The integrated bridge simulator facility in Sharjah is the only one of its kind in the Middle East. Bookings for the advanced courses are reaching unprecedented levels and the take-up shows no sign of abating.
Walking into the main classroom at the Unique System simulator-training centre conjures the feeling of being a guest at space shuttle mission control just before launch. Closer inspection reveals the rows of bridge systems incorporate a dozen brightly lit screens charting the wind speed, wave action and current strength acting upon a fleet of imaginary ships. Joysticks and rollerballs protrude from control panels, and arrays of red blinking buttons inform the observer that alarms have been activated and action needs to be taken.
“This is the primary and most advanced bridge simulator training facility centre for the whole of the Africa, India and Middle East region,” enthuses Sharad Kumar, manager, customer support and training, Unique System. The scenario being virtually played out on the screens is part of a training package designed to aid students in mastering dynamic positioning controls, most often found on offshore rigs, support vessels and petrochemical tankers. CCTV cameras are discreetly positioned in the advanced simulation room to ensure every move and action can be monitored by instructors and examiners - no doubt a precaution the owner of a US$100 million vessel will take comfort from.
“The scheduled training that we undertake here in Sharjah includes the Nautical Institute approved dynamic positioning (DP) certificate. Under this course a trainee spends five days here in the interactive classroom, followed by a month at sea, then five more days refining their skills on the advanced simulator, and finally six months practical hands-on training at sea,” says Kumar. Once this is completed the candidate will be a certified DP operator, and a highly prized asset in a market starved of skilled and qualified personnel.
“In terms of the training we offer, we’ve definitely seen a huge change in our customer base. Previously Middle Eastern ship owners have viewed training merely as a cost, but there has been a significant attitude change,” explains Kumar. “The best equipment in the world is only as good as the operator in control of it, so to utilise all of the functions and its capabilities takes technical instruction and skill,” he adds. The global drought in sufficiently qualified ship’s masters and chief officers has seen market forces drive the wages of those with appropriate skill sets upwards of $30,000 per month in the LNG field. Crewing is one of the highest costs an owner has to control, and there has been no escaping this for regional owners.
“More and more Middle Eastern owners are funding training, and in particular there’s been a significant increase in the number of customised training sessions we’re undertaking,” says Kumar. “We’ve trained graduates from Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.” Regional firms who have taken advantage of the training centre include Qatar Shipping, GEM, Vela and the National Iranian Tanker Company.
Whilst many regional Nationals are often employed in managerial positions, attitudes towards understanding conditions in the field have attracted graduates to tailored training courses too. It appears the value of learning, and having hands-on experience is no longer being ignored, and managers are reaping the benefits of a deeper knowledge of the practical applications - and limitations of the equipment.
Recent technological advances in the sensors, hardware and the software that interprets data and drives these systems means the systems are far more complex, but ultimately easier to manage.
“The integrated bridge is designed for one-man operation, with functionality that allows maximum time for observation and decision making,” explains Anne Eystø Nordskog, manager of project management, DP and navigation, Kongsberg Maritime. “The technology that recruits are dealing with now is more sophisticated in what it’s capable of, but has been designed to be more user friendly,” she adds.
The systems now are modular, so the overall architecture has fundamentally changed. In systems from a decade ago, all of the equipment would typically be centralised on one console, whereas now these are split up into distributed processing units, which means even if something goes wrong with the main console, the individual units will continue to operate unaffected.
The dynamic positioning courses have been key to the success of the facility in Sharjah, driven by the renewed enthusiasm for offshore FPSO and rig, and LNG sector in the Gulf. For safety reasons supply ships, and oil and gas vessels need to achieve as little movement as possible during the transfer of product or personnel. This is achieved by using a combination of thrusters and propellers. “This system looks at the external factors that will influence the positioning of the vessel, such as waves, wind and currents. All of nature’s forces will have some force pushing the vessel outside of the desired range,” says Kumar. The sensors deployed all over the vessel can detect tiny changes in these individual forces and calculate the combined effect these factors will have on the ships position. By deploying the appropriate amount of power to the available thrusters, the overall forces will be equalised and the vessel will remain stationary.
The positioning is calculated very precisely integrating Global Positioning Satellites (GPS) and gyro calculations.
Whilst the biggest commercial deployment of this equipment is in the petrochemical sector, it is not unique in requiring DP technology. There are places where it is illegal to drop anchor, such as underwater marine conservation areas around the world like the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. Obviously a large anchor for a cruise vessel would cause irreparable damage to the fragile ecosystems that exist in these regions. In the industrial arena there are deepsea locations, and work sites where cables and pipelines make it is physically impossible or impractical to anchor, so again DP would be the best system to hold position.
The integrated bridge systems also improve safety aboard a vessel in a variety of ways. The system is software controlled and has pre-defined limits with in-built error early warning systems, which reduces the likelihood of human miscalculation. When a command is given, the system will analyse the implications of the proposed action and return feedback in the form of an alarm if certain safety parameters will be breached. In this way accidents attributed to fatigue can be averted. Also, the variety of sensors incorporated within the bridge are capable of identifying ships that the human eye would not be able to detect, whether that is beyond line of sight, or in poor visibility conditions, and give a very accurate position and heading for that vessel, which greatly reduces the risk of collision.
Ship chartering costs have never been higher, many being leased at a rate of tens of thousands of dollars per day, so anything that can reduce port call time is a bonus for shipping companies. With the capabilities now available through satellite comunication, it has become possible for remote diagnosis of the vessel to take place while at sea. “We’ve piloted this in the North Sea and expect to be able to roll the technology out across all integrated bridge solutions soon,” says Kumar. The voyage data recorder (VDR) can undergo survey remotely, which saves time and money because an engineer does not have to be deployed to undertake the survey while in port.
“Because the same hardware platform is incorporated throughout the system, the amount of spare parts carried can be reduced with associated savings made. In addition, maintainability and simple upgrade solutions brings down overall life cycle costs for the bridge control systems,” says Nordskog. “The Kongsberg K-bridge system is designed to take navigation to the next level, ensuring improved safety and efficiency at all levels of navigation and ship handling. Because the new navigation system shares a common intuitive user interface philosophy, and utilises core architecture across the whole system, there are no compatibility issues, such as those encountered when combining separate manufacturers equipment,” she adds.
Whilst there is a strong customer base for these systems in the Middle East, most of the new building is taking place in Korea and China. However, major retrofits are taking place here, particularly at Dubai Dry Docks. “All of the systems we train people on can be retrofitted to existing vessels. In fact this accounts for about 25% of our sales. The proportion of systems being installed as retrofits is also increasing,” he adds.
The developments being seen with integrated bridge technology are exciting, and Kongsberg already know where the next step in the evolution of the technology is set to take place. “The next generation systems will fully integrate dynamic positioning systems and navigation with the automation system to form a full scale vessel management system,” says Nordskog. The capability to bring together cargo, bridge, fuel and navigation equipment into one package will no doubt further simplify procurement challenges for owners.
The fact that regional demand for training is on the up is indicative that the industry is being proactive in attempting to avert the impending recruitment crisis. Upskilling the current generation of mariners is an encouraging sign, and the decision for Kongsberg to choose Sharjah as one of only a handful of advanced simulation training centres across the globe, also signifies the health and dynamism of the regional shipping industry. The first class facilities have won praise from Norway, and the highly capable team at Unique System leave regional shippers with no excuse not to invest in the future of the industry and train more recruits to the highest levels.