How a St. John’s company is using simulation technology to save lives in the offshore
VIRTUAL MARINE IS a business that was born out of a need to find a better way to train workers to evacuate offshore oil installations using lifeboats.
The St. John’s-based company has used the engineering horsepower present in Newfoundland and Labrador’s capital, and the province’s expertise in operating in a harsh marine environment, to solve a problem that’s dogged the oil and gas industry for decades. “If you look at the stats currently in play, if you have an incident when you are lowering a lifeboat during training, there is a 56 per cent chance of injury or death,” says Anthony Patterson, Virtual Marine’s president and CEO.
That’s an all-too-common occurrence, especially for something that is supposed to train offshore workers how to safely launch and operate a lifeboat in case of an emergency evacuation at sea. That’s why in 2003, Memorial University and its Fisheries and Marine Institute approached companies involved in Newfoundland and Labrador’s offshore oil industry about an idea on how to improve training.
A small research grant was initiated by Memorial University and its Marine Institute to look at the issue. Virtual Marine was formed in 2004 to commercialize the technology that came out of that research program. However, over the years, the research and development efforts to find a safer and more effective approach to lifeboat training have resulted in simulation technology that has industrial heavyweights such as Shell and MAERSK turning to Virtual Marine for its training solutions.
Those companies seek out Virtual Marine because it’s developed lifeboat simulators that have operating controls from lifeboat manufacturers, virtual models of specific production facilities or drilling rigs and evacuations in emergency situations such as fire, collisions, and weather and sea conditions that aren’t possible to mimic in conventional training conditions. The company has also developed hardware and software that is customized so offshore staff can learn to use a company’s lifeboats while launching from their offshore facilities based on its emergency evacuation plans.
Patterson, who joined Virtual Marine in 2007 after a 20- year career in the Canadian Coast Guard and seven years with the Marine Institute, says the way lifeboat training is done hasn’t changed much since the Titanic sank in 1912 even though the equipment has changed dramatically. Conventional lifeboat safety training is done in a harbour or somewhere with a sea coast where trainees learn how to launch a lifeboat into the water from a structure.
That might seem like an ideal training situation. But it isn’t. Patterson says this training isn’t done at night or in fog or rough seas because companies can’t expose their trainees to this kind of risk. As a result, they aren’t being trained to deal with the kind of conditions they would experience in an actual emergency. It also isn’t ideal because when trainees use real equipment outdoors, if they make mistakes, it can result in injury and even death for those involved in the training.
“We’ve brought in very realistic operational conditions, so people can learn from working in a simulated environment, which replicates the real environment,” Patterson says. “We get rid of the risk. You can learn how to do the job and not hurt yourself.”
Virtual Marine’s simulators have proven to be popular with the oil and gas industry, where lifeboat training is a legislated requirement and companies are looking for better and safer ways to do it. But, like any company looking to grow and remain relevant, Virtual Marine continues to expand its services. Patterson says the firm used to just sell training equipment. However, it has built certified training programs that it sells to the industry. It also offers ice management training, fast rescue craft simulation and platform orientation programs using virtual reality. The company has also diversified its client base over the years by offering training and simulators to the military and coast guard.
Patterson is optimistic about the future of the company, and the oil and gas industry, despite the struggles the sector has experienced since 2014. Some forecasts see global offshore investments rising to US$230 billion from US$155 billion in 2018. That means more people will need to be hired and companies will have to train those workers in lifeboat safety and evacuation. If this occurs, it will mean more business opportunities for Virtual Marine not just in Atlantic Canada, but around the world.
The need for better lifeboat training solutions isn’t going away in the oil and gas and marine industries. In January, five people were injured on the Carnival Cruises’ vessel Arcadia when the ship’s lifeboat broke from its cabling and fell into the sea during a routine training exercise.
Virtual Marine continues to innovate, and Patterson says with the sector emerging from a four-year downturn and oil prices slowly improving, the company and its 19 full-time employees are in a good place. “I think we are coming on the other side of the downturn with a solution and a product that is exactly what industry needs and they see value in and the industry is growing,” Patterson says. “We have a solid reputation. The industry knows us and they will bring us along with them as we grow.”