Newest simulators expand horizons

Feb 28, 2007 12:00 AM
Forget about video games. That's the first thing instructors at maritime academies and training schools tell students about the latest generation of shiphandling simulators.

Lee Brown, a systems engineer at the Calhoon MEBA Engineering School, examines charts as the school's new simulator projects images of New York Harbor.
   Image Credit: Courtesy Calhoon MEBA Engineering School/Michael Roe

At the Calhoon MEBA Engineering School in Easton, Md., Capt. Dan Noonan, an instructor, walks incoming students into the simulator, puts them in a small, maneuverable craft to magnify the visual effects, and tells them, "You now have half an hour to get over the wow factor."

"I don't have time for that," he explained.

In Dania Beach, Fla., Capt. Phil Shullo, director of training for the RTM STAR Center, wants classes to treat his simulators like the real thing. "If you walk onto our bridges, you're walking onto a ship's bridge," Shullo said. "We treat this with the same kind of respect and almost fear that an officer would have on the bridge of a real ship."

For instructors, improvements in simulator fidelity mean they no longer need to make excuses for the equipment. Gone are the jerky visuals and cartoon-like effects. Glitches that used to crash older simulators can be fixed on the fly. And instructors are taking advantage of the changes to expand the horizons of what their students can learn.

Improvements have come in two main areas: hydrodynamic modeling and computer technology. When Noonan programs one of Calhoon's simulators to represent a 100-foot U.S. Coast Guard cutter leaving Baltimore's Inner Harbor, oversteering produces a lifelike lurching. Landmarks like the giant Domino Sugar sign are highly realistic, but so are less prominent features, such as a low stone bulkhead farther downstream.

At Calhoon and elsewhere, a class studying bank suction can go straight into a simulator and feel the effect on a vessel. Scenarios can reproduce complicated tides and currents in locations like San Francisco Bay. And cruise lines and tugboat companies are ordering training for their deck and engineering officers on simulators that replicate the bridges or engine rooms aboard their own vessels.

"The simulation that existed 10 years ago had some of the same effects in it, but they were programmed effects," said Capt. Ted Morley, director of operations at Maritime Professional Training in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "You were manually entering information, and the computer would run it from there."

The difference now is the difference between generic simulation and high-fidelity interactions between real vessels, real locations and real environmental conditions.

"In the past, most of the weather events were on or off, and they were more of an aesthetic thing than an impact on the vessel itself," Morley said.

The same is true of tides and currents. "Ten years ago, it was a global current," he said. "You could set it north or south, but it wasn't realistic; it didn't part and go round islands."

Most commercial simulators at schools across the country come from Transas Marine USA, of Seattle, or Kongsberg Maritime Simulation, of West Mystic, Conn. Capt. Phil Arms, director of simulation at California Maritime Academy in Vallejo, Calif., says their realism is pushing instructors to explore new ways of using them.


As an example, he cited a radar lab where students were having trouble visualizing relative motion — "How can a point that's going away from you be getting closer?" — so he set up the same problem in the ship simulator so the class could watch real vessels. "I can sympathize with that because I had a hell of a time with that in Officer Candidate School," Arms said. "The first time I got on a ship, I said, ‘Oh, my God; that's what it meant!'"

"What we're finding is an ability to get into a more sophisticated training regimen," said Noonan at Calhoon. "In these new models, the vessels are affected by large-scale movements of water, but also the microscale movements of water have a profound effect on how to move vessels alongside berths. When you're able to deal with a model that can develop a scenario that's scaled to inches, the interaction of the water between the berth and the vessel, the propeller wash against the solid base of the berth and the movement of the vessel as it would react to that have all been developed quite well. And that's how it is out there."

As a consequence, there is an increasing call for customized instruction. "We're getting more and more requests for training tailored specifically to a ship's equipment, whereas in earlier simulator versions, just the idea of using the generic models was fine," said the STAR Center's Shullo. "We've done this before, but it's become even more noticeable now. We actually take tow-tank data and hydrodynamically model the ship guys are going to train on."

Shullo recalls a brand-new cruise ship whose model forecast a very slight stern creep whenever the ship rang up "all stop." To the surprise of the master, that's exactly what happened when he drove the vessel for the first time.

MPT's Morley said the latest simulators allow for much more reliable assessment of deck officers. "The Coast Guard puts a pretty awesome responsibility on schools," he said. "If you look back 15, 20 years at simulators, it was very hard to conduct assessments on them. Today you can conduct very stressful, in-depth assessments." The difference, he said, involves more than visual imaging. It's "the success of the model makers and the modeling of the geographic database where you really have the interaction between the area and the vessel."

Training for engineers has improved, as well. Open a drain valve on the Kongsberg medium-speed diesel simulator at Calhoon, and you can read its level.

At SUNY Maritime College, Dr. Richard Burke, chairman of engineering, praises the way engine room simulators improve students' diagnostic abilities by forcing them to look at the big picture. Cathy Strez, a SUNY Maritime lecturer with considerable seagoing experience as an engineer, agrees. "When we were talking about a problem with a piece of equipment, they focused on the piece of equipment but not what was causing the problem," she said. "We're really having students start to think of it as a very large system with components that are all interacting."

Transas and Kongsberg both keep in close touch with customers. Neil Bennett, sales and commercial director for Transas, says his company's product managers and developers meet face to face with instructors and users as often as possible. Those contacts have led to many features and improved functionality in Transas simulators.

As another example of interaction between customer and user, Alaska Vocational Technical Center in Seward has had Crowley Maritime masters and mates test-drive z-drive and Voith-Schneider tug simulations, and has passed on their input to Kongsberg.

Towing simulation, in fact, presents hydrodynamic and physical-interaction modeling challenges, and it still needs significant improvement. Transas and Kongsberg are both working on it, as is CSC Advanced Marine Center in Washington, D.C., whose expertise stems from its military work. CSC has studied hawser dynamics extensively for ocean towing and has just delivered a computer-based training manual to the U.S. Navy.

But however good simulators become, they are only a tool. Looking at them with the benefit of 24 years' experience, Capt. Sam Teel, head of the marine transportation department at Maine Maritime Academy, says the skill of the instructors is key: "It's not the simulator, stupid; it's the people."

So to be effective, instructors must become students themselves.

Northeast Maritime Institute, which has a new simulator, put its instructors through a three-day program conducted recently by Transas. The goal was to help the instructors get the most out of the technology.

The new simulator "is unbelievable in its capacity," said Dave Kane, the school's director of education. "Running a simulator is like playing a musical instrument," he observed. The more you practice, the better you get at exploiting that capacity for the benefit of your students.

"You want the student to get sweaty palms and an elevated heartbeat," Kane said. "If you don't do it properly, it becomes just a video game."

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