Equipped with considerable expertise in autonomous technologies, the Finnish tech powerhouse Groke Technologies is on a quest to make seafaring safer, one vessel at a time.
Groke’s initial ambition is to serve our domestic market, in partnership with Mitsubishi Corporation, Japan’s largest trading company.
AQ signed on in 2019 as a design and research partner to help build their situational awareness product suite. After an initial round of foundational research, we built proof-of-concepts with the Groke team and conducted rounds of customer validation to refine the product’s value proposition. Embedded within the software team, we set the design direction and designed the user interface, while supporting a wide range of sales and marketing activities.
“Out of the ten companies we considered, AQ stood out for many reasons. Our ideas and thinking were aligned from day one, which gave us confidence that the collaboration would be beneficial for both companies.” – Iiro Lindborg, Groke’s Co-founder and VP Customer Solutions & Concepts on how he found us.
Seeking a foundational understanding of the seafaring environment, our team spent days in the field. We boarded different vessels - including a memorable overnight trip on a cargo ship from Hiroshima to Fukuoka - observing and learning from different crew members.
Observing the crew’s work and life on board brought invaluable insights as to what was important as they worked to ensure safe passage to their destination, and what challenges they grappled with.
The eyes of the ship
A situational awareness system monitors what’s happening around the vessel. It is the eyes of the vessel, seeing and detecting all static and dynamic objects around it through a combination of sensor data:
- AIS, Automatic Identification System that uses transceivers on ships to broadcast and receive location
- Radar, detection system that uses radio waves to determine the range, angle, or velocity of objects
- Maps, sea charts, compasses, and wind readings
- 225 degree day and thermal camera
Groke developed a proprietary 225 degree camera with integrated night vision - a boon for bridge crews who rely on visual confirmation through binoculars. The introduction of this camera, combined with other sensor data, will provide greater visibility to crew so they can make safer and smarter navigation decisions.
Crews depend on a motley collection of tools for navigation, including paper maps, charts and logbooks, and digital systems such as RADAR and ECDIS. Our design needed to consider how the product would complement this existing ecosystem of inputs.
Onboard, crew are always on the go, scanning the view from the window, reviewing their sea charts and checking other devices. For better mobility and access, we decided to develop the situational awareness platform for tablets.
A tablet that can be passed among crew members also has the power to democratize access to information. During crew interviews, we heard many stories of how tricky it is for crew to question a superior and how dangerous it can be if a concern is withheld, a conundrum stemming from the rigid hierarchy of on board culture.
A well-designed tool can enhance the crews’ communication and decision-making abilities on the bridge, inviting fluidity in the conversation while respecting the command structure.
Designing for the open sea
Navigational technology in the maritime industry has not seen major upgrades in the last thirty years. The aesthetics of the tools on board reflect that, widening the gap with modern smartphones that crew carry in their pockets.
Groke had a fresh aesthetic in mind, and together with our partner Alvaro Arregui, we developed a visual language of the platform that would:
- Provide a high level of accuracy, accessibility and legibility across platforms
- Strip away all the excess ornamentation which makes other products age poorly
- Respect useful visual conventions of onboard displays to enable fluid, accurate use across tools
- Set a new standard for user interface that accelerates design change within the maritime industry
Working in the dark
Crew often travel overnight, in low visibility conditions and relying on radar, AIS and lights from other ships. At night, any light pollution can make it difficult to spot approaching vessels. Screens must generate as little light as possible while still being easy to understand at a glance.
To minimize any excess light from the device, we designed a dark interface and paid special attention to color contrast to ensure legibility. The devices themselves were also chosen for their low wattage specs.
Designed for touch
We designed the situational awareness system to facilitate ease of use and avoid “mistaps,” which is especially crucial in congested areas. We also worked to ensure gestures were familiar and intuitive, taking inspiration from their current equipment and technology the crew would be familiar with.
Crew members are usually spread across the bridge, busy with tasks like confirming key information on a paper chart and keeping lookout through binoculars. To develop a system that wouldn’t rely solely on sight, we turned to sound notifications.
Other hardware on the bridge are equipped with sound alerts to warn of potentially dangerous situations. In our research, we found that they’re usually turned off because the frequent beeping causes annoyance or confusion. We sought to design a series of sounds that are audible on the loud bridge, striking a balance between being pleasing and calling for attention at just the right times.
Together with customers
One unique aspect of our collaboration with Groke is that the product design process incorporates ongoing feedback from end-customers. It’s one thing for our teams in Tokyo (AQ) and Turku (Groke) to work in the comfort of our home offices. It’s quite another to project ourselves onto cramped vessels that are subject to all kinds of weather conditions and collision risks!
Our Japanese researchers have been carrying out research with captains and key vessel personnel for two years and counting. Once the pandemic hit, we got creative and developed new capabilities. For example, we now have processes to get a lab environment to participants’ homes and offices as efficiently and reliably as possible.
Through ongoing research, we’ve built up a high level of domain knowledge and it’s been a game changer to have their voice be part of the design process, providing feedback and details from the field to enrich the product discussions.
In addition, we work closely with Groke’s business development members so that research plays a strategic role in strengthening customer relationships.
“Working with AQ has been really exciting and we have been able to work really efficiently throughout our collaboration, although the global pandemic has meant that we have not met face to face for over a year and a half now. But with efficient use of virtual tools, working with AQ has been really fruitful.” – Iiro Lindborg, Groke’s Co-founder and VP Customer Solutions & Concepts
The Situational Awareness system is currently undergoing pilot tests in Finland and Japan, gearing up for a major launch in the coming months.
Published November 2021 with thanks to Groke Technologies. The GROKE© word mark and logos are registered trandemarks owned by Groke Technologies Oy.
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