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EU funded Lynceus-project awakes discussion regarding wi-fi -positioning on board

It was yesterday, when Northern European journalists spotted an interesting EU-funded project, which everyone can check through the website of Lynceus-project. According to Lynceus-project itself, the aim of this project is to “develop a distributed wireless sensor network system that will enable the ship safety officer and team to monitor the location of each passenger for safe evacuation, to monitor in real time the status and spread of the emergency (flood, fire etc) and also provide the engineers with vital information for proper maintenance and optimization of the ship operation” procedures. Source: http://www.lynceus-project.eu/

We did a positioning project back in 2012 with a Finnish technical partner, an indoor positioning specialist company Walkbase, whose system is running for example in airport environments in Finland. In their technology, the wi-fi network is utilized to determine where a mobile phone connected to this network is located with very impressive accuracy. There are naturally several applications, which can be then utilized with this system but the general logic of our project, called OPAL at the time, was not to recognize people but leave them private. This was mainly because the positioning system for vessels was designed to serve the mobile phone user by telling the user where he or she is located, not for the ship operator, where a certain individual is located. For the ship owner however, big data of crowd movements could be naturally used in several ways, such as planning crowd management both in business and safety, marketing to crowd onboard over the application or any other business intelligence purpose imagination could bring. So, our project was a bit similar but then again different. This project of ours was funded by us and Walkbase and outcome is therefore not public.

Onboard Passenger Assistand and Locator

Onboard Passenger Assistand and Locator

Criticism and proponents

The proponents, who see this idea of tagged human positioning as a vital and positive way of improving safety of lives at sea, flag the idea of control leaning into technical solution. The idea of positioning people is far from new, even on board cruise and passenger vessels. Quite the contrary, there are solutions at least tested, where children were tagged and positioned on board but as far as I know, the system has not been running any longer, as it has high risk of technical failure and lacks accuracy. I have to agree on this, safety of children should not rely on technical gadgets over parenthood and professional nursery services. Let’s not jump too far from the topic though. Lynceus-project has gotten its start from the Costa Concordia shipwreck and actually the need comes from the chaotic evacuation process, where many people were lost in the sea, two perhaps forever. This unfortunate average can teach a lesson, as bad things usually do. The technical study, which Lynceus-project is aiming, would like to create something technically and economically feasible, which would tell the ship’s safety organization the location of every passenger and when tagged with a wristband, even tell their identity linked to basic body  functions, such as blood pressure, pulse and body heat. This sounds interesting, technically. Criticism comes from several directions. One is privacy, second is technical accuracy and up-time and third is more related to good old seamanship. Let’s think about this, not just criticizing but thinking about the concept.

Privacy of people onboard

IMO’s ISPS –code requires some enhancements to older and comprehensive SOLAS. It  among many other things, requires the ship to know who is on board. Well, this is obviously purely safety and security issue and there is no harm in it. However, when tagging people and knowing exactly where they stand or go, the privacy issues jump into game. Some people say, that their location can be followed in the name of safety and security. However, most of the people do not like mobile applications or Internet service providers to know their position even when they are not recognized as individuals but not being recognized, only followed, does not even do the difference to at least data security professionals. It is hard to believe that great masses of people would allow them to be tagged with wristbands, even when it is safety issue. I have to say, I would rather pass the wristband.  When not taking the privacy into consideration, it seems interesting and I look forward to seeing the methodology the Lynceus-team is coming up with, as I know the challenges of onboard positioning, which I will sum up in the end.

Technical accuracy of the positioning system

A cruise ship is a challenging environment for the radio wave based positioning. The ship structure is complex, the signal propagation has many obstacles, as well as the signal may propagate freely through open areas and the decks make the positioning 3-dimensional. It is not said how the positioning is going to be executed. Whatever the technical solution is, the power supply and 100% uptime is in critical role when talking about positioning people in case of emergency. Usually, when the situation is so critical, that the ship shall be evacuated, unstable power supply and black-outs occur. Once again, it is very interesting to see how Lynceus-project members will ensure the real 100% undisturbed power supply for the positioning system. In our OPAL –project, with the technical partner’s technology over wi-fi network, we were able to determine the location of the mobile phone using the network with rather accurate level at least for the purpose the OPAL –project had designed, which was more business driven than the current Lynceus –project. Our testing results are basically rather accurate and this system could actually be used on board in the purpose we had designed it to.  This picture describes a fire zone, which was covered with wi-fi network by using three wi-fi hot-spots ie routers. Note that this technology does not do triangulation, before leaving comments about that.

Accuracy of OPAL

Accuracy of OPAL in cabin area using wi-fi positioning on board

Old-school evacuation methods and the actual need to renew those

Last criticism I read and which also popped out when discussing this idea over social media with my seaman friends, including captains and safety officers brought into discussion, which I personally agree totally, is the need of this kind of technical solution to support evacuation. The traditional method, in case of emergency is to lean on a safety and security plan of the vessel. The procedures are clearly designed and described in the safety manual, which is communicated to educated crew members and officers. For a person not trained for this kind of events the ship is not just a big entity filled with people, who act randomly. This is not the case, at least it should not be and in most cases it is not like it. Without describing my own experience and training, I can tell, that people on board vessels are in the hands of skilled professionals, who has training, who practice on monthly basis and who know what to do if the worst case scenario is on. The safety organization is managed by the bridge management team consisting professional in charge, distributing orders according to plan, which is exercised on monthly basis by everyone in the crew. Now corner is left unchecked and no locker is left opened, beds and balconies are controlled and made sure no one is left behind. At least this is how I’ve learned it should be done. Lucky me, the procedures have only been tested on standby which have not lead into evacuation. The only technical devices used these days are tested and controlled walkie-talkies . Personally, I think it is enough. Good old seamanship of the crew and officers is the best safety and security asset.

Positioning of people on board technically

I do not want to be just another critic only. There might be useful solutions coming out of this interesting project. I have been involved in a project we called OPAL, Onboard Passenger Assistant and Locator. The idea was to exclude safety and security functions and focus on customer service, bringing something new on board for the customers to enjoy and the ship operator to use when analyzing the big data of passenger movements without identifying individuals. This however, could be used when planning not only marketing and ship lay-outs but also to support safety plan rehearsals without being in major role in safety and security.

How our onboard positioning project would have been connected to safety?

Although safety and security operations were excluded from this visionary project, we wanted to literally play with the idea. What if the technology will leap fast into environment, where for example enhanced reality goggles will be economically and technically feasible to purchase for the ships safety and security team? What if they could simulate in enhanced reality a digital fire onboard and see digitally generate passengers, flames, flow of fire and other digitally created crisis situations and use the positioning in training? Wouldn’t  it be not just cool but also useful? Well, I think yes it would be cool. For example a Finnish Premium member of SHIPSU,  Markku Kauriala Ltd Fire Engineering and Fire Safety Design can and has simulated fire on board with their novel software. These kind of simulations brought together with on board positioning system, the gaming industry and enhanced reality technology could actually create a great training environment to ship’s safety organization without being critical factor in the actual operations. The future may not be exactly like this but we’ll wait and see.

Do you have any idea’s how to utilize on board positioning systems? Let me know or comment below. In case of requests regarding our OPAL –project from year 2011, I will be happy to discuss more and connect you with the right persons behind the technology here in Finland.

Mikko Varjanne

Chief Operational Officer, M.sc Econ, Bachelor of Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism Management, In maritime industry since 1998

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  1. Michael Huff says

    “Who wouldn’t be creeped out by the idea of having your phone tracked?”
    Jules Polonetsky, Future of Privacy Forum

    So, who would not be creeped out by the idea of having yourSELF and bodyfunctions tracked?

    Source: http://edition.cnn.com/2014/08/19/travel/drones-tracking-and-virtual-reality-at-an-airport-near-you/index.html?fb_action_ids=10152255549586262&fb_action_types=og.recommends&fb_source=aggregation&fb_aggregation_id=288381481237582

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