RYA-tips #40 – Autonomous systems and the feedback loop

Zeilen is een combinatie van wetenschap en kunst. En voor wie daar meer over wilt weten schrijft Albert De Nijs, instructeur bij de De Zeezeilers van Marken wekelijks een rubriek met tips&trics van de Royal Yachting Association.

albert de Nijs 4

In our recent articles, we took a philosophical look at navigation. We discussed both the mental process and the tools needed to fix the position.

Electronic systems definitely made position fixing a lot easier, and increased situational awareness. We just need to integrate these systems in our navigation routine, while leaving us involved and in charge.

Monitoring autonomous systems is a difficult task for us. If a system is running as planned, there is not much checking to do. Overreliance on technology can easily lead to a passive role with automation doing its trick. Unplanned actions might attract our attention (what’s it doing now?), but errors of omission (a system is supposed to act but doesn’t) are much harder to notice. We need involvement to remain ‘in the loop’, otherwise the system will be running us.

Let’s take the autopilot for example, an essential piece of equipment for longer (shorthanded) cruises. You can program a route in the chartplotter, and couple the autopilot to follow that route. Without any further input from us, this set-up will bring the boat to its destination. The drawback is that you positioned yourself outside the loop, your input is not needed to continue.

A workaround is to use the autopilot in basic mode, on a selected heading. That way you are involved, your input is needed. You need to check the position relative to the planned track and adjust the heading when needed. The drawback is that you’re not using the unit’s sophisticated capabilities.

Another way to deal with the monotony of monitoring is to use the automation to generate warnings. Especially when following wind-angle on the autopilot vigilance is required. With a shift in wind, the boat adjusts course and the sails remain nicely trimmed. In order to alert the navigator, the autopilot system gives an audio alert for a wind-shift. Technology is then supplying the feedback loop to warn us to monitor that same technology!

Albert de Nijs, Dutch Offshore Sailing Academy