RACORDER - The Marine Black Box

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Connecting Ship's Radios to Racorder


We've heard a lot lately about the marine equivalent of aircraft cockpit "black box" recorders. Please describe the product you manufacture.

Racorder was designed with that concept in mind. The original design recorded the raw radar video out of the receiver along with azimuth and timing signals. These signals were fed back into the radar display on playback and would recreate the radar image. The display unit thought it was still connected to the radar transceiver and would allow you to change range, gain, range rings etc. Limited mainly by the radar pulse rate during recording, the tape would generally have 25 miles or more of echoes regardless of the setting of the radar during recording.. This means if the captain was operating on a 1 mile range you could still see targets at six miles during playback. The audio track of the tape was used to record either the ship's radio or input from a microphone. We found room on the tape to add some digital data which could be things like date, time, speed, position etc.

To keep costs down and fully experiment with the idea we made no attempt to make the system waterproof or otherwise indestructible. It was felt that since the vast majority of marine accidents did not involve sinking or loss of the vessel (unlike aircraft accidents) there was no real need for this and it would be difficult to justify the extra cost and complexity.

After we sold a few it became apparent that it was desirable to be able to play tapes on ordinary TV video systems even if it meant some loss of picture resolution so it wouldn't require a radar display or other special equipment to be carried around wherever a tape needed to be viewed. Today our production units meet that need.

What is driving the recent surge in interest in marine data recorders?

In the case of our product I think two things. First, after having only one customer for a while, we started getting inquiries from those who were involved in accidents with our client and found themselves on the short end of the situation. Secondly, we started some advertising which brought inquiries from other areas. I think we were also getting some word of mouth recognition due to positive outcomes in accident litigation. In some cases the tapes avoided litigation altogether with quick resolution of incidents. We've had reports of the Coast Guard coming aboard at an accident scene, viewing the tape and closing their investigation on the spot. One customer recently saved an estimated $6 million even though some liability on their part was established. Because of the tape at least they weren't stuck with the entire cost of damages.

On a larger scale, in recent years authorities and organizations have been looking into mandating some kind of recording devices.

Your information sheet talks about mandatory requirements for VDR systems. Give us some background about who's writing these regulations and what types of vessels they will affect.

The IMO has recently created a set of standards for something called the "Voyage Data Recorder" or VDR. These standards are quite rigorous, spelling out a long list of specific types of data to be recorded, and that the recording medium be able to survive about any kind of disaster imaginable. These standards have already been mandated on certain types of vessels, primarily passenger vessels and certain large ships.

What should marine electronics dealers know about these and other similar regulations that could affect their customers?

Dealers should become familiar with these and other standards and regulations which affect the different categories of their customers, and specify the equipment appropriate for their needs.

Most, if not all, all the companies that buy your recorder have done so voluntarily and not to satisfy regulations or legal requirements. Why would they choose to do this?

None of the towboat or tugboat companies who have been using Racorder have come under the jurisdiction of these mandated requirements, and most of those probably are unaware of them. They have either had the forsight to see that having an indisputable record of what happened can be some of the best protection in a legal dispute, or seen the effectiveness of Racorder tapes in the hands of their opponent in such a dispute.

Please give us a few real-world examples of how vessel owners have benefitted from having a data recorder aboard.

I could fill a book with stories of incidents where Racorder tapes have saved the day. Besides the example I mentioned already, I was recently told by one captain of an incident just south of Cairo, IL in which he was meeting another vessel in fog. They had agreed on their passing procedure, and then the other vessel began losing control of his position and it was apparent that they were going to collide. The other captain started to "set up his alabi" by stating on the radio for all to hear his current position and actions, but the radar clearly showed he was not where he said he was. Upon being notified that the whole thing was being recorded (radar and all) the other captain said nothing further. The collision occurred, some barges were damaged, and of course the case was settled quickly without litigation and without our customer being stuck with any of the damages because the judge couldn't sort out all the arguments. This is typical of how Racorder tapes are beneficial.

Sometimes the vessel with the recording device is not involved in an accident, it's just in the area and tapes the event, and the tape is then loaned to the parties involved to settle the case. The incident in which a ship which lost control and crashed into the Riverwalk Mall in New Orleans several years ago was recorded in this manner by a nearby vessel and that tape was used by the NTSB in its investigation.

Shortly after Sept 11 of 2001 a towboat operating near Helena, AR was repeatedly buzzed by a crop duster causing great concern. Fortunately he was running Racorder at the time and the tape clearly showed the activities of the aircraft. The FBI used it in their investigation.

Racorder tapes are also being extensively used in company safety training programs.

Does the device record constantly while the boat is underway, or is it triggered by some mechanical or electronic function.

Racorder is normally manually controlled and should be operating in the record mode at all times when the vessel is underway. I think it would be impractical to try to start it just before an incident began. There have been times when someone decided later they would like to review a tape of a situation which at the time didn't seem significant.

Is the recorder interfaced with any electronic equipment besides the radar?

Most installations involve direct connections to one or two VHF radios so as to catch conversations involving meeting and passing other vessels. The radio needs to be modified to extract receive and transmit audio. These modifications are quite easy in most radios, but the design of some models make it difficult. Some dealers are uncomfortable with the idea of modifying a radio in this manner, but most don't have a problem with it. There are some logistical problems involving exchanging radios for maintenance, this is usually addressed by keeping one or more spares with the modification installed. A good alternative is a wheelhouse microphone, but that requires acceptance by the crew involved. This may become more common in the future. Some customers use a separate monitor receiver which may not be suitable under all conditions.

As for other equipment, it is possible but there really hasn't been a request for it. It's amazing how much information can be derived from the radar picture, such as approximate engine power and rudder position from the wheelwash often visible on the radar. A wheelhouse microphone picks up a lot of information about engine power, whether in forward or reverse in many cases and conversations not involving the radios actually hardwired to the recorder.

All this becomes quite apparent when you see a group of experienced pilots watching and critiquing a Racorder tape. Those of us who work in offices would never think that much information is there.

Once your Racorder is installed aboard a vessel, is the system automatic? What's required of the operator?

Most of our customers fall into one of two categories, each of which will operate Racorder in a slightly different manner. First is the "Line Boat", typically a towboat transporting barges up and down river systems such as the lower Mississippi. They run 24/7, and the wheelhouse crew will stand six-hour watches. It just so happens that a standard T-120 video tape runs a little over six hours in Racorder. The boat keeps a library of twelve tapes aboard, and the standard procedure is to change tapes at watch change, taking a new tape from the library and after rewinding put the tape just removed back into the library queue. This results in a three day history of vessel operations being available at all times. The operator simply inserts the tape, presses the large plainly marked and illuminated "RECORD" button on the front panel and goes about his business.

The other category, the tugboat or fleet vessel, may leave the dock for one or more specific assignments such as docking a ship. These vessels may keep one or more longer tapes such as the T-180 which will record around nine hours in Racorder, and the crew will start the tape upon leaving the dock and stop it upon returning. Depending on how busy the vessel is, one tape could record a day or more of operations.

Optional features of Racorder which can be configured by the installer are an alarm which notifies the operator when the end of the tape is reached and automatic rewind and begin recording again at the end of the tape.

What role do you see for the marine electronics dealer in the sales, service and installation of a recorder?

We prefer to work with dealers in the sales, installation and service of Racorder systems. Since it is very important to ensure that the system is working properly at all times, most customers will readily allow periodic inspections and PM calls. When we had only one customer we immediately saw the importance of this concept because we wanted to establish a good track record of incidents where Racorder would save the day, and the last thing we (or the customer) wanted was for something to happen and then find out that the tape was unuseable for some reason. The customer readily agreed and paid us to periodically catch all their vessels and do any maintenance necessary. This allows us to catch things like video heads becoming dirty or worn before actual failure, or a cable being left unplugged resulting in no audio or video being recorded, and has been responsible for the fact that there have been very few actual failures in eight years of operation. This also allowed us to stay close to the installations and identify any weaknesses in the design which needed attention.

Has your product evolved technically over the years in the functions it offers or its sophistication?

The first units, installed in 1995, are from our 1990 design and are still operating today with a remarkably good service history. The mechanical portion has proven remarkably rugged and trouble-free considering its 24/7 operation over the years. Even the video heads, which we were originally thinking we'd be lucky to get six-eight months of service out of, are running typically 2-4 years. These units have undergone numerous upgrades as we've made improvements in the radar interface circuitry and audio circuits and added features based on customer and operator input. Our current production, designed in 1999, retains much the same rugged mechanics and is chock full of features and design elements based on our experience with these first installations and how they interfaced with the operators, as well as input from the customer and crews. None of these units have yet required replacement of the video heads, some after over two years of service. We still maintain a close watch on units operating in our area and work closely with dealers servicing units further away.

Towboats are a principal market segment for your equipment. What other types of vessels are frequent users as well?

Most units sold so far have been to towboats operating on the Mississippi River and its tributaries and tugboat operators operating along the US east and Gulf coast areas. One of our dealers installed a unit on an oil rig in the Caspian Sea, I think to monitor ice movements. In the past we have focused on nearby installations while we established the reliability and serviceability of our product. We are now looking to dealers to help us expand our market into other areas.

Have you sold any Racorders to the recreational side of the industry? Do you forsee growing demand in the future?

We haven't targeted the recreational market, thinking they don't have the liability exposure that the commercial operators have, and probably wouldn't feel as much of a need for our product. We would look to our dealer network to determine if there's a market possibility there.

What's next for Racorder in the area of technical development and market penetration?

On the drawing board and the test bench is our "Next Generation" Racorder which will take the best elements of our previous designs and add things like new recording media such as DVD, expanded data recording, better video resolution, and the ability to optionally meet current and future "VDR" standards.

Racorder's main design engineer has spent many years as a marine electronics service technician, and has kept simplicity and ease of service as primary design criteria. We'll keep the easy to operate and service features we've developed and the reliability and ruggedness of our product and add features and technology not necessarily on the cutting edge but as they become proven and reliable and then only as they significantly enhance the performance of the product and serve the customer's needs.

We plan to continue servicing the areas of the industry which are not required to meet VDR standards with a low cost and easy to use product which has the capability to optionally add the features necessary to meet VDR standards while keeping the cost down. We hope in that process to reduce the average cost of a VDR installation to a small fraction of the current cost.

As in the past, if a dealer or customer thinks a slightly different version of our product would better serve their needs, we'll work closely with them to provide it, and likely make that a part of future designs.