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Innovate Blog: Can augmented reality lead to safer navigation?

By Tim Robertson, RNLI Innovation Project Manager

Helensburgh's B class lifeboat at sea

Photo: Nicholas Leach

RNLI volunteers are often called out in conditions when every sensible seafarer is heading for the nearest sheltered harbour. And our charity has a duty to those volunteers to provide all the information they need to navigate safely, complete their mission and return safe to their homes and families. 

Modern lifeboats are equipped with many technologically advanced systems to generate the data needed for safe navigation.

SIMS screens ready for action in the crew pod of Harwich RNLI's B class lifeboat, Tierney
Screens ready for action in the crew pod of Harwich's B class lifeboat, Tierney

More and more information is being delivered to crew on screens – everything from navigational charts and radar readings to details of any technical issues onboard the lifeboat.

So is there a better way we can deliver this information – one that would allow our crew members to keep their heads up and on the lookout while on the move on a rescue mission?

The RNLI Innovation Team is considering how we might better support crew to navigate safely and reduce the risk of collisions, groundings and near misses.

Heads up!

A man using Microsoft's Holo Lens augmented reality headset

Photo: Shutterstock/khoamartin

A man using Microsoft's HoloLens augmented reality headset

Augmented reality (AR) is a state of the art technology that has its roots in head-up displays, which can trace their history back to early reflector gunsights developed for fighter pilots in the Second World War. 

Once guns were mounted in the wings of aircraft rather than directly in front of the pilot, there was a need for a separate gunsight to project ‘cross hairs’ in the pilot’s view. These original reflector sights have developed into visor-mounted head-up displays in modern fighter aircraft, where important flight data is projected into the pilot’s line of sight, meaning they seldom have to take their eyes off the wider situation and can remain visually engaged with their immediate surroundings. 

These systems are now beginning to bleed into the automotive industry, with cars delivering important data to drivers, reflected on their windscreens.

What is the RNLI doing with AR?

Tighnabruaich B class lifeboat at sea

Photo: RNLI/Nigel Millard

We are currently looking at how AR might be exploited aboard our lifeboats, to deliver key navigational safety data to crew, while allowing them to remain heads-up and looking directly at the situation around them. 

Some large shipping companies are experimenting with simple head-up data, projected onto the windows of a ship’s bridge, but no marinised head-mounted systems are currently available that fix digital information in the correct position within a crew member’s line of sight. So the RNLI is developing a technology demonstrator to allow decision makers within the charity to experience augmented reality in the marine environment. 

This experience should prompt decisions on whether to invest further time and resources to develop operationally useful applications of head-mounted AR systems for safe navigation (and potentially search and rescue) in the future.

For this demonstration of AR at the lowest possible cost, in the shortest reasonable timeframe, the RNLI Innovation Team have engaged a technology partner to develop a solution using the popular Microsoft HoloLens system, which is primarily designed for use indoors and not intended to be exposed to rain or seawater. 

A simple prototype has already been tested in Holes Bay, Poole, Dorset, using made-up navigational data to demonstrate how digital information could be displayed via existing AR headsets.


What’s next?

The trial will be limited to a specific geographical area, in fair weather and daylight to allow for the current limitations of the hardware, but should allow RNLI decision makers to better understand the potential of this technology to support volunteer crew and keep them safe.

Artistic impression of how an RNLI AR display might someday appear on a crew member's visor

Illustration: Nathan Gaydhani

Artistic impression of how an RNLI AR display might someday appear on a crew member's visor
We’ll do an update on what we’ve learned, here on the RNLI Innovate Blog, once the trial is complete.