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Training tomorrow’s seafarers the smart way

The next generation of marine simulation solutions must address shipping’s accelerating pace of technological change and a widening skills gap among seafarers.

If a ship’s crew from the 1970s were teleported ten years into their future, the ships of the 1980s would hold few surprises. The same could not be said over the last two decades. Today’s ships are almost unrecognisable compared to those of the early 2000s thanks to the emergence of modern communications and navigation systems (including electronic chart displays) as well as electronic engine controls and a diverse number of emission abatement technologies below deck. And as technology advances, the rate of change will only increase.

The regulatory framework for crew training, IMO’s International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW), is struggling to keep pace. A painstaking multilateral decision-making process means revisions can take a decade to adopt and even longer to implement into the curriculum. Meanwhile, the skills needed in the maritime workplace keep evolving, says Neil Bennett, global director of simulation at Wartsila.

Competence gap

“Over the last 25 years we have witnessed a continuing increase in the gap between competence provided by regulated training and the training required to achieve competence on the modern equipment found on vessels in operation,” he says.

One result of this lag is that ship owners are having to introduce their own training to fill the gap. Bennett notes a dramatic increase in the proportion of non-regulated training compared to regulated training provided to seafarers. But this opens the problem of widely varying training practices, as Reto Weber of Chalmers University of Technology explains.

“Many companies, cruise ship operators for example, really want to see their seafarers developing and have crews coming in for training on a regular basis. Others just want to do what the regulations say. They want the certificate but don’t care about the course content.”

One way to improve consistency of training is the use of simulation to familiarise cadets with systems and situations. As simulation technology has improved over recent years – driven in part by advances in associated industries such as video gaming – it has become an integral part of the seafarer training curriculum and a well-established platform for delivering essential skills.

Mr Weber, who focuses on full-bridge simulation training at Sweden’s most widely recognised maritime school, lists many other benefits for students compared to relying on at-sea training alone. “They get far more practice. They face more situations and more challenging situations, and you can increase the difficulty as they get better.”

Wärtsilä’s own offering highlights the diversity of simulation training available. Its Wärtsilä Voyage business supplies academies and ship owners with navigational training platforms and content based on its Navi Trainer Professional (NTPro) systems and a Technological Simulator (TechSim) portfolio comprising engine room and liquid cargo handling simulations.

Regulatory limits

Despite its widespread application and proven effectiveness, STCW regulations limit how much of a cadet’s required experience can be gained in simulation versus at-sea training. According to Johan Ekvall, navigation simulation solutions manager at Wärtsilä, allowing increased simulation time in the seafarer curriculum would accelerate and improve training and help to close the competence gap.

“Sea time is still very important as it provides experience which cannot be reproduced in a simulator, such as the psychological factors being on a ship,” says Mr Ekvall. “But the efficiency, quality assurance and the breadth of training situations a simulator can bring to training is superior to training done onboard. We believe that more time in simulation training could shorten the time for both cadet training and promotions, and even improve the quality if the training objectives are clear and the training is well designed”.

An ongoing revision of STCW may recommend that flag states allow for greater simulation time in training. But other challenges will remain. For Chalmers’ Mr Weber, one such challenge is making sure that cadets can use time in the classroom effectively.

He explains: “Although IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee has approved guidelines for the standardisation of user interface design for navigation equipment, the bridge of today contains a wide array of manufacturer specific interfaces. Companies increasingly want seafarers trained on the equipment they will be using. Often when people come for a course, they need time just to understand basic controls and where to find things on that specific equipment. That limits the training you can do.”

Distributed learning

Emerging solutions may help solve this problem. Among them is the development of ‘distributed learning’ courses; cloud-based training programmes that cadets can access beyond the classroom. This could allow for the development of short pre-courses to familiarise cadets with specific equipment types, for example. But more widely says Ekvall, it will make it possible to train anywhere, at any time and with individually tailored content. Wärtsilä is working closely with some of its major customers on pilot programs for its cloud-based solutions, which will enable schools to provide access to simulators away from the classroom via browser on PCs, laptops, tablets or mobile devices.

Preparing recruits to operate specific equipment models, as opposed to generic radar or ECDIS courses, will require different content as well as more flexible delivery. Wärtsilä is now developing type specific training packages, intended to train recruits on the use of Wärtsilä’s wide range of bridge, engine room and cargo handling solutions.

The first of these packages has already been launched, for Wärtsilä’s liquefied natural gas (LNG) fuel supply solution LNGPac. According to Neil Bennett, the company ultimately hopes to offer type specific training packages for all Wärtsilä solutions, as well as using the packages as a base from which to develop training simulation for generic equipment.

It is not just the software element of equipment training that schools need to wrestle with. Reconfiguring hardware to the requirements of ship operators’ specific configurations is another costly and time-consuming issue, notes Mr Weber. Another set of emerging technologies may soon provide one answer.

Smart realities

According to Vittorio Esposito, technological simulation solutions manager at Wärtsilä, the company’s forthcoming Smart Realities rely on “virtual reality with a kick”. By combining a virtual reality environment with the mathematical, physical and environmental models that power Wärtsilä’s simulations, Smart Realities will place students on a virtual bridge or engine room and provide a more immersive experience than the joypad, controls and monitors that currently mediate the simulation experience.

Smart Realities will ease the burden schools face in changing configurations in simulator rooms, but it will do much more besides, says Mr Esposito. He explains that the new, cutting-edge tools will appeal to today’s younger recruits far more than more conventional methods. Thus, bringing exciting technology to seafarer training can also play a role in making shipping a more attractive career choice.

Smart simulation

Virtual reality, distributed learning and type specific training are just some of the emerging possibilities which will help prepare tomorrow’s seafarers for a ship environment that is becoming increasingly complex. For Wärtsilä Voyage, these solutions form part of the Smart Simulation vision, explains Mr Bennett.

“Smart Simulation is the next generation of our market leading simulation platform, enhanced and redesigned for a rapidly changing, digitised maritime industry and the next generation of seafarers,” he says.

Wärtsilä Smart Simulation will be officially introduced at Wärtsilä’s Transas simulation user conference, SIMUC 2020, to be held at Solent University in Southampton, UK on June 16-18. The objective is to provide ultimate flexibility for all users in the location, scale and type of training they deploy. To achieve this, Wärtsilä aims to put its entire simulation and training offer across multiple media – from traditional classroom-based simulation through to the virtual reality and distributed learning models under development – under a single software platform.

Seafarer training will come under even greater pressure in the face of shipping’s high-tech future and accelerating pace of change. A smart approach to simulation is needed to help schools, companies and new recruits keep ahead of the challenge.

Source: VPO GLobal