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New alert areas in the Archipelago Sea help to predict vessel encounters and reduce operator workloads

Published on 30.7.2021

On 1 July, Fintraffic’s vessel traffic services launched a six-month pilot that includes new alert areas in the Archipelago Sea. These alert areas will improve traffic safety and flow by alerting the Vessel Traffic Services Centre if several vessels are simultaneously heading for a critical area with regard to vessel encounters. The operator will then be able to warn the vessels, thereby preventing unnecessary disruptions and collisions.

The system is not intended to replace the operator, but rather to provide more automated solutions for creating a real-time situational picture. The operator’s workload will also be reduced in heavily trafficked sea areas.

“The alert areas that have now been developed don’t really contain any new customised technology, as they primarily employ existing capabilities that have been enhanced and refined,” says Mika Nyrhilä, Senior Specialist at Fintraffic Vessel Traffic Services.

The Archipelago Sea is both heavily trafficked and one of Finland’s largest vessel traffic control areas. It takes about ten hours to traverse it from end to end on the water. A broad range of vessels operate in the area, all the way from small recreational craft to large cargo and passenger ships. Some vessels are well acquainted with the local area, while others only visit the Archipelago Sea occasionally or are first-timers. Maintaining a real-time situational picture and preempting potential incidents both play a key role in ensuring safe maritime traffic.

Automated alert areas reduce operator workloads

Previously, potential meeting points were simulated manually on the basis of the notifications made by vessels. More automated information will, however, be obtained from alert points in the future. In addition to notifications from vessels, the system will receive calculation input from, for example, the radar and AIS targets that make up the situational picture.

“Each alert area has a specified time window that will be monitored. The system will send an audiovisual alert to the operator when it notices that several vessels are sailing in or approaching the area at the same time,” says Nyrhilä.

The project to develop the Archipelago Sea’s alert areas began by examining traffic density on the basis of actual traffic volumes, and the results were then used to decide on the final location of the alert points. The alert points are located in challenging, heavily trafficked areas in which intersecting traffic can cause issues with regard to traffic flow. Existing areas in which encounters are prohibited are also included.

Real-time situational picture helps predict potential disruptions

One of the most important tasks of the alert areas is to promote safe and smoothly flowing maritime traffic by predicting potential disruptions. When operators have a real-time picture of how things are evolving at intersections, they can contact vessels in good time before the situation heads in an unwelcome direction.

“Initially, the operator will usually ask whether the vessels are aware that another vessel is also sailing in the alert area, and how the vessels intend to avoid an encounter with the other vessel. Tougher measures, such as regulating vessel speeds, are rarely required, although operators are prepared for this if the situation so requires,” says Nyrhilä.

When a system alert is received, it is the operator’s task to monitor the situation and intervene as necessary. One exception to this are areas marked “encounters prohibited”, in which vessels are not allowed to meet under any circumstances. In this case, the operator will intervene immediately and instruct one of the vessels to either slow down or wait until the other vessel has safely left the area.

Investigating alert areas for other sea areas

After the success of the alert area project and models used in the Archipelago Sea, Fintraffic’s Vessel Traffic Services have started to investigate the potential for using alert areas in other control areas.

“We’re currently investigating the situation in all VTS areas, that is, how well the current models correspond to requirements, technology and training levels. As in the Archipelago Sea project, we will be making heavy use of our operators’ profound local knowledge of their own areas,” says Nyrhilä.

In the future, alert areas will also have to take autonomous traffic into account, as vessels currently contact operators on voice frequencies. These notifications are made on working channels that other traffic is also obliged to monitor when sailing in a VTS area. Situations can be preempted when all of the vessels in the area have access to information from this channel. This won’t be possible in autonomous vessels without pilots, which is why we have to develop a way to replace voice channel notifications with something that can still be seen or heard by other traffic.”

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