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After a Deadly Collision, the Navy Is Ditching Complex Digital Warship Controls

Popular Mechanics logo Popular Mechanics 12/08/2019 Kyle Mizokami
a large ship in a body of water © U.S. Navy - Getty Images

The U.S. Navy is abandoning an effort to digitize the controls of its destroyers after the system was partially blamed for a collision that killed ten sailors. The National Transportation Safety Board’s report into the incident cited the design of the ship’s new Integrated Bridge and Navigation System, which replaced manual controls in controlling the ship’s propulsion and steering, were so complicated they became a safety issue.

As a result, the Navy will return to handheld manual, mechanical controls for its Arleigh Burke-class destroyers.

In the early morning hours of August 21, 2017, the USS John S. McCain and the commercial tanker Alnic MC were traveling parallel to one another off the coast of Singapore. The McCain suddenly turned in front of the Alnic MC, causing a collision. USS McCain suffered 10 dead and 48 injured in the collision, and the vessel sustained more than $100 million in damage. No injuries were reported on the much larger Alnic MC, which suffered $225,000 in damage.

a large ship in a body of water: SINGAPORE-US-NAVY © AFP Contributor - Getty Images SINGAPORE-US-NAVY The NTSB report, as well as a separate U.S. Navy report, cited inadequate training for sailors serving on the USS McCain on the ship’s new Integrated Bridge and Navigation System (IBNS). IBNS replaces manual, handheld throttle controls on the Navy’s guided missile destroyers with a computer workstation with touchscreen controls. IBNS allowed sailors to control a destroyer’s steering and throttle controls for each of the two propellers.

The NTSB report on the other hand took its criticism a step further, stating that the IBNS system was “unnecessarily complex.” The head of the U.S. Navy’s ship program has also criticized IBNS, describing it as “overly complex” and an example of “just because you can doesn’t mean you should”. The U.S. Navy’s destroyer fleet, according to US Naval Institute News, “overwhelmingly” said it prefers traditional mechanical controls to IBNS.

As a result of a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report into the incident the Navy will take a step backward, removing new computer-controlled throttles from Burke-class guided missile destroyers. According to the NTSB report sailors aboard the McCain were poorly trained to use the complicated IBNS system, a problem exacerbated by a lack of sleep by key personnel on the night of the collision.

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Altogether, the factors lead to a misunderstanding about which stations had control of which parts of the ship, resulting in the ship sailing out of control and into the path of the Alnic MC.

It will take the Navy 18-24 months to modify all of its destroyers back to the manual throttle system.

Source: USNI News.

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