What does an ice breaker do?

Imagine this: you are lying on your back in a cabin onboard a ship. It is the middle of the night, and you are trying to sleep, but a constant crunching and squeaking sound keeps you awake.

Your bed and everything else in your cabin shakes as the ship breaks steadily through thick sheets of ice. The ship, a 40-year-old ice breaker, doesn’t stop just because it’s in the middle of the night.

Welcome to design research in the field.

Research on navigation in ice

In the EU research project SEDNA we explore how to use Augmented Reality (AR) for ship navigation in the Arctic. Our goal is to develop principles and guidelines for how AR can be used on the bridge.

We cannot do this from our office chairs, so we have participated in two field trips during the past year in order to get to know the bridge environment, the users and their tasks, as well as the challenges of navigating a ship through ice. One of these trips took place onboard the ice breaker ship Atle in the Gulf of Bothnia, between Sweden and Finland.

The SEDNA research team in front of Atle: Nicholas Stevens (AHO), Paul Shanahan, Maria Looney, Robert Lynch (all from the HALPIN Centre) and Jon Olav Eikenes (AHO).

So, what does an ice breaker do?

Ice breaker scenarios

Atle is one of The Swedish Maritime Administration’s five ice breakers, which make sure that all Swedish harbours are available all year round. The ice breakers create channels in the ice for commercial vessels, and assist vessels that are stuck or otherwise need help or guidance getting through icy areas.

We spent four days onboard the ship, and got to experience a range of different situations. Here are some of the scenarios we observed, and challenges that demonstrate the need for design interventions, with or without the use of AR.

1. Rescue vessel stuck in ice

Many cargo vessels are not equipped for navigation in ice, but still have to go through icy areas. In addition, ice conditions change quickly, and it is not uncommon that a vessel gets stuck in ice.

One of the situations we observed:

  1. A cargo vessel get stuck in ice on its way from Finland to Luleå. The crew contacts Atle, which comes to the rescue
  2. Atle approaches the vessel from behind, continues in relatively high speed and passes the cargo vessel within a short distance, in order to break up the ice around the cargo vessel
  3. Atle escorts the cargo vessel to the destination port, where the local tug boat takes over.

Challenges during this scenario:

  • It is hard to assess the ice conditions before reaching the vessel stuck in ice, and thereby hard to plan the operation in detail. The officers on the ice breaker crew have to improvise as they reach the cargo vessel
  • Moving at high speed next to another vessel is dangerous, and cognitively demanding for the crew. Full attention is needed, and the officers use all their senses to understand the situation
  • Clear communication and information sharing between the vessels is crucial, but often difficult to achieve.

2. Escort vessel through ice

If the ice conditions are rough, there is no point for a regular vessel to even try to go through the icy area on its own. Being escorted by an ice breaker also provides safety if the conditions change during the journey. Sometimes the ice breaker escorts several vessels in a convoy, but we did not get to experience this during our field study.

The escort operation might start with a rescue as described above, but it can also start from open waters or a harbour. During the escort, the ice breaker decides on the speed and distance between the two vessels.

Challenges during this scenario:

  • The channel can close quickly behind the ice breaker, for example if the wind moves the ice sheets together. In those cases, the escorted vessel needs to stay close to the ice breaker. This can lead to dangerous situations, for example if the ice breaker suddenly runs into thick ice and slows down. Therefore, the ice breaker will sometimes speed up before getting to an area with heavy ice, in order to have more time to go through the thick ice. Consequently, knowing the ice conditions ahead is crucial
  • The officers on the ice breaker need to constantly monitor the speed of both vessels as well as the distance between them, in addition to monitoring ice conditions ahead. The information is (partly) available, but not well presented to the users.

3. Vessel handover

Ice breakers in Sweden are responsible for different geographical harbour areas. If a cargo vessel travels across these areas, the ice breakers might choose to “hand over” a vessel from one ice breaker to another.

We observed a situation in which two ice breakers were both escorting a vessel, and “swapped” vessels during a complex, yet elegant manoeuvre:

One of the ice breakers and its escorted vessel had to diverge from the main channel, since there is not enough space in the channels for vessels to pass each other. As soon as both cargo ships had a clear channel ahead, the ice breakers turned around and speeded up in order to get in front of their “new” cargo ships.

Challenges during this scenario:

  • Many moving vessels are involved, which makes it cognitively demanding to keep an overview of where everyone are at the time, and where they are going to be at a certain time in the future
  • Planning, coordinating and communicating between all vessels
  • When we observed this scenario, it was completely dark outside, which made it even harder to get an overview of what was going on and see ice conditions further ahead.

A starting point for design exploration

The scenarios above provide just a few examples of what an ice beaker does. Other scenarios include transit in ice, operation planning, convoy, helicopter or drone operations, and search & rescue.

Field trips allow designers to get a unique, first-hand insight into users and their working environment without going through the filters of third-party stakeholders. This is essential. The insight we get is invaluable for our further work, and we now have a solid foundation for design explorations.

What the scenarios seems to have in common is a need for better situation awareness. It is highly demanding to control a large powerful vessel in ice while keeping an eye on ice conditions, other vessels, weather forecasts, and simultaneously communicate with various people. Most vessels and ship bridges are not well designed for such scenarios.

By using Augmented Reality it is possible to adapt the tools and information available for users according to specific situations. However, it is not at all given how this should be done.

Do you have any ideas for how to use AR in arctic navigation?

Field report

Do you want to learn more about the field trip? Download the full report and presentation below:

A special thanks to the Atle crew for allowing us to visit, observe and ask lots of questions!