Glen Paine, executive director of the Maritime Institute of Technology and Graduate Studies, has seen the maritime industry come a long way this century in adapting and integrating simulation into training. When he started as executive director at MITAGS in 1999, he estimates the maritime industry still lagged approximately 20 years behind the aviation industry in its use of simulation.
“Today, I’d say we’re equal or even ahead of them,” he said. “It’s been quite an evolution.”
When it comes to training the workforce, communicating with key audiences, and undergoing crucial new projects, the industry has increasingly embraced rapid advances in technology, including adaptive learning-based tools, to supplement or replace previous ways of doing things. Simulation training and research, online instruction, and virtual meetings and webinars are just a few of the ways the port industry is leaning on technology to pursue self-improvement.
“The industry is doing a great job of incorporating new technology tools in a lot of different ways,” said Erik Stromberg, executive director of the Center for Advances in Port Management at Lamar University. “The use of technology has accelerated, and I think we’re getting a lot better at it.”
The Rise of Simulation
For years, whenever new, larger vessel classes came into a port, pilot organizations would have to study the vessels and the ports in a relatively unscientific manner and decide whether each port could accommodate the new vessels. However, simulators now are used as common practice for pilots and others to make a more sophisticated and thorough examination of the scenario, Paine said.
“The simulation now allows you in virtual reality to have the tug captains working the simulators in the same exercise areas of the pilots and the captains, and they literally can go through from start to finish in real time how they’re going to bring this ship in, whether it’s New York, or Maryland or Virginia,” Paine said. “You can simulate all the different weather conditions in what port you want to operate in…the wind, the currents. For example, when you look at Miami, a real challenge for pilots there is you have the Gulf Stream, so you have to really take that into account as you come into the port. So, these are the nuances that you can put into the simulator to make it as close as possible to actually being in any port.”
Paine said simulators also are used when designing new terminals or new channels. A simulation of the new project with pilots and captains before “you put the first shovel in the ground” can allow ports to validate the plans or adjust them. Paine said pilots were the ones who first pushed adopting simulators to allow them the chance to test new designs before signing off on them. Engineering firms soon saw the value in the process and its capabilities to play a role in improving designs.
“It’s a whole lot cheaper to work it out on the simulator than to build it and say, ‘Oops, I can’t get the ship turned around,’” Paine said.
Similarly, the Port of Montreal has used a digital twin, a three-dimensional, interactive model of port locations and facilities, for a variety of purposes, such as to create an interactive map that allowed the public to tour the port in augmented reality and to create immersive 3D interactive training programs for fire and security services at the port.
Paine said simulators also are used in the training process for mariners. For instance, MITAGS created simulation exercises that test professionals on navigation skills or watchkeeping, applying the rules of the road, communication, use of electronics, and ship-handling skills. Assessments are tailored to mariners depending on the specific sector where they work and the types of responsibilities they would have.
“Simulation is a tool not only to transfer knowledge but also to assess skills,” Paine said.
Similarly, crane operators are trained on simulators before they operate the cranes themselves, Paine said, “because it’s just too expensive to put somebody up there without having simulation training on it first.” Forklift simulators also are available for training.
Simulators ultimately can be used in a dizzying array of other circumstances. For instance, they can allow for the re-creation of maritime collisions when the parties involved want to figure out exactly what happened. The offshore wind industry is now using simulation to inform stakeholders and evaluate the impact of wind farms on marine traffic. Simulators even allow tug boat operators to test new boats before they’re built and purchased, a simulated “test drive.”
“What the simulators can do now is nothing short of incredible,” Paine said. “Things have come a long way.”
Virtual Community Education and Engagement
At the Port of Baltimore, each dredging project has its own advisory or oversight committee that meets quarterly. Katrina Jones, outreach coordinator for the Maryland Port Administration, noted that port construction projects continued during the pandemic, but the port needed to find new ways of communicating and collaborating with their constituents besides in-person meetings.
“What we have found in working with our constituents in the past is that the more they know about what we are doing and how we’re doing it, because it impacts their livelihood, the more supportive they are of the projects,” Jones said. “So, we want to have an open dialogue with them at all times.”
In addition, the more constituents engage with the port, the more informed port leaders are about the questions and concerns that community members have about projects. The port administration moved those meetings online – which increased participation for some of the committees.
“We didn’t want to risk having a disruption and not keeping open lines of communication with our stakeholders,” said Kristen Keene, chief of strategy and partnerships for the Maryland Port Administration. “So having to adapt and navigate to this virtual space wasn’t just something we wanted to do – it was something that we had to do because we needed to keep in communication with our stakeholders.”
The port also surveyed the committees about topics they’d like to see covered in newly implemented webinars, and the attendance for the first two webinars far exceeded the port’s expectations.
“We can spread the word more easily, and so we have had folks attend our webinars who maybe have never attended a committee meeting ever,” Keene said. “Or people from another state or area of the country were able to tune into our webinar. So being able to reach that broader, more diverse audience was accomplished through those events.”
The Maryland Port Administration provides in-person environmental education for local children, giving them hands-on activities during their visits on field trips, but COVID-19 curtailed that. In response, port environmental educators created a virtual platform for educators and parents. The platform included a rich assortment of lessons, activities and other resources. Even with a return to in-person learning in the future, the online resources will remain and be continually bolstered, making for a valuable new community asset that will endure as an alternative educational offering.
“It’s had a great impact and been a very useful tool for teachers and parents,” Jones said. “It’s done a great job of taking the place, for now, of that in-person learning that’s been so important to us.”
The pandemic has undoubtedly played its part in pushing the Maryland Port Administration toward the wider use of virtual tools.
“Having this moment where we’re forced to do virtual interactions for a period of time has actually benefited us in some ways, because it’s given us more tools in our toolbox for how to engage with our stakeholders,” Keene said.
Online Workforce Learning
Online port management programs are increasing engagement and participation levels, as well, when it comes to both students and faculty. Students who are already working in the industry can join the program – without leaving their jobs. Plus, these programs allow for participants worldwide. At Lamar University, current enrollees not only reside throughout the United States and Canada, but also include students based in Abu Dhabi and Colombia. Adjuncts and guest lecturers are also from all around the world.
“With the online platform, we can access students anywhere, and our students can access us,” Stromberg said. “The pandemic has accentuated the value of online education. Distance learning is going to continue to provide an important vehicle to deliver expertise to working professionals.”
The benefits of in-person discussions cannot always be fully replicated online, Stromberg said. Still, Stromberg said online tools increasingly make for favorable conditions for productive open discussion sessions – ones in which the working students can share their own experiences and exchange ideas from very different geographical and professional perspectives.
“We’re working our way through the challenges, but also the opportunities of online learning,” Stromberg said.
Among those opportunities, it has become more feasible to hold special events with experts from disparate geographic locations. For instance, Lamar held a well-attended “Women in Transportation” webinar featuring a panel with participants from all over the country.
“It can give you such a charge to bring together great people from all over to share their experiences and lessons with people from all over the place,” Stromberg said. “There are these unique wonderful opportunities in remote learning like that. Our ability to get folks together in one place has really grown.”