Computer guidance systems can only provide so much help to fallible crews, according to one expert.

By David Z. Morris
June 17, 2017

The U.S. Navy’s USS Fitzgerald struck the Philippine container ship ACX Crystal near Japan on Saturday morning, leaving the destroyer seriously damaged and at least seven sailors missing.

According to one expert, there’s a good chance the collision was caused by the errors of human crew, despite the presence of onboard systems intended to prevent deadly collisions at sea.

Tom Dyer, a naval expert who spoke to Wired, says it’s likely that both the U.S Navy vessel and the container ship carried radar-based collision avoidance systems. Much like the systems in advanced automobiles, those systems are designed to not only see a ship’s surroundings, but also calculate whether it’s headed for a crash.

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It’s possible those alert systems failed, Dyer says. But it’s far more likely a human pilot or captain on one of the ships made one or more missteps that proved impossible to correct.

“Maneuvering vessels of this size is not easy,” Dyer told Wired, “and they don’t respond quickly if someone makes a mistake.”

The area where the collision took place, southwest of Yokosuka Naval Base, is near the heavily trafficked shipping lane that leads to Tokyo Bay. The complexity of the decision-making required to safely navigate such congestion is part of why shipping companies and researchers, including giant Maersk, are exploring the potential of more robust computer guidance system, or even fully autonomous ships.

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