Using VDR data to audit navigation

Jan 21 2021

You don’t need to send an auditor to a vessel to meet OCIMF’s TMSA guidance for “navigation audits”. Another way to do it is to inspect voyage data recorder (VDR) data. We spoke to Avenca’s Dr Neil Baines, an expert on maritime VDR analysis.

One of the sections of the Oil Companies International Marine Forum (OCIMF) Tanker Management Self-Assessment (TMSA) guidance is that shipping companies should engage independent navigation auditors to get a sense of how well the vessel is being navigated.


This can be done by sending an auditor onboard the vessel to watch the crew at work. But this is very expensive, particularly in times of COVID-19 and uncertainties about when people can get on and off vessels. Also, having someone physically watching over the crew may not show the crew’s typical behaviour.


Another way to do it is to review voyage data recorder data.


OCIMF recently (Aug 2020) published a revision to its document “Recommendations on the Proactive Use of Voyage Data Recorder Information”,” which was originally published in 2013. The revision considered the impact of recent updates to the VDR performance standards, made by IMO. It is available for free download on the OCIMF website.


Dr Neil Baines, Managing Director of AVENCA, advised OCIMF on writing these recommendations. Dr Baines says that his company has seen increasing enquiries from tanker companies over the past few years for assistance working with VDR data, mainly for remote navigation auditing services.


The original regulatory requirements of a VDR were that it should store a minimum of 12 hours of data, because the systems were designed to be used after an accident. 12 hours is not enough to make a general audit of navigation quality. Since 1 July 2014, the regulations have required new VDRs to provide storage for a minimum of 30 days’ data, but adding on additional storage capacity to older VDRs may not be very difficult or expensive, Dr Baines says.


VDR data has 3 “types” – bridge audio recording; video data from the radar and electronic chart system; and equipment data (known as NMEA/serial). Some companies also have CCTV data. It is increasingly common for VDRs to be connected to the satellite communications system, although companies would usually only upload equipment data to the satcom, other data files are too large to routinely send by satellite.


Insights you can get

The data can be analysed over long time periods and short periods, and both would be done in different ways. For long time periods of data, you can run computer scans to get a sense of whether any risks were being taken. For short term periods, you can look at all of the available data to get a comprehensive understanding of how the vessel was being navigated.


If you are looking at a long period of equipment data, you can check for specific ‘events’, such as if there was a low under keel clearance while the vessel was above a certain speed, if the rate of turn was above a certain change in degree per minute when the vessel had a certain speed, if there was an excessive rudder angle when going at higher speed.


You can check the average time taken to change engine speed after an instruction is given. You can check AIS data for any close encounters.


The position data can be analysed together with chart data, to check that the vessel has adhered to any Traffic Separation Schemes, and complied with any speed / depth restrictions of that scheme.


If you are investigating an accident or near miss, or assessing performance in a time of difficult navigation, you might want to look at all the data over a shorter time period. For example, you can see what happened in the lead-up to an accident, or how the bridge team were working together.


A comprehensive analysis can review all available data types together – audio, radar / ECDIS, and equipment data. That way you can hear what was being said on the bridge, see what the crew could see on the radar and ECDIS screen, understand how they interpreted it, and what they did with the equipment controls.


If the file sizes are too large for digital transmission, a USB drive can be couriered.


According to the best practise guidance, the navigation audit should also include a review of bridge team procedures, passage planning and voyage documents. This can be done alongside the review of VDR data.


The aviation sector has long seen benefits from analysing flight data, with the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) making flight data monitoring a standard for all aircraft over 27 tonnes since 2005, Dr Baines says.


Ships are different to aircraft in that there is a larger group of people in charge of navigation. “Listening to how the team are interacting [from audio recordings] is at least as important as analysing the numeric data coming from sensors,” he says.


Avenca’s service

Avenca’s maritime customers include oil companies, shipping companies, national investigation authorities, insurers, law firms and marine consultancies.


AVENCA’s service includes gathering the data (via satcom or couriered file), organising and merging the data (including CCTV where available), loading it onto a cloud server, and making it available for the customer to access over the web, so they can hear and see exactly what was happening. It has developed its own software system to do this, called “Aura”.


Tanker companies can view the data themselves and do their own navigation audit, or use Avenca’s navigation auditing service, where it deploys experienced master mariner auditors. They receive a written report with video clips.


The audit would normally include analysis of a portion of a voyage identified as being of higher risk, such as a departure, approach / berthing, or transit through a traffic separation scheme.


Avenca has produced videos for customers where it compiles together audio and video from the VDR to show something specific – such as an example of particularly desirable or undesirable behaviour, for use in training.


Dr Baines’ background is a PhD in acoustic engineering, which gave him knowledge which, he says, often comes in handy improving poor quality audio recorded from some VDRs.


He then worked in aerospace, finally as technical director with Smiths Industries Aerospace Data Management Systems division, which makes aircraft flight data recorders.


When voyage data recorders were being mandated for shipping in 2001,the maritime industry was very focused on how to get the hardware fitted and comply with regulation. Based on his aerospace experience, Dr Baines believed that valuable safety and operational efficiency-related benefits could be derived from analysis of the new data that was being recorded.  And he set up Avenca at that time to serve the maritime sector through the provision of suitable analysis software and services.    


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