CME Creates Computer Simulations of Remote Waterways

Friday, September 24, 1999
A barge transporting a large quantity of petroleum moves slowly down the middle of the Parana River in South America. Though it is early evening, the pilot is enclosed in torrid heat, fetid smells from the jungle's rotting vegetation, rampant palms that reach toward him on each side of the river, and the strange, floating beauty of blue and purple hyacinths, now swaying in his wake. The insect cries are deafening, louder than a New York subway. He does not pause to swat a mosquito, for there are none. Too small for this world, they have themselves been devoured by the far more populous insects half a foot long. Floating beside the barge are frogs larger than a small dog, the easy prey of jacares, another bloated amphibian that can outgrow a crocodile. The pilot must turn a bend upstream in one mile, and the area is uncharted, like many parts of this river. But, he has heard a description of it from an old retired river pilot, a Guarani Indian, a few weeks ago when the two were on land, drinking mate on the jungle floor. That will be his safety as well as the safety of his cargo. He touches a small stone in his pocket; it is almost perfectly circular, a gift from his young daughter who found it in the jungle. He thinks of it as a sign that something perfect can come from the jungle's chaos. And, he thinks of his daughter and then of his family as the barge makes its turn into the now darkening waters, barely known, upstream. This moment can serve as an introduction to the problems encountered by South American river pilots, problems The Center for Maritime Education (CME) in Paducah, Ky. has been engaged in solving for the past two years. One of the largest transportation companies in North America, ACBL, has - for two years - sent its South American pilots to CME for training in towboat piloting. The courses have used situations simulating details of the Parana and Paraguay Rivers, which flow through Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Argentina. On these rivers, the pilots will use the skills they have learned. CME previously offered training on its computerized simulator to pilots who work on North American rivers. The ACBL project brought another continent into its realm of database development and created simulations of rivers comparable in length to the Mississippi. The virtual environment devised by CME is a fully simulated visual scene as it would appear to the eye through eight synchronized windows of a pilothouse as a towboat is advancing along the Parana or Paraguay River. A control panel is present, and the simulation sequence changes, based on the decisions the mariner makes as he manipulates the controls and "pilots" the vessel. Types of data utilized go far beyond visual video footage and include the hydrodynamics of the vessel's configuration, the effect of river currents, the bathymetry, or profile of underwater forces and objects as the boat passes, as well as many other information categories. This technology now adds new capabilities and databases every month and is used both in training and planning for economic development. Computer Visualization Simulations that recreate the perceptual world of the human eye have always been some of the most complex ever created, frequently employing supercomputers, mainframes, and enormous numbers of PCs. One example is the Jet Propulsion Lab "flyby" which begins with streams of binary data from various space probes and ends with the world seen by the eye moving throughout the solar system, as though looking out the window of a moving space station. This particular computer graphics application has formed visions of the solar system more completely than any other. Computer visualization is now the leading edge of all the sciences because it can translate the chemistry and physics of nature into the eye's "language" - images. Many databases are too complex to be understood as numbers; they can only be grasped as an image or as a sequence of animation. An example would be a famous university study of galaxy formation that tried to answer whether the astronomical data we now possess, going back to microwave remnants of the Big Bang, favors a relatively even distribution of matter in the universe or, alternatively, the characteristic "clumps" of matter found in galaxies. The answer was to assemble and "rerun," with computer visualization, the spectral data processed by astronomers. The data for this experiment was so multitudinous it had to be processed using the computer facilities of two dozen different universities worldwide, each working on a part of the puzzle for months. When the whole puzzle was re-assembled, it was presented as a "fast forward" motion picture of the universe's evolution as it would appear to the eye in a few minutes. The clumps of matter in galaxies were clearly the outcome. The technology was first introduced in the flight simulations of World War Two, to be further refined in the marine and radar simulations of the 1970s that taught subjects to correctly perceive relative motion. River navigation simulation is more complex than flight simulation because a plane is traveling much faster than a barge, and is less perceptible to the eye as the plane passes along its trajectory. Both the database and the modeling required to create images from it are therefore more detailed and substantial in river simulation. Visual recording of the scene is only the first step. Many different visual sequences may unfold, depending on the choices the pilot makes, from coasting in the center of the river to ranging dangerously close to the shore. The database and the visual experience must contain both the basis for choice and the consequences of it. It could be said the simulation is the "whole pilot" interacting with the "whole river." When all the data has been assembled, it is modeled by computer from video and photographic imagery to produce the simulation as a visual experience. ACBL's training at CME has resulted in greater safety of operations as well as a substantial decrease in the cost of fuel and fleet maintenance. CME has applied this technology to rivers for the first time; its training is therefore unique. CME is also mindful of the dangers of piloting, both on the ocean and the river, since mistakes may result in loss of life or damage to the environment. An American admiral was once quoted as saying, "On the sea, 8 to 9 of each 10 fatalities are the result of human error." So, far more destructive than the forces unleashed by nature or technology is human error itself. Training is designed to minimize this. General content of CME's courses include the following: (1) Circumstances that generate hazards on the sea (2) Situational awareness necessary for safe piloting (3) Planning for safety (4) Decision making (5) "Rules of the road" (6) The Responsible Carrier Program (7) Federal regulations and (8) Environmental sensitivity and management case studies. The most important part of each course is the student's opportunity to pilot the simulator. He stays in the pilothouse for twenty minutes or so, during which time a navigational challenge is slated to occur, which he resolves without any instruction or commentary from instructors. Then he goes into another room for discussion and debriefing. "This is where all the real learning occurs," says Dr. Bill Douglas, who directs the Paducah center. "Our students are not neophytes. They're here not because they wish to learn skills as such, but because they wish to improve. The Responsible Carrier Program proposed by the American Waterways Operators encourages constant learning and improvement in piloting. Incidents of environmental damage in the past from piloting errors are also an inducement to improve." The simulation and its various databases have no definitive boundaries. The sole criterion of effectiveness is whether the experience seems real to the trainee piloting the system. Among effects to be calculated in each instance are variable weather, wind, time of day or night, restrictions of vision, influence of larger development projects like dams, dredging, alteration of river banks, links, smooth versus rocky river bottoms, effects of river stages and flow conditions, etc. Simulation of South American Rivers In the South American project, one of the earliest sources of such data was Brian Donohue's trip down the Parana. Donohue, who directed design of the simulator's databases, boated down the river for two weeks, videofilming and recording digital stills of the twists and turns in the river. To georeference his position, he employed a hand-held device that used the Global Position System (GPS). This is only visual information, however. Donohue took some of his hydrodynamic and bathymetric data mentioned previously from published records and navigation charts of local hydrographers; other data is based upon either his notes while traveling or verbal memories of local pilots. Consequently, some types of data are easier to collect than others. Brazil, for example, requires those who want statistics of the river must physically come to the country to receive it. The Parana and Paraquay in South America is thus far represented by seven individual databases incorporating conditions and densities of traffic as well as sharp turns in the river. The databases also cover towboats, tugboats, barges, and effects of towing. The hardware includes swing meters and rate-of-turn indicators so pilots can respond to the information provided. As in the example at the beginning of this discussion, when the student begins a simulation, it is a particular time of day with particular weather, traffic in the river, development conditions, presence or lack of information, etc. In South America, according to Donohue, the Parana is a tremendous lifeline, connecting all settlements, the only direct line to the interior. He believes the countries of South America want development of the Parana, seeing it as the most likely route to prosperity. Rivers offer the least expensive form of transportation in South America. They are conveniently placed for transport and connection with the interior; and the land is marshy and unsuitable for other forms of transportation and development. Also, barge traffic doesn't conflict with natural formations and minimizes environmental effects. There are several operational and environmental concerns in the Parana project, according to Donohue, including: (1) The rivers have rocky bottoms, as opposed to the smooth bottom of the Mississippi River. There is greater danger of leakage, damage, and environmental impact. (2) South American rivers are not well-charted. (3) Vessels don't operate at night, yet continuous towing is necessary for efficient use of rivers. The simulation must have an "at night" condition in the database. Three other conditions the simulation must incorporate include: (4) Variable weather, from subtropical to tropical (5) Variable currents, river heights and stages (6) Links to the river (such as railroads, roads, and trucks) and how they may be planned efficiently. Pilots from ACBL in South America began training at CME in 1997. Since then, 8 to 10 students come twice a year for a week at a time, according to Douglas. Facilitators who speak English and translate accompany them, since the language barrier is a challenge. "Pilots sent to Paducah from ACBL vary in experience," Douglas said. "Their training includes much of the subject matter covered in our classes for North American ACBL pilots; however, they can examine problems and challenges unique to their area of operation. What they take back to their workplace correlates closely with the training aspirations of North American ACBL pilots. We expect this to elevate the standards of professionalism in the South American waterways while the industry is accelerating." The Future of Computer Visualization What's been outlined are the types of variables that must be present in a simulation so it functions as a realistic learning situation. However, another fact to consider is these data are also processed by an extensive system comprised of 42 computers, a computer for ship modeling, a database computer, four office computers and four training computers. The system's software - the Polaris Simulation System and Seaview Graphics - is the true simulation system, since it coordinates all the mathematical models used to create the visuals, including last-minute conditions and information entered by an instructor. Ordinarily, the system would update all the visuals each second. However, additional visual computers interpolate an update 30 times a second, or better "refresh" than home movies. One of the most fascinating issues of this entire technology is what the future might bring. According to Donohue, "Everyone's interested in this technology because it can also be used for economic planning. It' s the same hardware and software. You just enter different information." Imagine: through a time machine, the U.S. 150 or so years in the past, possessing simulation technology. It would be possible to plan the modern development of the country and see its effects long before the effort was made, the impacts felt, and the money spent. The greater efficiency of development is obvious. South America is at just this point, Donohue added, relatively undeveloped yet capable of purchasing the ideal technology to guide its own development. This is one of the most exciting applications of simulation technology, and as much training as CME has done with its simulator, it is also watching and waiting for greater opportunities.
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