Building—and using—better bridge simulators.
By Hank Hogan
For those longing for the good old days when training took place exclusively on ships on the water, Captain Dave Welch has a story to relate. Welch is now commanding officer of the U.S. Navy’s Surface Warfare Officer School Command (SWOS) in Newport, R.I.
When he was an ensign, Welch’s training was on a ship, a yard patrol craft, out on the same Narraganset Bay that he can see from his office window today. “We’d practice man overboard drills. Now, you’d think that’s a real ship in a real maritime environment, so that’s pretty realistic. And it was,” he recalled.
But, Welch said, the ship was generic and didn’t closely model any particular vessel in the Navy. Also, the training schedule was completely at the mercy of whatever weather rolled in.
“I will tell you that driving yard patrol craft on Narraganset Bay after Thanksgiving is pretty unpleasant. Sometimes you simply can’t go out because of the wind or the snow or the visibility,” Welch said.
With multiple ensigns to train, there also was the need to wait and take turns. That further reduced training opportunities to actually drive the ship.
Today, things are different. For one thing, Welch heads up a network of nine training sites that handle 70,000 or so students annually, including 1,500 surface warfare officers, aviation officers and quartermasters. Those trainees still do some time on the water but the majority of the training is done using high fidelity simulators that depend upon visualization, voice recognition and other technologies as well as sophisticated models and databases. That brings benefits, Welch noted.
“With the simulators we have, there’s a much higher ratio of actual, hands on practical experience—more ‘stick’ time. And I can control for all the variables. In addition to modeling every ship class in the U.S. Navy, we model over 70 ports around the world,” he said.
Of particular importance to ship handling training, that port information includes hydrographic, such as water depth, data. Thus, the representation used in the simulators not only includes what can be seen but also what’s invisible, at least to the eye when looking at the sea’s surface.
Thanks to ongoing advances, the future of bridge simulation promises to further improve training effectiveness. Some of the potential enhancements include more realistic and detailed visuals depicting what someone on a bridge would see. There also are new simulators for new classes of vessels, like the littoral combat ships or the Zumwalt class destroyers that are just now or will soon be entering service.
Another advance is that some tasks require developing a feel—literally—for the behavior of a ship. Thus, simulators will have to incorporate force feedback, or haptics, so that they can render the sights and feel of a situation.
Another innovation on the horizon combines different simulators for various parts of a vessel or even other non-water going craft. This will enable different aspects beyond what’s done on a bridge to be included in training scenarios. An expansion of artificial intelligence in bridge simulators will enable quicker feedback to trainees on their performance.
For his part, Welch is happy with the current situation. “The state of bridge simulation right now, for us, is solid. It’s one of the best physics-based models we have of ships and the environment,” he said.
Having a good physics-based model is critical, he added. If a student looks at a simulation that’s supposed to be of a vessel moving at seven knots through San Diego harbor, then the scene had better match reality or the simulator will lose credibility. The same is true for how the virtual vessel reacts to currents and wind. Again, if it is unrealistic then the training value of the simulation will vanish.
For that reason, the models are constantly being updated. For instance, a master mariner on Welch’s staff got a chance to operate a Zumwalt class destroyer for several hours and observe how it sailed. That information, in turn, went back into improving the models for that ship type.
In most bridge simulation, it’s important to realize that voice recognition plays a critical role. That mimics what happens on a real bridge, where commands are issued by the officer on watch to a helmsman and lee helmsman who will actually carry out the command. The bridge simulation replicates this, with voice recognition systems effectively taking the place of crew in carrying out orders. That’s one reason why improvements in voice recognition accuracy and speed are sought after, according to Welch.
Other non-visual aspects of the simulation system are also important, with one of these being motion. Like visuals in a simulation, the perceived motion has to be close enough to reality that it convinces trainees.
What’s more, the motion cueing system has to match up with the simulation visuals. If that’s not the case, then what is seen with the eyes and what is sensed by the inner ear will not jive. Then, the ancient, reptilian part of the brain springs to life, convinced that the situation is dangerous and drastic steps are needed.
“When your senses send conflicting messages, your brain interprets it as if you have been poisoned,” said Sébastien Lozé, senior marketing director of simulation and training at D-Box Technologies of Longueuil, Quebec, Canada. The company makes simulator motion systems that provide the cues needed to convince those in the simulator that the motion is real.
At one time, motion cueing systems tended to be complex, large affairs, which made it difficult to incorporate them into bridge simulations. Technology advances have made this easier to implement, and studies of cognitive workloads and training effectiveness indicate that adding motion pays off, Lozé said. This is because if motion is not part of the mix, the brain has to work harder at achieving the illusion, leaving less capacity for absorbing and retaining training lessons.
In the case of D-Box, the actuators that supply the motion are electric, low friction, fluid free and compact. That makes them low maintenance. They can provide up to six inches of lift and rapid motion, simulating the vibration arising from ship engines and wave motion. The technology has been used by CASNAV, the Brazilian Navy’s research arm, to create an immersive simulator of a ship’s bridge.
In addition to more capable systems, there’s another reason why motion can now be part of simulation: greater know how. The key is not to provide a 100 percent faithful reproduction of every possible motion but to produce enough to create an immersive experience. Knowing what to dial in is, therefore, important, and this expertise has been developed over the years, making it more practical to include motion in a simulation.
Speaking of practicality, simulation is a way to lessen risk, noted Lieutenant Commander Duncan Mackenzie, navigation training officer in the Royal New Zealand Navy. Mackenzie is responsible for the delivery and maintenance of world-class navigation training at all levels.
As for what that training entails, he noted that watch-keeping officers are called upon to navigate ships in situations ranging from permissive to hostile and in locations that include harbors, the littoral and the open ocean. While doing so with live ships would work in some of those cases, that approach wouldn’t be prudent in others.
“Training, for example, at the war-like end of the spectrum would require an extreme appetite for risk if one was to do so with real ships. State-of-the-art bridge simulation can therefore be considered as a facility where myriad scenarios can be planned, executed, reviewed and learned from in a safe way,” Mackenzie said.
He added that current technology and simulation systems work well for many situations. There are a few where this is not the case, one example being smaller, high speed craft such as rigid hull inflatable boats (RHIBs). These tend to demand simulation in hydro- and aerodynamics, and the resulting motions are difficult to replicate in a simulator because of their frequency and the range of movement required. Other areas that challenge current systems are where interconnectivity is needed, such as when bridge simulators need to be linked to combat, communications and engineering simulators.
Similarly, training that involves multiple interactions, like underway helicopter operations, are difficult for simulators to handle. Warfare training also challenges current systems employed by the Royal New Zealand Navy, largely due to limitations of the software and the communications suite, according to Mackenzie. He noted that the software is being enhanced to correct such problems, and he’s seen capabilities in action that will soon be available.
“I am confident that the advancement of simulation is meeting the needs of users,” Mackenzie said.
The Royal New Zealand Navy uses software from Norway-based Kongsberg Gruppen ASA. Clayton Burry, vice president of sales and marketing Americas for Kongsberg maritime simulation, noted that the company has more than 40 years
of simulation experience involving the bridge, engine room and more.
The state-of-the-art in bridge simulation is a moving target but could be characterized as trending toward integrated simulation solutions, Burry said. This could include the interoperability of ship bridge, engine room, RHIB launch and recovery, and crisis management, as well as tactical engagement.
“The high end realism offered in Kongsberg’s hydrodynamics, visual systems and physical behavior of the modeled onboard equipment, such as winches and fully line dynamics, create an unparalleled simulation second only to real life operations,” Burry said.
The company uses proprietary simulations software, various hardware controls and standard off-the-shelf PCs and visual display systems. The last two mean its products benefit from the steadily increasing processing power offered by such systems. Still, high speed craft operating in a visually and target rich environment are always a challenge to simulate, Burry noted. “The combination of physical, hydrodynamic and aerodynamic effects along with the need for rapid updating always make the calculation load extreme for such simulations.”
In addition to putting new and better hardware to work, the company is also constantly updating its ship models. The company library covers hundreds of vessels and sailing areas. These have to be maintained and improved on an ongoing basis
As for the future, Burry mentioned a few areas that need further improvement. One is interoperability. Many military customers, he noted, have simulators from various vendors and the desire, naturally, is for all of them to work together. Doing so requires that the simulators communicate seamlessly with one another, a challenge that the industry is addressing. The goal is to eventually have various simulators participate in a common training environment in real time.
“We’re not there yet, but I think it is clear that this is where we are certainly heading,” Burry said.
He also noted that simulator technology is being pressed into uses other than training. One in particular is procedural and CONOPS verification. As naval forces shrink, officers have to execute a growing list of responsibilities due to lean manning of ships. A simulator can be used to assess the ability of an officer to handle a larger number of tasks brought on by having a smaller crew.
Speaking of naval changes, part of the challenge for bridge simulation is that what is needed for the world’s navies is not static training. For instance, actual combat experience is growing rarer and combined military-civilian operations and deployments are becoming more common, said Frans van den Berg. A retired rear admiral of the Royal Netherlands Navy, Van den Berg is business development executive for Naval Simulation and Training at Transas Marine Ltd. The Cork, Ireland-based company claims it has nearly half the worldwide maritime simulation market.
“Transas Naval Simulation and Training philosophy is based upon the increasing need for navies to anticipate changes in global political situation, operational environment and in tasks and deployments,” said Van den Berg.
He added that Transas is teaming up with another simulator company, Germany’s Thales, to create a modular simulation solution that encompasses an entire warship. Transas has expertise in bridge simulators while Thales brings operational and tactical trainer know-how to the project, according to Van den Berg. He noted that the cost of a simulator has fallen significantly over the years. For instance, the cost dropped four fold over a decade starting in the late 1990s. Today there is a push to use cloud simulation, again as a way to cuts costs. The feeling is that it will also improve flexibility.
However, this technology or any other is only half of the solution, Van den Berg said. “The bit which is absolutely paramount is the quality educational content—training scenarios, assessment tests, courseware. Which is why Transas is looking to and welcomes partnership from professional training centers, which are ready to explore this new opportunity, and is willing to participate in educational content design, development and tests for the mutual benefit,” he said.
A final example of bridge simulation at work comes from the Gerald R. Ford class of aircraft carriers. The first of these is undergoing pre-commissioning, with active training taking place while the ship is still being constructed. Lieutenant Commander James F. Sullivan is the assistant navigator and he noted that bridge simulation plays an extremely important role in the training being done.
“The opportunities for training on an operational carrier at sea are extremely limited, and it takes time and practice to hone specific skill sets, such as pulling in and out of port, anchoring, and underway replenishment alongside another ship. We are also able to understand and learn the unique ship characteristics through repetitions under various environments while practicing different emergencies or ship degradations,” Sullivan said.
The simulator can provide ship specific vantage points, such as a centerline view from a carrier. Beyond that, the ability to provide a live, virtual, construct environment for the entire bridge watch team simultaneously is an important element in continued training improvement. Also of benefit is the ability to make mistakes without paying the price that would be extracted from doing so using a live ship. Likewise, being able to record and replay events helps reinforce teaching.
For all these reasons, bridge simulation is a valuable tool. With current technology being improved, the training benefit should increase.
As Sullivan said, “Although the simulator does not replace the required qualifications each watch stander is expected to earn for evolutions at sea, the simulator helps bring the classroom discussion to a more realistic venue.”