Few moviegoers will ever forget the image of swordfishing captain Billy Tyne, as portrayed by George Clooney in the hit movie "The Perfect Storm," clinging to the wheel of his fishing boat, the Andrea Gail, in an effort to fight off the massive wave that would ultimately sink the doomed vessel.
For Tyne and the thousands of other seamen throughout history who have sailed the perilous seas of the North Atlantic, the wheel of the ship offered the only chance to control one's future.
However, the U.S. Navy's newest oceanographic survey vessel, USNS Bruce C.
Heezen (pronounced HAY-zin) doesn't use a wheel at all. Unlike with other naval vessels, Heezen's crew can chart the ship's course and steer it using a computer joystick. The same device children use to play video games is now being used by the Navy to send commands to a 5,000-ton, 329-foot ship. Heezen, which was delivered in January and is undergoing sea trials, is the newest addition to the Navy's oceanographic and meteorological survey fleet. Its mission is to collect data about the world's oceans and coastal waterways to produce oceanographic survey products for the Navy. Through a complex array of sensors, computer networks and communications equipment, Heezen is the equivalent of a floating computing and information processing center.
The ship was named after Bruce Heezen by a group of fifth-graders who won a Navy contest. Heezen was well-known in the scientific community for producing physiographic maps of all the world's oceans. His research also produced evidence of the oceanic mountain ridge that extends 45,000 miles into all of the world's oceans.
A crew of 26 merchant mariners and 27 contractor scientists operate USNS Heezen. The ship will collect data on beaches, reefs, channels, tides, sediment, turbidity, weather patterns, water temperatures and currents, ocean-bottom terrain and navigational hazards. Navy commanders can use the data during major exercises and real-world operations to keep their ships safe from those hazards and to better plan sea-based operations, said Mark Jarrett, senior scientist aboard the ship.
Michael Burns is the second mate aboard Heezen and is primarily responsible for navigating the ship. On the bridge, he stands behind a large control panel where he has access to all of the ship's communications gear and four Z-drive thrusters that propel the ship from the bow or the stern in any direction. The first thing he points out to visitors to the ship is the fact the "there's no wheel."
"We can have the ship steer a prescribed course and use the throttle controls to adjust our speed," Burns said. "We also have an auto-tracking feature that allows us to follow a prescribed track line provided by the ship's laboratory.
The computer will factor in the drift and compensate for that so that the ship stays right on top of the set line."
Burns can also use the joystick, which is connected to a monitor that depicts the track data provided by the lab scientists, to hold Heezen steady in one position. The ship's helmsman uses the joystick to reduce the speed of the ship. When it stops, the helmsman pushes a button, recording the exact location of the ship. The ship's computers will then hold that position even in 15- to 20-foot-high seas.
"Theoretically, we can walk the ship right to the dock with the use of the joystick," Burns said. However, "we like to keep the helmsman on duty," he said, "because we all know computers can fail." Burns can also reference a display that offers digital nautical charts. But even the maps require the reassurance offered by good, old-fashioned seamanship. "The electronic charts aren't quite navigation quality yet, but they have the potential to be," he said. "For now, we use it for situation awareness and for planning our voyages.
We still back it up with paper charts and with the Global Positioning System as well."
Two radars feed data into the ship's Automatic Radar Plotting Aide, which alerts the crew to any navigation hazards, such as other ships that may be crossing their path. "That allows us to track up to 15 targets on each radar and provides us with their course, speed, closest point of approach and other traffic data," Burns said. Data Crunch Susan Sebastian is a physical scientist aboard Heezen and works in the Survey Central Control Area - the nerve center of all survey activity managed from the ship. A sophisticated set of software known as the Integrated Survey System (ISS-60), developed by Science Applications International Corp., provides Sebastian with the interface she needs to control the laundry list of sensors that collect the data as well as all of the processing and storage capacity she needs to make sense of it.
All of the computers in the lab are networked via a fiber-optic local-area network. However, Heezen also offers dangling network connections for anyone who has a roll-on/roll-off system they want to bring aboard and hook into the network, Sebastian said.
The ISS-60 system is composed of two Pentium-based PCs running IBM Corp.'s OS/2 operating system. Sensors can be plugged into any one of 16 ports. There also is a time-code board installed in each system that constantly updates the systems' internal clocks through the Time Distribution System, which, in turn, is updated via GPS satellites, according to Sebastian.
"Time tagging is extremely important. That's how we merge the data," Sebastian said. How-ever, the real work of the ship gets done through a multitude of sensor systems that are either mounted beneath the ship's hull or are towed behind the ship.
Hewlett-Packard Co. J-240 Unix workstations provide the user interface to the overall system and also capture all time data from shared memory and log it.
All survey planning and interfacing with the sensors are done from the Unix system, Sebastian said.
"We still do surveys the way we've always done them: We lay out the lines and then tell the ship where to drive," she said. "But we don't use a straightedge and a piece of paper anymore."
"I could drive the ship with a mouse from down here," Sebastian said. "The bridge is taking their positions from us. I could just take the mouse and add a waypoint. But it's still the second mate's job to keep us from steering across an island or running aground."