Simulation in Vessel Traffic Service training



Captain Terry Hughes, FNI FRIN, Founder, International Maritime Consultancy, Gloucestershire, United Kingdom


In September the International Association of Marine Aids to Navigation and Lighthouse Authorities (IALA) organised their first ever seminar on simulation in vessel traffic service (VTS) training in Wageningen, The Netherlands. The seminar was kindly sponsored by MARIN, NNVO and the Port of Rotterdam and was attended by 50 delegates representing 20 countries. The primary aim of the seminar was to provide guidance to training organisations and their simulation staff in organising and developing VTS simulator training courses. It was intended for, not only those who already have experience, but also for those who have no experience whatsoever in VTS simulation.

Developing an effective training programme

The IALA has already produced all the internationally recognised model training courses for VTS personnel (V103 series) in which VTS simulation plays a vital role and provides a means for assessing the competence of VTS personnel. Training organisations face many challenges as they integrate simulation tools into their training programme. In order to take full advantage of these tools, an approach should be chosen that allows for relevant, effective training in a reasonable time period. Any existing training programme needs to be carefully scrutinised and amended in conformity with the new approach.

The IALA V103/1 VTSO training model course consists of eight modules and simulated training can be used in each one. The simulation itself can take many forms from a simple table-top format with models, to the more sophisticated form of computerised technology, and can successfully complement the classroom training. In fact, after initial training, the final assessment should be carried out on a VTS simulator. This is where all the pieces of jigsaw are put together – communications and the management of vessel traffic. Simulation can also provide a very useful asset for on-the-job training (OJT) and many VTS authorities now incorporate simulators as part of their main VTS systems and use for both OJT and refresher training.

The importance and role of simulator instructors

Simulator instructors, while being knowledgeable and appropriately qualified, need to be imaginative, not only in exercise creation but also with respect to configuring the system being used. Depending on their complexity, simulator exercises can take several days to make. They need to be credible to be believable. Mathematical models need to be realistic but, unlike the needs of a bridge simulator, interaction between other vessels and the seabed for example, is nice to have but not really necessary.

Debriefing is a key element of an exercise and is probably the most important part of the learning process. Debriefing is where the participants are able to review their performance, evaluate whether they have met the training objectives and whether any action taken was appropriate. The creation of a 'no blame' culture is crucial to learning. The great thing about simulation is that exercises can be repeated several times. Interestingly, no matter how many times an exercise is repeated, the results are quite different. The human element plays a big part in this and even in real life people react quite differently when faced with the same situation.

Different types of simulator systems

One of the most popular questions being asked today by countries new to VTS is: how can a country not versed in simulator training commence? Most accredited training organisations that have approval for standards of training, certification and watch keeping for seafarers (STCW) officer training have a Radar/ARPA simulator. This type of simulator can be used very successfully for all aspects of VTS training. Bridge simulators, although non-mandatory, can also be used for VTS training especially as they have the added advantage of visual cues. Full mission VTS simulators can be very sophisticated and generally their design depends on budget. A VTS simulator can be used in conjunction with both a bridge simulator and Radar/ARPA simulator. Probably the main disadvantage with any simulator is equipment fidelity. However, this can be overcome with extra time being allocated for equipment familiarisation.

Two topic areas eagerly discussed at the seminar were portable simulators and serious gaming, both on and offline. Several countries are now using portable VTS simulators as an inexpensive way of mobile training. This form of simulation will be of particular interest to those countries currently unable to afford full mission simulators. However, with any form of computerised technology, the human and machine partnership may not be an easy one. You can have the best simulator in the world but unless you have the right person operating it, the simulator output is worthless.

In the world of serious gaming, a number of gaming software companies have produced some credible simulation games: Flight Simulator from Microsoft, VSTEP's Ship Simulator Extremes and X-Plane by Laminar Research being three prime examples. There are also a number of air traffic control (ATC) simulation games on the market but none currently for VTS. There is no suggestion that this type of simulation would take over from the recognised training simulators but they do make excellent building blocks for those who wish to gain further knowledge on the subject or perhaps to practice everyday skills.

Levels and system applications

In 2012 the International Maritime Organization (IMO) published an excellent model course called ‘Train the Simulator Trainer and Assessor’, in which they have four classifications for a simulator.
1. Full mission simulator – capable of simulating a total shipboard bridge operation situation, including capability for advanced manoeuvring in restricted waterways;
2. Multi-task simulator – capable of simulating a total shipboard bridge operation situation, but excluding capability for advanced manoeuvring in restricted waterways;
3. Limited-task simulator – capable of simulating a shipboard bridge operation situation for limited (instrumentation or blind) navigation and collision avoidance training and;
4. Desktop simulator – capable of simulating operation and / or maintenance of particular bridge instruments and / or defined navigation / manoeuvring scenarios.

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