owen MNI worked for more than 30 years in marine liability and property (P&I and H&M) insurance. Today, he runs Bernicia Marine Consultants.