About the Author: Thomas Viguier is an Arctic researcher working at the Icelandic Arctic Cooperation Network in Akureyri, Iceland. He is an expert in global and Arctic shipping and maritime industries, having worked as Safety and Security Officer in the Merchant Marine. He is focusing his research on Arctic maritime safety, security and geopolitics linked to the maritime industries. Thomas is specialized in multimodal logistics with a focus on short-sea shipping and regional development. He is a member of APECS Spain.
Why is it so important to have accurate ice and weather predictions onboard?
As shipping faces ice and weather hazardous and extreme conditions in the polar regions, ice and weather forecast software has been put in general usage and it has been enhanced with support from the scientific sector. Such software is meant to provide and display weather and ice data, forecasts, trends and further information for the user to assess the weather and ice situation in the region and take the relevant decision. Several bodies such as the Arctic Council and its Emergency, Prevention, Preparedness and Response (EPPR) Working Group have been deeply involved in projects that target the increase in use and reliability of such software packages through the development of strong databases and interfaces that would fit the concept of Integrated Bridge System (IBS). The IBS, according to the Wärtsilä Encyclopedia of Marine Technology, is “a series of interconnected and closely grouped screens and modules allowing centralised access to navigational, propulsion, control and monitoring information. The aim of IBS is to increase safe and efficient ship management by the qualified personnel”. In the IBS approach, there is a clear tendency in making data more accessible through software applications to maritime and shipping professionals, aiming to reduce risk related to navigation in polar regions and thus avoiding further accidents related to weather. This includes accidents purely related to ice and/or weather, and accidents related to human errors that led to a critical weather and/or ice situation, such as the Exxon Valdez accident and the subsequent oil spill.
However, ice and weather forecast software programs face large challenges and still have to progress in their development to really provide a powerful tool to the final user. In order to understand the benefits, challenges and needs, the following analysis is focused on the interactions between the final users and the software application, considering particularities related to on-board users such as captains, officers and crew members.
An increase in ship’s safety and safety of life at sea in polar regions can result from improvements in ice and weather prediction models and the way their forecasts can be accessed on board, alongside a better training, experience and understanding of the situation and technology by the captain, officers and crew members. In this sense, weather and ice forecasts combined with appropriate software to display and interpret such forecasts may provide the following benefits:
- Avoid large storms or ice packs that may cause damage and/or stress excessively the ship’s structure, enhancing the ship’s safety.
- Benefit from accurate information in the decision-making process on the bridge:
- Shorter and safer routes;
- Weather and ice-friendly routes for the vessel;
- Possibility to use weather and ice routing to achieve fuel-efficient routes;
- Support the captain in taking a final decision regarding the passage plan and navigation.
- Enhance safety at sea:
- Reduce the risk of environmental pollution due to potential damages to the ship’s structure or cargo;
- Reduce the risk of threat to safety of life at sea through adopting safer routes and thus avoiding possible accidents in remote places.
Despite the above-mentioned benefits, several challenges are often linked to the technological and innovative nature of such software. One of the most important challenges is the relation between the user and the software by itself. Generally, due to the complex and rapid nature of the bridge decision-making process, if a tool is not intuitive or is too complex, it will not be taken into account for decision-making as it would be too time-consuming to analyze and extract useful data. Moreover, providing new technology may represent one more responsibility for the captain’s duty from a legal perspective, which might play against the captain in case of an accident and the subsequent investigation. The case of the US Airways flight 1549 that landed in the Hudson River, New York, in 2009 may recall this challenge. The captain’s decision regarding the emergency situation was challenged by investigators due to the availability of technology to assess the situation, without taking into account, in a first attempt, the human factor that induced a delay in the response due to the assessment of the new situation (see NTSB Report N°AAR-10/03, Page 50, footnote 88). This accident may highlight the relation between final users and software. In this sense, the following challenges may be found:
1. Lack of a user-friendly interface with suitable functionality:
- As mentioned above, complicated interfaces are often found on bridge software, slowing down and complicating the decision-making process on the bridge. This factor is further stressed by a short period of time for decision-making;
- Often there is no possibility to enter manually observed data by the crew in the software, losing a crucial and basic aspect in navigation: human in-situ observation. This aspect is a legally binding obligation within the watchkeeping standards, provided by the STCW Convention from the IMO and being compulsory for every navigational watchkeeper. Therefore, the software may take into account the local weather seafarers encounter during navigation and should be able to accept input from these observations. In addition, such data may play an important role in local and regional forecasting models, playing a major role in providing enhanced data for decision-making and for other users located in the vicinity. Some weather forecast software may provide an entry box for observed data, but such data would only be used by the weather data provider and/or agency to readjust their broadcasted forecasts (e.g. Météo France provides weather centrals for merchant ships with software that allows the entry of observed data for forecasters to enhance their previsions). However, the final user does not receive instantaneous feedback from the entered observed data. These observations are only used by forecasters, and the feedback is only expected in the following meteorological bulletin broadcasted on radio or via satellite. Furthermore, the observed data is crucial in the almost immediate decision-making process onboard and would be extremely useful if the forecasts displayed in the software would be adapted almost instantaneously. Then, the user may take a rapid decision in a challenging and fast-changing environment such as polar icy waters. Technically, it is possible to enter manually such data, as mentioned before. The challenge would be to have an update in terms of forecast onboard, and not having to wait for the following broadcasted meteorological bulletin. The impacts would be updated navigational information available for the user and a more reliable tool for decision-making.
2. Loss of power from the ship’s captain over the decision-making process:
- As underlined by the US Airways flight 1549 case, the captain’s or user’s responsibility may be challenged by technological devices on board in case of an accident, thus creating an obligation for the final user to take into account the software, even if this one is not intuitive or easily accessible at any time. This may lead to the ice and weather systems to influence negatively, or even override, the captain’s final word and the internal decision-making process;
- Companies often use this software, connected to the internet via satellite, to increase control over the ship from ashore, promoting technology over human decisions. In this sense, the captain may often find him or herself in a position where the final decision on the route to follow comes from ashore, despite assessing the situation from an in-situ and experience perspective, and considering other options that might be more suitable according to the ship’s condition and cargo.
3. Lack of updates to the current state of ice and weather:
- As ice and weather conditions may change rapidly in the polar regions (in a matter of minutes for ice for example), the updates from satellites may not cover the needs given at a precise time. In this sense, the local observations carried out by the ship’s crew may provide an alternative to the lack of constant update. This point may constitute a limitation for the software in terms of precision and use.
Both the shipping and the maritime industries desire reliable data, software and tools to progressively reduce the risk in polar operations. As a main topic within these industries, risk management in polar regions, even more in the Arctic due to growing maritime activity in the recent years, is relying on scientific data and prediction models to increase safety and reduce environmental risk caused by accidents and/or pollution related to weather and ice. In this sense, several needs may be identified to continue promoting safe maritime operations in polar regions:
- An enhanced user-friendly interface with suitable functionality:
- Possibility for the crew to introduce intuitively observed data into the system, as observed local data is still a primary source of information to assess local situations;
- Promote the intuitive integration and use of the software into the IBS, breaking down the barrier between the user’s traditional bridge organization and the adoption of new technologies onboard.
- Enhanced training in academies and maritime training institutions and universities to give access to a deeper knowledge on how to handle, use and read information from forecasting mapping software and thus making the decision-making process easier. Addressing this need would raise awareness among officers and crew members and help them to integrate the software as a proper working tool.
- Avoid the replacement of the captain in the decision-making process regarding the elaboration of and decisions related to the passage plan. Technology is meant to help the final user in its decisions and not constitute a barrier during such process.
- Updated and more precise information provided by the software. As a matter of safety, to be able to rely on very useful and precise data is a powerful asset when making decisions in all kinds of situations.
In conclusion, the general trend observed on board is that electronic tools such as a software that is able to display weather and ice forecasts may be considered complicated to use by final users on board, often meaning that all its potential in the decision-making process is lost. The involvement of maritime stakeholders such as experienced captains and officers may help in saving time in the development and integration process of such a tool on board, and understanding the final user’s perspective may be crucial in the rapid integration in the IBS and use of weather and ice forecast software by final users in the shipping industry.
NTSB Report N°AAR-10/03, Page 50, footnote 88 https://www.ntsb.gov/investigations/AccidentReports/Reports/AAR1003.pdf