On-the-job training is not something you want to do with the bridge team of a frigate costing over a billion pounds, so the Royal Navy uses simulators to bring officers up to speed. The latest is a Photo-realistic warship bridge simulator installed at the Britannia Royal Naval College (BRNC), Dartmouth, England. This simulator uses computers to generate images so realistic that students often sway as the “ship” rolls, even though it’s sitting still.

The new BRNC simulator is one of four used by the Royal Navy to train bridge teams. This one is the most realistic. Instead of just generic computer-generated boxes, the windscreens of the bridge show real-life details like building features or sign lettering. Even the reflection of neon lights on the water are represented, and it can create binocular views as well. It’s used by officers of Devonport-based ships to learn the skills needed to carry out harbor maneuvers and the rules of the road, under the supervision of experienced officers.

Royal Navy service member taking part in BRNC training

This may seem like some early model holodeck toy, but the purpose is very serious. Even with the latest satellite navigation systems, piloting a ship in harbor takes a great deal of skill and concentration. Often it isn't the official navigation markers that give the best clue to where one is, but some small detail that catches the eye like a pub sign on a quay or how the mast on a historic ship tied to a pier line up. A realistic simulation helps to learn this seat-of-the-pants ship handling by not only providing real-world details, but by cutting down on distractions by making the experience all-absorbing.

"You can run through any scenario on here that you wouldn't want to try for real – it's a safe environment – as well as everyday maneuvers, such as replenishing at sea, and navigating in fog or poor weather conditions," said Lieutenant Sam Stephens, head of navigation at Dartmouth.

Two US Navy midshipman at the simulator controls

The simulator consists of the reconstructed front section of a generic warship’s bridge. Behind the windscreens are a bank of giant digital displays covering 180 degrees. Powering these are the equivalent of ten high-spec gaming computers. The images are based on high-resolution photographs taken of key harbors by a graphics specialist from the Transas company, which built the simulator. These images were taken by both day and night for complete realism.

However, realism goes beyond placid harbor views. The computers are programmed with the ship-handling characteristics of all major Royal Navy warships except the latest Type 45 destroyers, and can throw every sort of sea or weather condition at the students – from fog banks to hurricanes. It only has trouble with simulating extremely heavy conditions such as Force 10 winds, which is a whole gale, but at lower conditions it is very realistic.

"I sat at the back of the room and watched a group of senior officers on a command course swaying around," said Lieutenant Stephens. "Some people have even asked if it's on hydraulics. It's not. It simply tricks the mind.”

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