Integrated bridge technology winning over savvy shipowners

The 4-to-8 watch isn’t what it used to be, at least not on ships equipped with integrated bridge systems (IBS).

The bridge of Polar Resolution. Polar Tankers Inc., a ConocoPhillips subsidiary, installed integrated bridge technology on its new Endeavor Class tankers. The equipment was designed by Raytheon and Anschuetz Corp.
   Image Credit: Courtesy Sperry Marine

A ship’s officer can walk over to a console, point and click, and receive a variety of information without moving an inch. The result is greater efficiency and convenience, but more importantly, greatly enhanced safety.

Advances in information technology have found their way into the maritime industry in many ways. The integrated bridge system may prove to be one of the farthest-reaching applications.

“As the market for personal computers is maturing, we want to drive it into other sectors throughout the marine industry, from brown water to blue,” said Shepard Tucker, director of sales and marketing for Nobeltec, a software provider for integrated bridge technology.

An IBS allows each piece of equipment to interface with the others. This, in turn, allows an officer to use a single display to view data from a wide array of navigation gear. A crewmember viewing a single screen can query the GPS, gyrocompass, autopilot, radar and electronic sea charts. It’s one-stop shopping for information.

Polar Tankers Inc., a subsidiary of ConocoPhillips, manages the marine transportation of ConocoPhillips’ Alaska North Slope crude-oil production. Polar Tankers’ Endeavor Class double-hulled crude-oil carriers are 895 feet long and hold more than 1 million barrels of cargo at full capacity. Four of the ships are in service and a fifth is under construction at Northrop Grumman Ship Systems’ operation in Avondale, La.

During the design stage, ConocoPhillips sought out an IBS that consisted of commercial off-the-shelf components with open systems to provide the capability to modernize the system much less expensively as technology improves.

Capt. Ken Zeghibe served as master of Polar Endeavor on its first voyage in the spring of 2001 and now works with the company’s new-vessel construction team at the Avondale shipyard. The vessels are fitted with a Raytheon IBS, which was designed by teams from Raytheon and the German-based Anschuetz Corp.

Zeghibe is enthusiastic about the new systems on these tankers. He does, however, have some concern that the new system has the potential to exert too strong a hold on the attention of the bridge crew. It provides so much information to the deck officers that they may be tempted to pay less attention than they should to other sources of information on the bridge, including what can be seen by looking out the windows.

This was an issue in their latest training, in which the trainees worked on paying attention to what was going on outside and resisting the temptation to become totally fixated on the display.

“The hardest part about training is that (the IBS) can be intimidating at first,” Zeghibe said. “U.S. crews haven’t been used to this type of arrangement on the bridge.”

Zeghibe notes that one of the hardest things can be determining the root cause of an alarm. Is the alarm being caused by an input from another piece of gear or equipment that is integral to the system? With experience, an operator gets to know the technology and is more able to ascertain what’s going on and what an alarm really means.

Zeghibe pointed out that the IBS works well with Polar Tankers’ team approach to bridge management. The traditional hierarchy of licensed ship officer and unlicensed crewmembers is replaced by a teaming concept that encourages more cooperation among the different ranks.

Crewmembers such as able seamen may be on the bridge and using the IBS. It’s a user-friendly system that is menu-driven and generally easy to read and understand.

A big advantage of the integrated system is that the learning curve is reduced, said Jim McGowan of Raymarine Inc., based in Nashua, N.H. It’s easier for a ship’s officer or crewmember to use the various technological gear on the bridge than it would be without IBS.

McGowan, a former naval officer and tech support specialist for the company, said an integrated system probably increases the cost of bridge electronics by about 50 percent. However, the added convenience and efficiency gained are worth it, he believes.

Northrop Grumman Corp.’s Sperry Marine offers an IBS called Vision FT. This is another one-stop console for the ship’s navigation sensors and systems — including radars, electronic chart display and information system (ECDIS), gyrocompass, depth sounder, speed log, differential global positioning satellite (DGPS) receivers, and autopilot. Sperry’s IBS includes voyage management system (VMS) software that facilitates route planning and gives a clear snapshot of the vessel’s position and movement in real time.

Vision FT accommodates the latest peripherals such as large-screen high-resolution flat-panel color displays, with easy front-panel access for maintenance and repairs. It offers ergonomic advantages to the crew with a trackball control device. Drop-down menus enable an operator to easily orient to the automated equipment.

Image Credit: Courtesy Sperry Marine

Sperry Marine, which offers an integrated bridge system called Vision FT, provides simulator training at its facility in Charlottesville, Va.

Sperry offers a portable device that allows a crewmember to monitor the IBS from anywhere in the ship. The Pocket Bridge is a remote wireless multifunction hand-held device that permits access to all the equipment integrated on the console.

Sperry is supplying Royal Caribbean International with navigation and communication systems for the next-generation Ultra Voyager cruise ship, which will be built at Kvaerner Masa-Yards in Finland.

Sperry supplied the IBSs for all of the previous Voyager Class and Radiance Class cruise ships, and has retrofitted the existing Royal Caribbean fleet of cruise ships, ensuring that all of the ships have standardized bridge installations.

Ultra Voyager, to be completed in 2006, will carry up to 3,600 passengers and 1,400 crew, making it the world’s largest cruise ship. The bridge layout will be identical to those on other Royal Caribbean ships, and all displays and consoles will be arranged in a U-shaped configuration.

The slick and attractive benefit of an integrated bridge comes with some apprehension from operators, but it’s usually short-lived.

“Traditionalists would have a tendency to invoke the possibility of network failure creating a complete system breakdown,” said Keith Blanchet, marketing manager for CAE Marine Systems. “They may dislike having too many functions being managed by software. These are perceptions that are dying away with more and more applications successfully and safely operating around the world.”

As advanced as the IBS is, Zeghibe still believes it doesn’t replace the human element. “You have to mix it with the human factor,” he said. “You still need to train the human factor.”