WAYPOINT - Fighting fatigue with technology

01 Jun 2022 The Navigator

George Shaw from the Royal Institute of Navigation looks at how how technology might be able to help address concerns about fatigue at sea

Even between shifts, seafarers remain ‘at work’, ready to respond to an emergency or crewing requirement. There is constant pressure to get to the next port. “Why did it take you so long?” asks the accusing voice from ashore. Lack of shared information and understanding of factors such as weather, tide, currents and fuel efficiency demands add even more stress. Short transits between ports compound fatigue, with little chance for a routine of rest.

These issues must be addressed at a regulatory level – but we should also look at the way technology helps counter the impact of fatigue. Issues must be detected and alleviated reliably for different depths of fatigue, such as reduced attention span, impaired decision-making, distorted judgement (distance, speed etc.), spatial disorientation, loss of situational awareness – and simply falling asleep. Supporting technology must respond appropriately to the seafarer’s cognitive state and the circumstances in which the vessel is operating.

Planes, trains and safer navigation
The technology problem is challenging. Systems detecting fatigue (or its effects) must miss very few critical incidences while ensuring a very low rate of false alarms. They must intervene as little as possible to maintain safety without affecting efficiency. Systems that annoy a navigator or threaten the ETA at port will simply be ignored or switched off.
For example, navigators may disable the bridge navigational watch alarm system if regular resets or alarms are deemed a nuisance. This is far too easily achieved on a vessel, compared with the alert system in a train driver’s cab, for example.


Commercial aviation has a regulatory focus for fatigue prevention, with a Flight Time Limitations (FTL) scheme that may also be supported by an aircraft’s Fatigue Risk Management System (FRMS) using sensor and data technology to monitor flight deck activity. Aviation recognises that the best safety device is a rested human navigator; a lesson for maritime to mull when considering bridge staffing levels and technology.

Advanced developments in communications, such as S-100 standardisation of data, VHF Data Exchange System and rapid growth in satellites, should increase the availability of information to promote shared understanding between ship and shore and provide an invaluable opportunity to alleviate stress and reduce fatigue. The explosion in data, however, raises issues of personal privacy and timeliness of information extraction.

Monitoring techniques
Integrating resilient, trustworthy backup positioning systems would address the vulnerabilities of GNSS and alleviate the navigator’s workload. Innovative developments in autonomous vessel systems could potentially monitor operational performance to counter fatigue on crewed vessels. Intelligent systems could be adapted as decision aids for mariners and to capture human errors. For example, they might monitor the ship’s position, track and speed against the voyage plan, deviation from approaches and transits for TSS, as well as adhering to collision avoidance rules during encounters with other vessels.

However, in increasingly complex and restricted sea spaces, technology may struggle to embrace the experienced mariner’s valid actions and risk the annoyance (and consequent disabling) of too many false alarms.
Technical wizardry on the bridge is no substitute for regulatory intervention and adequate bridge staffing with work schedules that adequately accommodate rest periods. Appropriate technology and integration with bridge systems should help, but only if centred on human factors. Badly chosen or poorly integrated ‘solutions’ could exacerbate the problem, with a cacophony of bridge alarms adding to the mariner’s workload and fatigue.

The onus is on the partnership of seafarers, equipment manufacturers, standard setting bodies, regulators and vessel operators to balance technical and human interventions appropriately to address fatigue. After all, the best safety device is a rested human navigator.

Contact RIN at: www.rin.org.uk | 1 Kensington Gore, London, SW7 2AT | Tel: +44 (0)20 7591 3134