Education, Featured, Maritime

AVTEC Maritime Simulator gets a major upgrade

Inside the AVTEC simulator bridge
Inside the AVTEC simulator bridge

The icebreaker was called in to assist in towing a platform through thick pack ice. One ship was already towing ahead, and a tugboat was trailing behind. The convoy was not making sufficient headway, and the ice was getting thicker. As I drove the icebreaker towards the head of the convoy, I looked behind me and saw that the pressure from moving ice had swung my stern into the open water created by the other vessel, threatening to pin me against the platform. At this point, an AVTEC instructor in the control room could have created any number of issues for me to contend with, including engine trouble, weather changes, or a medical problem aboard another vessel.

Maritime Instructor Mike Angove gave me a tour of AVTEC’s improved maritime simulator on Oct 11. The school did already have a simulator, but a recent windfall dramatically improved its display and its processing power. Superior Energy left Alaska when Shell Oil shelved its offshore drilling program, and they donated the components of their simulator in Anchorage to AVTEC. These components included batteries of monitors and computers, enough fiber optic cable for them all to communicate, and a wide range of other parts and pieces necessary to make the system function.

Several parties were involved with making the upgrade possible. Mike Terminel, the AVTEC Advisory Board Chair, made the connection between Superior Energy and AVTEC and helped to move the equipment. Carlisle Transportation donated the use of a transport trailer. The simulator vendor, Kongsberg, made a courtesy transfer of the software licenses from Superior Energy to AVTEC. Terry Federer, the AVTEC Maritime Department Head, provided overall project leadership. The Maintenance and IT departments were also part of the process. It took Mike Angove all summer to install the system improvements. Mounting hardware had to be designed and constructed in order to mount monitors at precisely correct angles. Perhaps most dauntingly, multiple computers had to be networked to communicate seamlessly. Bridges were constructed with working controls, gauges, communications, and working radar and navigation screens. The hard work is now done and students began using the simulator last month.

In the improved simulator, users standing at realistic bridges can see conditions behind them and to their sides. This is essential in learning skills such as icebreaking, docking, or towing where the activity all around the boat is extremely important. The simulator offers a wide variety of the specific models of private and industrial boats in use in Alaska. The performance of each boat is accurately reflected in the simulator, and the wind and waves are accurately modeled. This means a user will experience the effects of weather differently on each individual boat. The water depth and topography of real places is also accurate. Some of the many applications of this include allowing pilots to practice entering new harbors and performing research on how to mitigate scenarios that would be unsafe to create in real life. The Coast Guard requires students to “Demonstrate Proficiency” in skills in order to obtain particular certifications and licenses, and student performance in the simulator can be evaluated to meet this requirement.

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The “wow” factor of the improved simulator is obvious, but its real value goes beyond the impressive optics and the cool things it can do. The realism of the simulator and the complexity of the situations instructors can create help students learn to function under pressure. Students in three different bridges can all see each others’ vessels and the vessels can all interact in real time. When instructors throw in an engine problem, a change in the weather, or a medical emergency aboard one of the vessels, all three vessels must alter their plans on the fly and effectively communicate them to each other. A whole class of students can play different crew roles to allow captains to practice using crew to the best advantage in emergencies. Leadership and communication skills are strengthened when they are tested under realistic, stressful and complex circumstances. These are the skills that are most important to handling mishaps and preventing additional damage or injuries.

So far, the simulator has been used by the Able Seaman, Seafood Processor, ECDIS (Navigation), RFPNW (Ratings Forming Part of a Navigational Watch) and Leadership and Management classes. It will be useful for almost all of the three dozen maritime training programs AVTEC offers, and can be adapted to Coast Guard requirements as they change in the future. Marine Pilots for SWAPA and Alaska Marine Pilots have done training on the simulator, and the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens Advisory Council has used the simulator to investigate ports of refuge for tankers. The future holds more of all of these diverse opportunities.

by Allison Sayer for the Seward City News

AVTEC Marine Simulator Instructor Control Room. Photo: Mike Angove
AVTEC Marine Simulator Instructor Control Room. Photo: Mike Angove

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