High-Tech Sub, Old-Fashioned Navigation




 
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March 23rd, 2008  
Team Infidel
 
 

Topic: High-Tech Sub, Old-Fashioned Navigation


Pretty interesting


Norfolk Virginian-Pilot
March 23, 2008 By Kate Wiltrout, The Virginian-Pilot
ABOARD THE NORTH CAROLINA--It cost more than $2.5 billion, is powered by a nuclear reactor and has sonar systems so advanced they can detect the snapping sound of shrimp.
But for all its hundreds of computers and automated systems, the Navy's newest submarine still relies on three old-fashioned things when navigating the deep: people, pencils and paper.
At least for now.
On a recent overnight cruise - the North Carolina's first since leaving the Newport News shipyard in February - Chief Petty Officer Shawn Mason stood in front of a paper chart spread across a console in the submarine's control room.
Colored markers indicated the contours of the sea floor; longitude and latitude readings adorned the side of the 3-foot-long chart showing the nautical features east of Port Canaveral.
Huddled over the chart in the darkened control room, Mason used what's called a divider - similar to a compass students use to draw circles - to measure small increments of longitude and latitude. With nothing more advanced than a pencil and a straight edge, the chief drew a line projecting the submarine's course on this overnight trip in Florida's warm coastal waters.
Mason used dead reckoning - "DR," in control room lingo - to figure out precisely where the submarine was at the moment, and where it was headed if it stayed on course.
That would be easy, except for all the precautions a sub takes when it's transiting on the surface.
When Lt. Anderson Perez, the navigator, called out an adjustment to steer the sub away from a boat, Mason flipped over his pencil and erased the line.
From there, it was back to Square One, with the divider, the pencil and the ruler.
Mason is among the last generation of military mariners who will rely on paper charts to ply the ocean.
The Navy has begun equipping submarines with a computerized program called VMS, or voyage management system. The program will do with microprocessors what Mason does by hand, allowing navigators to spend less time estimating where they are and more figuring out what's ahead.
The switch, which began last year on the Norfolk-based submarine Oklahoma City, will redefine one of the most basic tasks of mariners for centuries: determining, or "fixing," a ship's position using various environmental clues.
Mason looks forward to the change. According to Capt. Mark Davis, the commanding officer, it will probably happen in 18 months to two years.
Mason insists he won't be nervous relying on a computer. Submariners aren't much for nostalgia; their very survival depends on technology.
"I love VMS. I'm a big VMS fan," said Mason, who has served aboard three other submarines in his 12 years in the Navy. "I will be glad to get rid of paper."
In 2005, the Cape St. George, a Norfolk-based cruiser, was the first surface ship to be certified in electronic navigation. Eventually, the Navy plans to have all of its 270 ships and subs outfitted with the system.
But submarine navigation is the riskiest of all, simply because sailors are essentially driving blindly. Periscopes are useless underwater; sonar provides a picture - in a way - of nearby obstacles. Piloting a submarine is like driving a car at night with all the windows blackened. Knowing where you are on a map is essential to figuring out when to brake and where you can safely speed up.
Electronic navigation will calculate location by using GPS data and inputs from other navigation sensors. Changes will be reflected in real time on the digital navigation chart, making Mason's eraser expendable.
Cmdr. Terry Takats, the submarine force's top navigator, said VMS makes navigating easier and also simplifies the laborious planning process.
"Voyage planning is a lot simpler and more straightforward in the electronic world than on paper, where a lot of manual effort is involved," Takats said in an interview.
"Electronically, it's a lot simpler. Click, move the cursor, click. It draws a line between the two."
Takats said electronic navigation will increase safety because sailors will take less time figuring out their current position.
"Electronic navigating will allow us to spend more time focusing on where we're going," Takats said.
One example of a navigation nightmare: In 2005, the submarine San Francisco was cruising at top speed when it hit an undersea mountain in the Pacific. The mountain's existence, which had been detected by satellite, wasn't reflected on a paper chart. The crash killed one sailor and injured 60 others, almost half the total crew.
Physically, there are other advantages to electronic charts. Submarines go to sea with thousands of paper charts, which take up precious space.
"You can take these stacks and stacks of hundreds of pieces of paper, and convert all of that to a handful of CDs," Takats said. "You can imagine how that simplifies things."
Davis said planners originally were going to build all Virginia-class subs with VMS. Instead, the fifth boat of the class - now being built in Connecticut - will be the first to leave the shipyard with electronic navigation capabilities.
Five older submarines - Ohio, Florida, Houston, Buffalo, and Oklahoma City - have been retrofitted and are now certified to use VMS.
How realistic is the possibility of the navigation system crashing and imperiling a crew?
"There are risks involved with any transition you do," Takats said. "We are taking effective measures to mitigate the risks. We need it to be highly reliable, highly accurate, and we also need redundancy. We have a backup, and we have a backup to the backup."
For all the digital system's advantages, Mason might be a little sad to see the old way go.
"Right now, this is kind of an art," he said. "People come over here kind of wondering what you're doing and look at you like, 'What are you doing?' And you explain it to them, and they still don't understand it until they stand here for at least a couple hours."
April 10th, 2008  
84RFK
 
 
Personally I don't trust anything running on batteries, a GPS can come in handy in many cases, but I wouldn't wander into unknown terrain without at least a map, and preferably a compass.

And in the same breath I may add that I wouldn't trust navigation officers who haven't been trained in the ancient arts of celestial navigation and dead reckoning farther than I can throw them...

Paper, pencils and a map could still be usefull when electric power fail.

And don't say that it can't happen, it has done before, it will do in the future.
April 13th, 2008  
A Can of Man
 
 
Me too. If it works on a battery, I don't trust it. If it's got a glowing panel, I don't trust it.
The least you can do is know all the cues that point North-South, key constellations... Used to be able to tell the time from the moon's position but that knowledge is lost to me now I must have it somewhere in my notes.... if I brought them out that is.
And of course be familiar with the map scales.
We had one map that was of such large scale (smaller area) and that threw me off quite a bit because I was only used to maps that were of a smaller scale. No really, it was ridiculously large scale. Got used to it. We never got lost though because I kind of memorized the area.
Then again, navigating in absolute pitch black in the thick of a forest can be challenging for just about anyone. Had to rely on the GPS for that one. Hey, no one's perfect.
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October 2nd, 2009  
Nina
 
"But for all its hundreds of computers and automated systems, the Navy's newest submarine still relies on three old-fashioned things when navigating the deep: people, pencils and paper."


hummm..interesting.
October 2nd, 2009  
c/Commander
 
 
Most of our ships have VMS at this point, but just aren't certified to use it for primary navigation. Which is actually a good thing, because it breaks a lot.
December 24th, 2010  
gunslinger86
 

Topic: GPS first to go


Does anyone actually think thatthe NATO countries will be able to rely on GPS following a serious firststrike? Our dependance on computers and technology is our greatest handicap and the big 3 know it.
 


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