Tomorrow’s weather

01 Jun 2019 The Navigator

Dr Andy Norris, an active Fellow of the Nautical Institute and the Royal Institute of Navigation, forecasts the future of sourcing weather data

Maritime numerical weather data providers make good use of the ever-increasing availability of broadband systems on ships at sea. In particular, the far higher data capacity of broadband means information that is received can be much more specific to the requirements of the vessel. As we have seen in this issue of The Navigator, this type of data can significantly assist the safe and efficient navigation of the vessel.

Looking to the future, it is clear that most externally sourced navigational data will be centred on broadband communication. This evolution will, however, need to provide improved benefits to the safe passage of vessels if it is ever to get full approval. In the more distant future, this could include detailed, real-time navigational information ‘broad-banded’ between vessels. However, conventional methods of data interchange will also need to be maintained – and developed – to provide back-up services at the very least. Satellite based broadband functionality, like all other systems, can never be 100% reliable.

The human touch
Of course, the immediate local situation will still be sensed independently by both humans and the systems onboard the vessel. Constant comparison of this information with all externally communicated data will remain essential. We have been doing this for hundreds of years for charted and other printed data and over a hundred years for radio data, including vital weatherrelated information. In particular, continued comparison of the actual weather situation with predictions gives a good, working experience of the integrity of the service (how reliable it is)

Broadband development potentially gives the possibility for all ships to directly send weather-related data from onboard sensors directly to forecasting bodies. These would measure local parameters, such as air pressure and wind strength/direction, whilst appropriately taking into account vessel movement. The much increased, real-time availability of such data to forecasters would have huge potential to improve their services even further.

Plan to fail
It is always important to understand how to react when an item of bridge equipment develops a fault, not least that used for displaying weather-related data. If someone notices a failure, the first action from a less-experienced staff member should be to communicate the problem rapidly to the more senior staff on the bridge. As with all navigation-related equipment, staff must fully understand all the options for accessing and displaying the best available data. They must also be able to decide whether an equipment failure should influence the current or near-future navigational plan of the vessel. Likewise, junior staff should make sure they understand alternative methods of accessing essential data, including weather data. This means knowing how to use both from alternative external data sources and from onboard, temporarily-stored data.

Constant appraisal
The value of reverting to more traditional techniques is often promoted for backup purposes and should not be ignored. Unfortunately, because bridge systems are becoming increasingly sophisticated and reliable, an emergency reversion to rarely-used traditional techniques can be extremely difficult to undertake safely. Constant appraisal should be given by all, not least bridge equipment providers, on how to maintain the electronic display and use of data when individual pieces of bridge equipment fails – including the display of up-to-date, weather-related data.

Fortunately, weather data is far less time-critical than some other navigational data such as the visual, depth, speed, positional, radar and AIS situation. However, poor understanding of developing weather continues to lead to accidents.

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