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Reducing the impact of human error at sea

The recent accident of the Costa Concordia cruise ship has tragically shown that mistakes at sea can have severe consequences. The European Commission is supporting advanced research that helps reduce the risks of human error and the impact, should something go wrong nevertheless.

Incidents on large passenger ships need to be handled effectively to avoid escalation into serious emergencies. Researchers working on the ‘Flagship’ project funded under the Seventh EU Framework Programme for research activities have designed a number of tools to enhance decision-making in emergency situations. One is a special piece of software that improves communication between the ship and onshore facilities, including ports and coastal services. All involved have a full overview of the actual situation and can exchange requests, advice and instructions in real time. The system can be used during training scenarios, in order to prevent accidents. Should a real accident occur, the system will record what happens, so that valuable lessons can be learned.

The Flagship researchers have also developed a new-generation probabilistic method to improve decision-making on board vessels in distress. This system suggests appropriate courses of action, based on data collected instantaneously by sensors on the ship, monitoring things such as door closure, flooding and tank levels. Rapid computer processing of this information allows consideration of many decision options often not even conceivable by humans, and in a fraction of the time that traditional manual trial-and-error methods would take even a highly trained crew. Sea trials of this system indeed resulted in a 45 % improvement in decision-making.

The European Commission has channelled approximately € 77 million into research addressing different aspects of maritime safety over the last decade and is continuing this work, including on human aspects of safety. These research projects are not just about theoretical work in research institutions, but also involve major European companies, including shipyards and ship operators. The research is focusing on themes such as better emergency management, effective evacuation models, reducing environmental damage caused by accidents at sea and human factors as a risk to safety.