Electrical equipment and instrumentation play key role in safe shipping

Issue 38 – May 2012

Maritime transportation is the most effective means of moving large quantities of cargo over long distances. Merchant ships transport around 90% of international trade (in terms of volume) – from raw materials and foodstuffs to finished goods, as well as some 2 billion passengers a year on ferries and cruise liners. Continuous efforts are made to improve safety, which relies primarily on electrical systems. Two International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) Technical Committees (TCs) develop international Standards for electrical installations for the shipping and offshore industries, allowing them to operate reliably and safely in what can be very harsh conditions.

Self-contained power generation and distribution

Ships are like floating cities: they produce and distribute their own electricity in an environment in which they cannot get power from anywhere else. Electrical installations on ships and offshore units are indispensable for the operation of machinery, propulsion, navigation, and communication equipment, as well as for the auxiliary systems that provide essential services such as lighting, running water, plumbing, refrigeration, and food preparation.

Power on ships is supplied by generators driven by the main engines. In case these fail, power is provided by batteries or emergency backup or standby units driven by diesel or gas turbine engines. These ensure that essential machinery and systems, such as steering gear, firefighting system, navigation, and emergency lights, communication, and alarm systems continue to operate. When emergency and backup fail as well, as happened in two highly publicised cases on board cruise liners in early 2012, ships are left at the mercy of the elements and external assistance.

Water and electricity don't mix

Water is an excellent conductor of electricity, so accidents and system failures can happen when the two meet, as may very well be the case on ships. IEC TC 18: Electrical installations of ships and of mobile and fixed offshore units, prepares Standards to ensure these installations are designed and built to minimise this possibility. Its subcommittee 18A develops Standards for electric cables for ships and fixed offshore units.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO), the United Nations agency with special responsibility for the safety and security of shipping, acknowledging the IEC's expertise, established a formal relationship with TC 18 to collaborate in the field of electrical systems for ships and offshore units. TC 18 Standards concern factors promoting the safety of ships and of mobile and fixed offshore units and those promoting safety of life, in accordance with the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) Convention, which forms a central part of IMO activity.

Off the rocks, safely

Accidents at sea happen for all kinds of reasons. They include equipment failure, human error, and acts of God, such as extreme weather conditions or natural disasters.

Mariners have always tried to chart their course to reach their destination safely, avoiding other ships, natural hazards such as reefs or treacherous currents, and areas presenting a danger for other reasons (piracy, conflict zones, disputed waterways, and so on).

Until well into the twentieth century, safe navigation and establishing the position of ships relied primarily on nautical charts and instruments such as compasses, sextants, telescopes or binoculars, and identification devices such as lights or foghorns. The introduction of electronic equipment like radars and sonars, initially for warships, greatly improved the accuracy and safety of navigation.

In recent decades there have been major advances in electronic equipment in the maritime world, making navigation even more accurate and safer. They include bridge navigational watch alarm systems (BNWAS) and a computer-based navigation information system known as electronic chart display and information system (ECDIS). ECDIS can replace paper charts, using integrating position information from satellite global positioning system and other electronic systems such as radar and automatic identification systems (AIS). ECDIS has been introduced in ships and it became mandatory following a June 2009 IMO meeting.

It's good to talk

Communications between ships and from ship to shore are essential for the safety of navigation and for the rescue of ships and crews in distress. The first example of wireless communication used to call for assistance was recorded in 1899, while April 2012 marked the 100th anniversary of the best known ship disaster, the sinking of the Titanic, which was the catalyst for the adoption of the first SOLAS Convention in 1914.

Communication equipment has made significant advances as it has evolved from wireless telegraphy using Morse code to voice communication via high frequency and more recently to voice and data communication via satellite. The basic standards for radiocommunication are set by the International Telecommunication Union.

The IMO played a pioneering role in establishing, in 1976, the International Maritime Satellite Organization to provide emergency maritime communications. In 1979 the IMO adopted the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue (SAR). To complement the system, the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) was introduced by the IMO as part of the SOLAS Convention starting in 1993. IMO described GMDSS and SAR as 'crucial to maritime safety'.

No navigation no communication without IEC Standards

All maritime electronic navigation and communication equipment and systems like BNWAS, ECDIS, AIS, or GMDSS, which play such an important role in maritime safety, rely on Standards prepared by IEC TC 80: Maritime navigation and radiocommunication equipment and systems. TC 80 took up this task in agreement with the IMO, which does not generally produce detailed technical and test Standards for such equipment and systems. TC 80 has produced some 50 Standards so far, and works on new ones to support IMO requirements and more general ship and shore applications.

Clean up your act!

International shipping needs to become cleaner. Marine engines on most of the 50000 or so international ships recorded by the International Chamber of Shipping and International Shipping Federation burn bunker fuel. This petroleum product has been described by the CEO of a Dutch-based leading shipping technology company as 'just waste oil, basically what is left over after all the cleaner fuels have been extracted from crude oil. It's tar, the same as asphalt. It's the cheapest and dirtiest fuel in the world'. Bunker fuel has a high sulphur content, 3000 times more than the maximum allowed in the European Union for car fuel. Ship emissions are blamed for 64000 deaths a year in the world, of which 27000 are in Europe, according to a study from the University of Delaware.

Cutting these emissions in ports has become a priority worldwide and led to the introduction of High Voltage Shore Connection (HVSC) systems, which allow ships to shut down their diesel engines and connect to a land-based grid while they are docked. Port Metro Vancouver, for instance, has cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 3000 tonnes in 2010 by installing shore power for cruise ships.

TC 18 issued a publicly available specification for HVSC systems in 2009, giving requirements for such systems. This has now been developed into an international Standard in cooperation with International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). Publication of IEC/ISO/IEEE 80005-1, Utility connections in port – Part 1: High Voltage Shore Connection (HVSC) Systems – General requirements is expected in the second quarter of 2012.

Another aspect linked to cleaner shipping concerns a shift towards increased use of electric propulsion, currently limited to hybrid solutions that use a combination of diesel engines or gas turbines, generators, batteries or fuel cells and motors to drive the propulsion system. TC 18 is currently updating its Standard for electric propulsion and a revised edition is expected in 2013.

Health and safety

For electrical equipment on ships and offshore units, TC 18 does not concern itself with existing equipment Standards issued by the TCs of relevant products, but only with SAs a result, many other IEC Standards not prepared by TC 18 or TC 80 are used in equipment on board ships. Standards on sound level meters and sound calibrators prepared by TC 29: Electroacoustics, for instance, are referenced in IMO guidance on fatigue mitigation and management.

Human failings still a major risk factor

However well prepared Standards are, and however safe and well designed technical systems are, human factors – errors, deliberate actions, or fatigue – will remain the main reasons why total safety in the shipping and offshore industries is difficult to achieve. Human errors are estimated to be behind some 80% of accidents as sea, as some recent events show.

  • In January 2012 the Costa Concordia cruise liner hit rocks near the Italian coast and later capsized after her captain changed course. 32 died and 64 were injured in the shipwreck, and the USD 570 million ship was a total loss.
  • A 130-metre cargo ship hit rocks in Messina, Sicily, Italy, recently, after her captain dozed off, with the ship running on autopilot (news agencies, 22 March 2012).
  • Navigation of the Rena container ship by its officers was 'absolutely appalling' as they took a shortcut and failed to accurately plot their course before she crashed into the Astrolabe Reef (off New Zealand) in October 2011, leading to a total loss, according to a Transport Accident Investigation Commission report (news agencies, March 2012).

Working together globally

Shipping and offshore exploration are such complex and international industries, implementing practices and a variety of systems developed over decades, even centuries, that they involve many bodies and organisations, national, and international. These include the other two global standardisation bodies, ISO and ITU, UN agencies such as IMO, other specialised bodies like the International Hydrographic Organization, and the many shipping registers and bureaus around the world.

With shipborne electrical installations and navigation and radiocommunication equipment playing an ever more important role, the IEC finds itself at the very centre of a complex web of relationships that ensure the shipping and offshore sectors will become safer.

Published in transport.