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Complex operations

Active learning proving promising in Arctic shipping environments

special feature: Innovation

Part of a special feature showcasing Memorial’s innovation ecosystem, a pan-university effort focused on supporting the development and success of innovators across Newfoundland and Labrador.  

By Jackey Locke

We tend to learn from our mistakes.

And while that works for most, PhD candidate Doug Smith believes that we learn more when we look at our successes.

Safety in complex operations

As part of the Arctic Shipping Safety project in Memorial’s Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science, Mr. Smith is working under the supervision of Drs. Brian Veitch, Faisal Khan and Rocky Taylor on a novel method that aims to improve safety for complex operations, such as shipping operations.

“A shipping operation is a complex operation in that it requires many interactions between humans and technical components to get the job done,” said Mr. Smith.

“When a captain navigates a ship, he uses resources to detect possible dangers, such as using radar and ice forecasts. Those ice forecasts may have been developed up to 24 hours before, which means the captain has to use his/her navigational experience to make predictions about present ice conditions.”

Humans can act as a source of resilience for the operation and make adjustments to dynamic operational conditions.

When the unexpected happens, someone has to take note and make sure the appropriate adjustment is made.

‘Functional path’

That’s where the doctoral student’s research comes into play.

Doug Smith
Doug Smith
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

Mr. Smith meets with shipping operators to learn first hand how the operation usually achieves success.

He then creates models of functional maps using the functional resonance analysis method, also known as the FRAM method.

“We meet with key personnel in the operation to learn about the functions that need to take place for the operation to succeed and the FRAM method allows us to do that,” he said.

“The functions are represented in the model using nodes that are connected by lines which represent the functional path to success for the operation.”

Functions such as observing a radar, communicating with the first- and second-mates, downloading ice charts and interpreting sea conditions are connected in order to map how they all relate to each other. Mr. Smith says that while it isn’t linear, there is a chronological element to it.

“We use successes to actively learn instead of waiting for the failures to learn from them.” — Doug Smith

Once the functions are mapped, Mr. Smith assesses the variables that can occur within the operation and examines the functional outputs for each task.

“It could be a function that happened some time ago, but its output becomes relevant much later, such as a ship inspection,” he said. “And once we learn how all the functions relate to each other, we can communicate that to the operator.”

The model is then used to examine the potential ways success can be achieved by an organization, especially when variable operational conditions are present. This also provides a different perspective to examine operational failures.

“The novel part of our method is that we use successes to actively learn instead of waiting for the failures to learn from them,” he said.

“If you’re waiting for accidents to happen to learn, maybe you only have one or two examples per year, but if you also try to learn from your successes, you likely have many more successes throughout the year to actively manage your operation.”

Promising results

Looking at an operation’s successes not only provides Mr. Smith with the opportunity to make the operation safer, it also provides the operator with an opportunity to promote its strengths.

Mr. Smith is pleased with the results so far.

“We have applied this methodology to Arctic ship navigation and offshore installation management. These are dynamic and complex operations and the initial results are promising.”

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