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Royal Navy Embracing Virtual Reality

Two Royal Navy Officers conducting training within the Virtual Reality training simulator [Crown Copyright: LPhot Daniel Bladen]

The Royal Navy is embracing Virtual Reality with nine hi-tech bridge simulators to train sailors guiding warships on operations worldwide.

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News Release, Whale Island, 09 May 2024: Nine hi-tech bridge simulators – which accurately recreate both the bridge of present-day warships, but also the key waters and harbours they operate in – have been installed at sites in England and Scotland, led by the Navy’s warfare school at HMS Collingwood in Fareham.

The £27m investment, delivered by a consortium led by Capita, in partnership with Metaverse VR and serving Navy personnel, is intended to make learning navigation and running a bridge more realistic, more comprehensive, and potentially faster.

The Royal Navy is embracing Virtual Reality to train sailors guiding warships on operations worldwide [Crown Copyright: LPhot Daniel Bladen]

Five simulator suites have been installed at HMS Collingwood: two large ‘full mission’ simulators with wrap-around digital display screens and Virtual Reality headsets, a smaller version with an LCD display and finally two small trainers – more akin to a video gaming set-up, but with the same features/accuracy as their full-size counterparts. Each one is named after a famed Royal Navy navigator: Ross (Arctic/Antarctic explorer), Parry (early 19th Century Arctic explorer), Bligh (of the Bounty), Fitzroy (father of the Met Office), and Flinders (the first person to circumnavigate/chart Australia).

Virtual Reality plays only a relatively small role in the two theatre-size simulators. Sailors put on headsets on the mock-up bridge wing – and suddenly they are immersed in a 3D world. Peer over the ‘side’ and you look down on the waves crashing against the hull, look aft (backwards) and the rest of the ship magically appears. It’s particularly useful for situational awareness, especially when manoeuvring a ship in narrow waters, resupplying at sea or bringing a vessel alongside a jetty or quay.

The Royal Navy has been using digital bridge simulators for training for nearly 30 years. The existing sims were installed in Collingwood in 2002 and though the software has been upgraded since, this is the first true ‘reboot’ in two decades.

The Royal Navy is embracing Virtual Reality to train sailors guiding warships on operations worldwide [Crown Copyright: LPhot Daniel Bladen]

Trainee warfare officer Sub Lieutenant Stephen Smallman, aged 28 from Plymouth, began learning his bridge skills on the old simulator – and will complete his training on the new facility. He said: “The old simulator was good, but you knew you were in a room with some screens. Here, you feel like you are stepping onto the bridge of a warship. It is very easy to become immersed in the situation – it makes everything feel much more real.

“Because you can change the weather conditions, you can practise some very challenging manoeuvres without the real-world consequences.

“It’s second-to-none, invaluable and it’s great to see the Navy investing in us and our training so we can do our job to the highest standard.”

And while the realistic hydrodynamic modelling and 3D/Virtual Reality visuals may grab the attention and immerse students in a digital maritime world, it’s other features which will really assist instructors and those being instructed alike: like dashcam footage from your car, training scenarios can be re-played and analysed.

The Royal Navy is embracing Virtual Reality to train sailors guiding warships on operations worldwide [Crown Copyright: LPhot Daniel Bladen]

“The new simulators are fantastic and the debriefing – allowing to accurately run through what’s just happened – is a game-changer when it comes to training navigators and bridge teams,” said Lieutenant Commander Gavin Lowe, Officer in Charge of the Navigational Training Unit, who was also among the first trainees to go through the first generation simulators two decades ago.

“These are very realistic simulators. The more realistic the environment, the better the training we deliver. The Virtual Reality headsets allow us to ‘step onto’ a bridge wing. You can look all along the ship from bow to stern which is fantastic for training complex ship handling manoeuvres such as entering and leaving port.”

Two simulators apiece have also been installed at Britannia Royal Naval College in Dartmouth for future officers and to train submariners in particular at Faslane. They can be used not just by personnel under training but any ship’s team which feels it would benefit from more navigational/bridge time.

The Royal Navy is embracing Virtual Reality to train sailors guiding warships on operations worldwide [Crown Copyright: LPhot Daniel Bladen]

“After 33 years of service in the Royal Marines, my commitment to the ongoing success of this partnership with the Navy is personal,” said David Hook, managing director at Capita Defence.

“I am proud that Capita has delivered state-of-the-art navigation simulators to the Navy at pace, using an agile, collaborative approach that demonstrates a step change in training technology and delivery.

“We were able to deliver this capability in under 14 months, to cost, without disruption to current training. The simulators are an example of technology-enabled training facilities that will be a central part of the training transformation we are embedding in training.”

There’s also considerable potential offered by upgrades, from additional ports and harbours to increase the databank of current recreations of waters the Royal Navy uses daily – Portsmouth, Plymouth, the Clyde, Portland and Gibraltar – to adding new ships (Type 26/31 frigates), tidal streams and linking the simulators at the different sites to train the bridge teams of entire task groups.

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