Sometimes, tech really is a lifesaver: The IT that keeps the RNLI afloat

How Britain's lifeboat charity uses tech to help people at sea in the most extreme conditions...

How Britain's lifeboat charity uses tech to help people at sea in the most extreme conditions...

As any CIO will know, keeping IT infrastructure running smoothly is no mean feat. For some IT departments, however, keeping tech on track brings with it a whole new set of challenges.

Technology supports both commercial companies and charities in extreme conditions all over the world. Whether it be heat, cold, g-forces, remote locations or the dangers of war zones, IT plays a crucial role in making sure organisations can keep their operations running whatever the environment throws at them.

UK lifeboat operator the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) has to take extreme operating conditions for granted for the 235 lifeboat stations it runs around the UK and Ireland.

In the first of a series of articles looking at technology's role in some of the most challenging environments, silicon.com lifts the lid on the technology that keeps lifeboats in action and the tech challenges of working in extreme sea conditions.

The RNLI's Tamar all-weather lifeboat

The RNLI's latest class of all-weather lifeboat, the Tamar, takes a new approach with on-board technologyPhoto: RNLI

The challenges of using tech at sea

The nature of their work means RNLI lifeboats often go out in stormy conditions and are subject to massive vibrations and g-forces, so the technology on board needs to stand up to severe physical punishment.

According to RNLI staff officer for operations, communications and information Peter Bradley, lifeboats routinely crash down off the top of 30ft waves in storms, generating forces of up to 7G.

"There's not much electronic equipment that can actually withstand that sort of violent motion," he told silicon.com.

"It's a hostile dynamic environment where the boats can shake electronic equipment to bits - which is why we quite often design our own stuff," Bradley added.

Keeping up with maritime regulations while at the same time controlling costs is a major focus for the RNLI, and one that requires the smart use of technology, according to Bradley.

"We want a first-class service but we want to keep costs down. It is a balance but it's not a compromise - you cannot compromise on crew safety and we treat that very, very seriously," he said.

On-board lifeboat technology

Traditionally, boats in the RNLI's fleet generally have separate technology components - radar, satellite navigation and engine management system - spread around the boat. However, with the latest generation of lifeboats, the layout has been revamped in the interests of safety and changing international regulations.

The systems information management system (Sims) now being used on the Tamar class of all-weather lifeboat places all of the computing hardware into a single rack in the depths of the boat.

Using the old set-up, crew members would have to change seats to view different systems - not easy in a force-nine gale. And with a crew of seven on the Tamar - including a helmsman, mechanic and doctor - there was potential for mishaps to occur.

"To address the risks of people being hurt changing seats, we decided to...

...develop a system where you could call up any information at any position in the boat," Bradley said.

Crew members can now view any of the systems - connected using Windows Embedded technology - on a single screen.

On their own individual screen, crew members can select which system they want to access from radar, radio communications and navigation. "It's all gathered in that one place and pushed out to the requirements of the individual crew member - what he wants to see and when he wants to see it," Bradley said.

The RNLI Sims technology

The Sims technology puts all of the on-board tech in one place and integrates it using Windows EmbeddedPhoto: RNLI

Another addition to the Tamar craft designed to minimise the need for crew members to move around the boat is a fly-by-wire throttle and steering system controlled by a joystick on the arm of the helmsman's seat.

The joystick's location means the helmsman can always have the control to hand during storms when they'll be thrown about on their hydraulically damped seat. "If you're trying to reach out to the console in a force 10 [gale], you might miss," Bradley said.

Despite such improvements, there is also a traditional steering wheel in the wheelhouse in case any of the fly-by-wire systems fail.

As well as boosting safety, Sims could also prove useful in ensuring crew members are able to stay alert during long rescue operations.

"If a lifeboat is on a long call-out, say for 12 hours, it can actually be quite mind-numbing to be stuck on a radar or driving the boat so the idea is [the crew can] shift around - they're all capable of doing each other's jobs - and they take turns," Bradley said.

Communications at sea

Communications are obviously crucial to the RNLI's search and rescue operations and the lifeboat crews use an array of communication tech, both old and new.

The main technologies used for communications between lifeboats out at sea and Her Majesty's Coastguard, who co-ordinate search and rescue missions, is very high frequency (VHF) and medium frequency (MF) radio.

The spectrum and channels used for search and rescue are predetermined by UN bodies International Maritime Organisation and International Telecommunications Union but the RNLI also has a couple of private radio channels, which it uses for administration tasks.

"There's not a lot you can do in terms of technology with radio communications - VHF and MF radio are the principle means of communications at sea," Bradley said.

The RNLI also makes use of the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System, a digital selective calling device that...

...crew members of a vessel activate if they get into difficulty out at sea.

Activating the call alerts the local maritime rescue co-ordination centre which can identify who has made the call and the GPS position of where the call was made. Lifeboats also have this kit as a legal requirement although a situation in which they would need to use it would be a pretty extreme one.

The lifeboats also use a VHF radio direction finder which can lead boats to casualties who are transmitting a VHF signal. Most leisure boats have VHF receivers while individuals are sometimes equipped with transmitters.

Satellite broadband at sea

The RNLI has been looking at the potential of satellite broadband for sending data to and from their boats while out at sea, in advance of the publication of regulations currently being developed by the International Maritime Organisation that will require real-time navigation updates.

The organisation has already trialled the technology in collaboration with Inmarsat. "It was able to deliver data very, very quickly in terms of email transfers and even doing SAP transactions [recording incident information] 60 miles off - it was a bit slow but they managed to do it," Bradley said.

Lifeboat controls

The fly-by-wire controls on the newer RNLI lifeboats are integrated into the arm of the helmsman's seat so they can be accessed during the most violent stormsPhoto: RNLI

Satellite broadband is likely to become more important as the regulations around a new e-navigation system come into play in the next few years.

The system aims to update electronic charts via satellite broadband so that navigation warnings - such as a buoy changing position or a wreck occurring - can be communicated to vessels in real time.

Because the RNLI updates its charts once per month using CDs provided by the Hydrographic Office, ships can easily come across obstacles they aren't aware of.

The e-navigation system will also require the automatic transmission of data between vessels and back to shore rather than the manual approach generally favoured at the moment.

While the ability to transfer large amounts of data is not immediately useful for rescue situations, the return to base can sometimes take lifeboats 12 hours - giving the crew plenty of time to carry out admin work that would otherwise have to be carried out once on shore.

"You can drink lots of cups of tea or you can save time at the other end where they'd have to enter the information as soon as they got on shore anyway - so it's actually saving time for [the crew]," Bradley said.

The satellite broadband could also be used for...

...publicity opportunities for the charity.

Many of the lifeboats have 360-degree cameras fitted to their masts which capture footage of rescue missions. On smaller boats, crew members sometimes wear cameras on their helmets to capture footage from their point of view.

The footage can be used for television or online news, or to promote the RNLI once it's been uploaded and compressed using PCs back on land. However, satellite broadband could make this process much easier, allowing the footage to be made available just minutes after being captured.

As well as providing footage for news and publicity, the film can be used to improve training to show people real-life situations they might face.

RNLI chart plotter, small boat

Satellite broadband is likely to be adopted in the next few years to provide real-time sea charts and automate the transfer of data between boatsPhoto: RNLI

The tech back on dry land

VHF radio is used in the paging system to call crew out to lifeboat stations when an emergency situation occurs.

BT withdrew the national paging system - which many emergency services relied on - several years ago in response to a fall in demand for the service, due to the uptake of mobile phones and increasing costs associated with the system. Since then, the RNLI has developed its own paging system on a private VHF channel.

The paging system works through a network of aerials along the coast which the coastguard uses to send a signal to crew members and the relevant launch authorities.

Likewise, the coastguard uses a number of systems to assist RNLI rescue efforts, including a network of VHF and MF aerials around the coast that are used to co-ordinate rescues.

Rescue co-ordinators also use sophisticated search and rescue planning software which takes into account information such as how long people have been in the water and where they will be in a few hours due to currents in the area.

The RNLI uses SAP for its business systems on which every lifeboat rescue service is recorded, detailing information such as where the rescues occurred and what boats are being used in the operation, building up a picture of how the services are used which can subsequently inform the planning of future services and training.

The data is also fed into the newly established operational research unit which identifies trends that can be used to decide where to put new lifeboat stations in the future, and to educate people about how to avoid dangerous situations at sea through sessions run by sea safety volunteers.