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US Navy will scrap touchscreen controls on its destroyers

The US Navy will replace the touchscreen on destroyers within the next 18 to 24 months, reverting instead to conventional helm controls and physical throttles. he move comes after the National Transportation Safety Board released an accident report from a 2017 collision, which cites the design of the ship’s controls as a factor in the accident.

On August 21st, 2017, the USS John S. McCain collided with the Alnic MC, a Liberian oil tanker, off the coast of Singapore. The report provides a detailed overview of the actions that led to the collision: when crew members tried to split throttle and steering control between consoles, they lost control of the ship, putting it into the path of the tanker. The crash killed 10 sailors and injured 48 aboard the McCain.

Following the incident, the Navy conducted fleet-wide surveys, and according to Rear Admiral Bill Galinis, the Program Executive Officer for Ships, personnel indicated that they would prefer mechanical controls. Speaking before a recent Navy symposium, he described the controls as falling under the “‘just because you can doesn’t mean you should’ category,” and that ship systems were simply too complicated. He also noted that they’re looking into the design of other ships to see if they can bring some system commonalities between different ship classes.

The switch will affect all DDG-51 class ships using the Integrated Bridge and Navigation System. You should see the first change in summer 2020. The first in-service ship to make the leap will be the USS Ramage, while the first brand new destroyer to drop touchscreens will be the USS Ted Stevens.

The decision isn’t so much a flat-out rejection of technology as an acknowledgment that it has to make sense and be easy to use. Program Executive Officer for Ships Rear Admiral Bill Galinis noted that the feedback slotted into the “just because you can doesn’t mean you should” mindset. The Navy adopted touchscreens without considering that the system was “overly complex,” and that there should be “bridge commonality” to help sailors adjust if they’re transferred to another ship.

This isn’t to say the Navy is giving up on bridge touchscreens altogether. However, Navy chief engineer Rear Admiral Lorin Selby noted that any interface needed to be consistent and help crews “quickly pick up” on a given situation. Warships need to be intuitive to operate the consequences are serious if they aren’t.

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