From left to right: Reto Weber, Niels Berthelsen, Mats Gruvefeldt, Simon Fredrin, Axel Meuller (with VR Goggles), Hilda Ljunggren and Juha Saarinen (MariSOT)
The Department of Mechanics and Maritime Studies at Chalmers University of Technology has one of Sweden's most comprehensive simulator centers for research and education in shipping. In a realistic bridge environment with projected surrounding sea area, future Master Mariners are trained to navigate ships at sea in an efficient and safe manner. But soon the school’s maritime programs are about to become even more virtual – and thus making it one of the first of its kind. Recently, the Unit for Maritime studies entered a collaboration with MarISOT, "Maritime Immersive Safe Ocean", a Finnish project that uses AI and machine learning to develop VR and AR solutions for the field of shipping.
“By using VR technology in maritime education, students can be trained to deal with challenging scenarios that may occur at sea - for example, if the ship were to end up in heavy traffic, or if there’s an engine failure, or perhaps a cyberattack targeting the ship. Using this sort of technology, we may increase safety and ensure that this type of challenges don’t lead to accidents. In addition, it also provides a great platform to test new navigation technologies before being put to use in real traffic,” says Scott MacKinnon, professor of maritime studies at Chalmers.
Unique data collection using VR and simulators
As part of the MarISOT collaboration, Chalmers' undergraduate master mariner students are now assisting in collecting massive amounts of data to improve machine learning algorithms and thus making the VR technologies better for teaching and research activities in the field.
The data collection consists of so-called synthetic data retrieved from a VR simulator developed within the MarISOT project and on loan at the unit for Maritime studies. In a realistic bridge and sea environment - and wearing VR glasses - the students get to experience virtual scenarios that may occur while at sea.
“The main scenario was to navigate a ship according to a given route in open seas while avoiding other ships. A fairly ordinary day at sea, in other words,” explains Reto Weber, lecturer at Maritime Sciences at Chalmers.
The participants' reactions and actions turn into valuable data that will be used to train algorithms to develop VR and AR programs for educating maritime students in the future – and subsequently also increasing competence and safety on board.
“The VR glasses were not only used to visualize a given scenario, but with the help of so-called "eye-tracking" we were also able to obtain data on where the participants looked, for how long, and which functions were used in the equipment - radar, telegraph, control and so on. In addition, the researchers in MarISOT aim to measure changes in pupil size for a given scenario, which may indicate whether the person in question was stressed or not,” says Reto Weber.
VR-based learning for future shipping
As part of the project, senior maritime students have been functioning as instructors, thus training more junior students to maneuver ships from the simulator bridge in the VR-based exercises. The approach has come to be known as Student Based Simulator Training (SBST) and aims to not only let VR technology permeate the pedagogy as well as the technical competence, but also give them skills in communication, leadership, problem solving, organization and creativity in an increasingly digitized and AI -based shipping.
While VR and AR are technologies that have already been integrated in a range of industries - such as in the aviation and energy industry - this is considered one of the world's first projects of its kind in the maritime education and research area.
“With huge amounts of data, we may significantly improve the machine learning algorithms and thus make the VR technology better and more mature for teaching and research in shipping,” says Scott MacKinnon.
Text: Lovisa Håkansson