A pilot scheme to replace the human voice with an automated weather and safety announcement is being tried out at Stornoway Coastguard Operations centre – and is not being welcomed by seafarers.

The Maritime and Coastguard Agency’s three-month pilot of a text-to-voice announcement system is currently under way at Stornoway, with a meeting being planned for the end of this week (Friday November 23rd) to evaluate the initial impact of the new system.

Stornoway Coastguard broadcasts maritime weather and navigational safety Information on VHF and MF (medium frequency) radio as part of the Global Maritime Distress and Safety Systems (GMDSS).

Since 2004 various automatic broadcast systems have been introduced, including a weather bulletin broadcast every three hours after being recorded by a staff member speaking the information.

In 2017 a text-to-speech system was trialled, with an automated voice translating text entered by Coastguard officers. That system took too long to process the information it needed for accuracy and the voice was, according to Stornoway’s Maritime Operations Controller Angus Maciver, “unsuitable for the service we are trying to provide to our customers”.

Mr Maciver told welovestornoway.com: “There are pros and cons to an automated text-to-speech system. The benefits include improving quality through a consistent voice and presentation, without the background noise issues which could affect the recording of a voice broadcast, such as phones ringing and other operations room activity.

“The system needs time to bed in and to acquire a lexicon of the maritime vocabulary we use, especially related to place names and standard maritime communication phrases.

"It also has to learn not just pronunciation, but enunciation – in other words ensuring what it says is clear and comprehensible to mariners especially when transmitted over the radio.

“Earlier this year MCA procured a different voice system and, as we have some staff with expertise in the system, it was decided it should be initially trialled and evaluated here over three months.”

The trial has been in place for just one month and a number of seafarers have been reporting back to Stornoway coastguard on their feelings – by email, over the radio and in person when they meet uniformed Coastguard officers on duty.

They’ve also been talking amongst themselves on social media, sharing comments about the new system. One leisure sailor posted: “We are HATING the robot that has replaced the coastguards doing the weather forecasts on VHF. This incomprehensible zombie voice must be a hazard. Is anyone protesting? Please bring back those friendly Stornoway voices!”

Another said: “The routine provides familiarity which is worth everything when it comes to radio broadcasts in an emergency.”

And a regular fisherman said: “Not only is it difficult to understand, but I find myself zoning out of it which would not be ideal if I really needed the forecast. Bring back the human forecast!”

Angus Maciver said: “We’re getting a lot of feedback seeming to indicate that it is not finding as much favour as a human voice. The quality of the automated voice doesn’t reflect the warmth of a human voice, which has great value for a lonely mariner.

“Automated systems can have great benefits to a customer and we are all used to hearing them when we phone utilities or book appointments on telephone systems. Part of their value is that they are more consistent, and the quality of the content which we broadcast hasn’t changed.

“There are pros and cons either way and it’s something we need to weigh up very carefully in providing feedback on this pilot.”

Comments received will be included in the evaluation, the first step of which is a meeting at Stornoway later this week, with an infrastructure officer from the MCA at Fareham. From there recommendations will be made and will go to the MCA’s head of maritime operations for further consideration.

In the meantime, automated voice broadcasts of weather and maritime safety

Information will continue for the foreseeable future from Stornoway.