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Icebreaker crews learn the ropes without the risks

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Navigating safe passage through the frozen waters of Antarctica is a challenging task for even the most experienced icebreaker pilots.

Antarctic ice is often covered with snow which makes it so tacky in consistency it is referred to as “superglue” or “honey ice”. These characteristics mean Antarctic ice is much harder to break through than its Arctic counterpart.

The pilots use radar systems to find the best path or “lead” through the ice – but with more than 90 per cent of an iceberg’s mass located underwater, looks can be deceiving. To add another layer of difficulty, when ice is broken it refreezes and the break becomes thicker than the surrounding ice. Pilots must try to avoid these areas by identifying leads before they freeze over again.

Research underway at the Centre for Maritime Simulations is striving to better prepare icebreaker crews for these conditions by training them in a risk-free virtual environment.

In a world first, maritime trainer and researcher Paul Brown will model P&O vessel Aurora Australis and the Antarctic sea ice for his project “Can maritime simulation capabilities be developed to provide a valid Antarctic ice training environment?”

Mr Brown said virtual training provided a raft of educational, economic and environmental benefits.

“It would be too costly for the crew to do their ice training in Antarctica,” he said.

“The Aurora Australis uses 24,000 litres of fuel a day and that amount doubles to 45,000 litres per day when she is ice breaking. As well as that cost, there is the wear and tear on the ship and the impact on the environment to take into account.”

A key area of focus will be risk management and contingency planning – for example, what to do if the ship gets stuck in ice. This scenario was all-too-real for international research vessels Akademik Shokalisky and Snow Dragon when both became trapped in the Antarctic sea ice in January 2014.

The Aurora Australis was diverted to assist but was forced to turn back due to the weather conditions, causing delays to its research program and increasing food and fuel costs. The 52 stranded scientists and tourists were evacuated by helicopter one week later.

“There’s no risk in programming this sort of training scenario in the simulator – the hazards are there but the ship doesn’t get damaged and there is no loss of income,” Mr Brown said.

Research supervisor Professor Margareta Lutzhoft said the project had four main elements – the ship modelling, ice modelling, land modelling and weather modelling – and how these interacted to make a valid whole.

“The novelty lies in the combination of technical and human elements; most of the research being done is of a more technical or environmental type and no-one’s really looking at the role of the humans and how we can support them to be safe, to save fuel, and of course to protect the environment,” Professor Lutzhoft said.

“They can prepare for conditions that are very unusual but could be difficult to handle, and they can prepare for driving the ship so she doesn’t get damaged as much through the ice and spends the least amount of resources.”

The ship modelling has been completed and was tested and validated in the main bridge simulator by the Aurora Australis captain and chief mate.

The next step is for Mr Brown to head to Antarctica to see firsthand how the vessel handles in different conditions and record this data for input into the simulated model. He is collaborating with other government and research organisations to access as much real data on sea ice, weather patterns and bathymetry to ensure all the models and training conditions are as realistic as possible. Both Mawson and Davis ports in Antarctica will also be modelled.

Mr Brown’s three-year project is well-timed to meet the future training needs of companies such as P&O, who must comply with a new international code of safety for ships operating in polar waters that is expected to be introduced in 2016. The International Maritime Organization’s Polar Code has mandatory training requirements including that an experienced ice pilot be on board during all polar voyages.

As this project is the first of its kind, there is potential for the baseline data to be useful to simulator manufacturers around the world because it opens up another branch of technical development and a new group of clients.

But the main beneficiaries will be the shipping crews who will be able to test their skills virtually before applying them in the real world.

“It’s all about being prepared before you go and being able to repeat training in a risk-free environment; to get experience without actually being there,” Mr Brown said.

Video: watch Paul Brown chat about his project on Youtube.

Published on: 09 Dec 2014