The Power of Simulation

Published Nov 20, 2012 3:40 PM by Art Garcia

By Art Garcia

Realism continues becoming more real in maritime simulation with one of the latest advances being touch-screen visual solutions. Already around for a time has been 3-D, and rapidly developing is 5-D. All that appears to be missing from marine simulation is the smell of salt air, and even that is making inroads. A company called Transas Technologies has an “edutainment” division that merges education and entertainment: “In this area we actually have a 5-D attraction that mixes in not only motion and 3-D with the graphics, but also smells as well,” said George Toma, President and CEO of Transas USA. “The salt air is already there in the entertainment world.”

The fifth dimension is the motion itself, what Toma calls “the six degrees of freedom,” with the software merging with physical movement. What’s left? “Most amazing are the hydra-dynamics and the science itself that says anything that exists, you can simulate,” he said. “You can also simulate what you think could exist or create scenarios in which you link the natural forces of life to your imagination and see what happens in a simulator. The ability to record and play it back, for instance, when you debrief on what just happened, that’s where the real learning starts.” He sees no limits to how far simulation technology can advance. “The beauty of simulation is if it can be dreamt, it can be done,” he added.

Customized Training Applications
At Kongsberg Maritime Simulation Inc., the direction increasingly is to customize software applications with touch-screen technology interfaces (Man-Machine Interface or MMI), “which offers incredible flexibility and space-saving benefits,” said Clayton Burry, Area Sales Manager for Canada and parts of Latin America. Using today’s motion-based technology, Kongsberg supports all-electric solutions for customers looking for training in special ops such as high-speed Rigid Hull Inflatable Boat maneuvers in various sea states.

“This technology has opened new doors for research, such as motion sickness studies, better understanding of mariner behavior and has helped to better design bridge equipment to reduce information overload for operators,” Burry said. Kongsberg uses voice-recognition technology in some of its ship’s bridge simulator systems for naval training applications and for conning of navy ships. “Picture a big theater with a parabolic screen wrapped around with projectors hung from the ceiling projected on that 360 degrees, with a ship’s bridge cabin right in the middle of the room,” he explained.

New technologies continue to advance. Graphics cards used by Kongsberg are constantly improved and so are its visual systems, which are incorporated into the company’s simulators about twice a year. Systems such as Kongsberg’s MultiFlex have helped reduce the size of simulators, saving on space and the number of computer consoles needed. “It’s a smart way to do it so we’re going to continue to look for touch-screen solutions that work with our simulators,” said Burry.

Listening to the Customer
With the assistance of several of its customers, Transas has made “great advancement” in simulation technologies still under development, among them crisis management, Toma said. “We’re also underway in developing many green simulation technologies. Clean-burning fuel is an area that’s very popular, and cooling spaces using green technologies are on the table for the future. The ability to provide emergency medical help at sea using video-over-communication channels can be simulated as well. Those are areas we’re experimenting with.” He termed direct market input from the maritime industry and Transas customers “the most important aspect, beyond the science of simulation technology itself. Customer feedback is what allows the simulation industry to thrive. Our customers are mariners. They dictate the direction of simulator technology.”

At Kongsberg and Transas every system is a custom solution. “Whether we are responding to a tender specification or meeting with customers to listen to their needs, we work with them to understand their requirements and to build, from the ground up, a tailored solution that meets the functional requirements and desired training outcome,” stated Kongsberg’s Burry. The company’s simulators are modular in design, meaning customers can add, enhance and connect new functionality at any time.

On the bridge side, the same software used to run Kongsberg’s Polaris desktop simulator is also used to run a full-mission simulator. “Once a customer’s requirements – consoles, hardware panels, visual system, software functions, etc. – are determined, we then take a look at their facilities and often work in new or renovated spaces to custom-fit our simulators in the available footprint,” explained Burry. “Of course, 3-D rendering with electrical and LAN locations is an integral part, providing customers with a road map for any civil works that might be required to accommodate a new or upgraded simulator.”

“There’s a lot of 3-D technology in a lot of things now,” added Neil Bennett, Vice President at Transas USA. “You walk into a retail store and see 3-D televisions. In maritime technology, 3-D is something that is really just beginning to appear. We’ve included this technology in the latest versions of our navigational simulator software. We’re looking to our users to try it and see where it can best be used for enhancing the training they do.”

Whether 3-D simulation technology will prove to be the next new “new” thing is difficult to say at this juncture. “It’s very good for close operations,” Bennett said. “A lot of what’s done in maritime requires viewing the distance and seeing well ahead of and beyond the ship, so I can see some potential benefits for crane operations and perhaps berthing for ships. But in a typical environment at sea it’s not going to give you much more. That’s why there are certain areas that should be tested to see how users feel.” Among them is the issue of having to wear 3-D glasses. Will that affect the user’s interaction with equipment controls as opposed to just looking at a monitor without the special glasses? The solution may be one of the newest technologies, 3-D without the need for special eyewear. “From a simulation perspective, it’s being built into the visualization software,” he noted.

Bennett says the use of touch-screens is growing “significantly now,” especially in engine room simulation. “If you can imagine the scale of the hardware systems in full-mission engine rooms, it’s significant so instead of a control board you can put up a large touch-screen display and it can be used for multiple types of vessels and still have the specialization that’s required.” There are a growing number of distance-learning initiatives in all areas of education, posing challenges for the maritime industry in determining how it fits with training requirements. “We’re asked more frequently to work with our customers to help them implement those kinds of training,” he said. Distance learning helps save a large part of the cost of maritime training in bringing students to a training facility and housing and feeding them by offering training over great distances.

From Laptops to Full-Mission Simulators
Transas and Kongsberg provide a full and expanding range of maritime simulators, including navigation, engine room, liquid-cargo handling, crane, terminal, oil spill, offshore, dynamic positioning, anchor handling, tug, escort and crisis management. All are modular in both software and hardware and can be expanded from a single personal computer to essentially an unlimited scale of network systems. They are inherently flexible from a single PC to classroom to full-mission applications.

“As for the future, Transas will continue to focus on the importance of advanced modeling and visualization,” said Toma. “We will continue to focus on specialized areas of the maritime industry, such as oil and offshore (anchor handling, dynamic positioning training, oil-spill simulation), liquid natural gas terminal simulation, refrigeration technologies, crane simulation and much more. Moreover, we have focused our development on newer concept areas, such as energy simulation, security and green technologies like emissions monitoring.” Simulators offered by Transas go from computer-based training packages on a CD-ROM all the way to complexes with multiple simulators, priced from as little as several hundred dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars. A full-scale new installation with many simulators runs more than $1 million.

Kongsberg’s catalog includes everything from a desktop system to a full-mission bridge with motion bases so the cabin responds to motion cues. Similarly, it has systems that start with a laptop computer all the way to a full engine room with real equipment controls. A typical Kongsberg entry-level desktop simulator is priced from $40,000-$50,000 to a full-mission system that runs from $1 million to several million dollars.

Kongsberg provides some simulator training but for the most part is not in the training business. It operates primarily as a supplier of simulation systems and lets its customers deliver their programs to their market. Transas typically does not offer training either. “We provide the tools to the training providers,” said Bennett. “In fact, we do our utmost to avoid competing with our customers. There are cases where we would prefer to partner with them to provide the training. A good example is ECDIS training, which is a growing area for us right now.”

As maritime simulation companies continue sharpening the edges of technology, they face entry into their market from a new source – the video game industry. Toma says “too many” gamers have expanded into maritime training simulation and many have come and gone. “Some have provided levels of expertise at the government level and tried to do business on the commercial side as well, but they’re unable to compete at the same level of pricing to come up with the same type of product,” he added. “It costs them oodles more.”

Although some video game manufacturers have had limited success in non-gaming simulation, there’s still an enormous difference between gaming technology and serious simulation and training technology. “It’s like comparing a topical or local anesthetic to being put completely under, ready for surgery,” commented Toma. “That is what we do at Transas. We go all the way. We provide the tools for training institutions and research/development centers that enable them to provide a level of realism for their customers, a level that is as close to reality as it gets. Without the proper modeling, combined with sharp, graphic technology, it remains a game, better suited for child’s play.” – MarEx 

Art Garcia is a frequent contributor to the magazine.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.