Mobile tech meets marine salvage; two things I love to do

My full time professional naval architecture job includes serving as a marine salvage engineer when casualties occur. Mobile technology has helped me get my job done in several different ways.
Written by Matthew Miller, Contributing Writer

If you read my bio here on ZDNet you will see that I am a professional naval architect and marine salvage engineer by day and a mobile tech blogger by night. I was an officer in the USCG and served on the Marine Safety Center Salvage Engineering Response Team (SERT) where we responded to marine casualties. I now perform these salvage engineering services at a private firm and lately have been working on some exciting sunken vessels that we successfully raised. I thought you might be interested in hearing a bit about how I use mobile technology to complete my "dirty work".

What's a salvage engineer?

In many cases, I am called in the middle of the night when a ship sinks or runs aground and then can respond initially with a phone call, some preliminary calculations, and then a more detailed analysis. I prefer to be on site though since the information then doesn't get filtered through different levels (often lost in translation) and I can get a "feel" of the ship and understand the conditions we are working in to come up with a successful solution. My role as the salvage engineer is to perform calculations (most often by creating a full vessel electronic model) and work with the salvage master to design a plan that should work to "fix" things and then submit that for review and approval. As with most plans, especially when you are in a place with unknown variables, nothing ever goes exactly like you plan. I then get to serve as the technical expert by answering questions, modifying the model and plan, and being a sounding board for the exciting, honestly a bit nerve-racking too, implementation of the salvage plan.

Here is a definition of ship salvage (author unknown) that I found about 20 years ago that is humorous, but also pretty accurate:

Ship salvage is a science of vague assumptions based on debatable figures from inconclusive instruments, performed with equipment of problematical accuracy by persons of doubtful reliability and questionable mentality.

So now that you have a bit of an understanding of the basics of what I do, let me walk you through how I used mobile tech for a couple of recent salvage cases.

Trip preparation

It is not often that a ship runs aground or has an issue where I don't have to travel far to get to the casualty site and I often travel via airplane. I previously mentioned some of the mobile gear I consider essential for travel and continue to rely on TripIt to plan and monitor my trips. After making reservations and getting my itinerary into TripIt, I pack my bags and salvage gear (hardhat, life vest, gloves, flashlight, and more) that also includes two or three mobile phones. I cannot afford to be out of touch during a salvage case and make sure I have extra batteries, chargers, and even extra phones.

I also grab my iPad and load it up with much of the information that was sent to me at the start of the case since it is often in PDF form. I review this data on the plan on my iPad while working on an electronic model of the vessel on my laptop. I need to use a Windows computer for the engineering programs I use for marine salvage and think Windows 8 slates may work well for this in the near future.

On-site salvage survey

When I get to a casualty site, the first thing I like to do is get a visual of the casualty itself so I can see how things look, check for interferences, see what resources we have on site and more. I use my smartphones to capture photos and note the time of the photos so I can see later how tidal changes affect the condition of the vessel. I will also use note programs, usually Evernote, to capture data (draft readings, weather conditions, etc.) and jot down thoughts and ideas I have about the situation.

At times we also only get paper plans on vessels, sometimes from as far back as the 1940s, so I will capture them with my phone to view later while I am working. If a case is big enough, I will also capture plans with my camera and then email them back to the office so they can work on the model while I work on other things at the site.

I then generally meet with all the players and plan a path forward. When I get my marching orders, I will then go build a model and start my analysis. I just recently discovered Air Display for my iPad and as James pointed out in his review it is a lifesaver to have a 2nd monitor for just $10. My iPad is already going along with me and I love being able to have some data on my iPad while I look at it and build/analyze the model on my Windows laptop display.

It is not that common to have Internet access on the casualty site and I have come to rely on using my smartphones as WiFi hotspots. I can then search for information on the vessels, send plans to the salvage master or USCG, and more.

Salvage plan execution

After the plan is approved and all the resources are in place, it's time to execute the plan and pray for success. I take lots of photos during execution, primarily to help me keep track of changing conditions since it is vital to understand where you have been before deciding on actions needed to get you to where you need to be. I also find it very handy to use my iPhone or Android device as a level so I can measure and track the heel or list of the vessel. I have not yet found a level that lets me use augmented reality with my camera so I can put the vessel actually on the display with the camera and rotate my smartphone to truly measure angles. Can a developer please provide this application?

I also use my smartphone for recording observations and conditions as the plan is executed. I use my HP 48G calculator at work, but it is big and a bit clunky so I don't always pack it on site. Thankfully, there are slick Android HP calculator emulators so I can take my calculator on the road as an app.

After the day's success

I can't explain in words how extremely rewarding it is to successfully refloat a sunken or capsized ship or get a huge ship loaded with cargo off the grounded location, but I have been seen fist pumping and giving high fives after some salvage case successes. You will also find me cranking up the tunes via Spotify or Slacker on the drive out from the case as I continue with my euphoria and sheer excitement for a job well done.

When I board the plane home, I can often be seen enjoying a movie or two on my iPad or catching up on some reading as my brain gets a break and my body relaxes. I also use my iPad or smartphone to write down lessons learned and other thoughts on the salvage case so that I can get better the next time or take actions to make my trip even better.

There are very few marine salvage engineers around, shoot naval architecture itself is a small community of people, and I cannot express how rewarding of a job it is. It is stressful, exciting, boring at times, and requires years of experience on site to get a feel for how vessels react and what actions are feasible, but I wouldn't trade it for anything. That said, mobile technology has helped me perform my job better and I look forward to seeing what else it can do to help me get work done on the go.

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