How British Sailors Learn to Drive 700-ft Destroyers

Parallel parking a car is hard enough for most of us; just imagine trying to back the 686-ft, 22,000-ton HMS Illustrious into a stall at Plymouth Harbor. Officers at Britannia Royal Naval College (BRNC) in Dartmouth, England don't have to. A newly upgraded training simulator teaches them to command the Royal Navy's biggest boats without ever getting their feet wet.

The photo-realistic bridge simulator is the most advanced of its kind in the Her Majesty's service. Bridge simulators, of which there are four in the UK (one at Dartmouth, one at Faslane, and a pair at HMS Collingwood), are important training tools. They allow young naval officers to learn the ropes of commanding warships under the watchful eye of senior officers without the risk of injury or massive property damage. It's like driver's ed for billion dollar boats.

Marine IT specialists Transas performed the recent upgrade to the Dartmouth simulator. The system consists of a generic bridge mock-up situated in front of a 180-degree arc of digital displays. These are controlled by "the equivalent of ten high-spec gaming computers," according to a Ministry of Defence press release.

The image data is stitched together by the system based on an exhaustive series of HD photography by Transas. While older systems featured graphics that looked more like a Dire Straits video than Crysis, this upgrade shows an incredible level of detail—everything from famous buildings to the reflection of neon lights on the harbor waters gets an accurate depiction. It took them five days (and nights) to fully capture Portsmouth Harbour alone. On top of this life-like background, the system simulates virtually every kind of weather imaginable—sleet, snow, typhoons, and hurricanes up to class 7—for every ship in the British Navy (save for the brand new Type 45s). It even has a "binocular" zoom view for the captain. The effect is reportedly so life-like that participants have a tendency to sway in time to the motion of the virtual ocean.

"I sat at the back of the room and watched a group of senior officers on a command course swaying around," said Lieutenant Sam Stephens, head of navigation at Dartmouth. "Some people have even asked if it's on hydraulics. It's not. It simply tricks the mind."

This isn't just a fancy means to train future harbour valets, naval officers can practice a huge variety of possible scenarios. "You can run through any scenario on here that you wouldn't want to try for real—it's a safe environment—as well as everyday maneuvers, such as replenishing at sea, and navigating in fog or poor weather conditions," explained Lt. Stephens. [Wired - Ministry of Defence - Image: Royal Navy]