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fixing rope ladder

Safety solutions for age-old maritime challenges


Disclaimer: between 0:27-0:33 in the above video, a non-compliant ladder is shown rather than the compliant one stated in the text. We apologise for this error and working to resolve it.


One of our recent grants is helping a small design company develop a big idea that could save the lives of people doing one of the world’s most dangerous jobs - ships’ pilots. Helm Innovation Ltd is bringing products to market that began as creative projects by a collective of students who graduated from the Royal College of Art in 2018, and is now run by Madelaine Dowd. Helm Innovation’s work is providing a long-awaited solution to an age-old safety risk that still kills and injures ships’ pilots.

Pilots join a ship to safely steer it in and out of a berth, travelling from the harbour in a small boat, then climbing aboard. The most perilous part of the pilot’s working day is when embarking or disembarking from a small boat onto or off the ship. This happens in all weathers, in rough seas and often during hours of darkness. Almost incredibly, however far some aspects of marine technology have developed, the standard means of access to a ship for a pilot coming aboard is little more than a wobbly ladder made of rope and wood.

The designers at Helm Innovation Ltd are using their creativity to come up with solutions – and with help from a Lloyd’s Register Foundation grant, some of these are making their way onto the marketplace.

The impact of our grant to Helm is potentially great, making safer conditions for one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. Around 1.5 million vessels across the world use require the services of pilots, who need to get on board ship quickly. Although helicopters are occasionally used, most transfers still take place between a small boat and the ship. However, every year some are injured or killed while getting on or off ships using a method that has evolved very little with the passage of time.



Madelaine Dowd, who is now Helm’s CEO, explains: “Lives of pilots are put at risk because of dangerous ladders or the rigging between them. We’ve developed Embark®, a new system that will make this much safer in future.”

Embark®  combines two products - Dynaweb and the Cross Lock System (CLS) – which have already won Lloyd’s Register Foundation awards for ‘Best innovation and business plan’ as well as ‘Most immediate life-saving potential’ in 2016. This allowed the initial concept designs to be developed for exhibiting and marketing purposes.

Dynaweb, which also won a Safety Grand Challenge award from the Foundation in 2017, is a next-generation pilot ladder that delivers confidence and safety to pilots. Made from innovative materials, it’s three times lighter and ten times stronger than existing ladders. It also swings and twists less than conventional ladders, while retaining vertical flexibility.

CLS is a pilot ladder rigging mechanism designed to eliminate human error, while creating a method of communication between the pilot and the crew. Research has shown that human error in pilot ladder rigging is one of the leading causes of pilot injury and death. CLS eradicates this through a fail-safe cleat mechanism. 

Helm funded research and development of Embark®,  to get to the prototype stage. Then the Foundation stepped in with a grant to manufacture a test rig to stress test the patentable components in the system, along with rental of testing facilities.

The grant has enabled Helm to start applying for a patent, having developed a prototype and tested design concepts. They’ve also used the grant to adapt to some of the challenges of Covid-19, for example buying uniform for employees to wear on Zoom meetings, to give a professional impression to new clients.


“Covid-19 presented some challenges during this award that we had to adapt to,” says Madelaine.

“Initially we were planning on using the funds for full-scale testing of our design. However, after reviewing the situation, we decided the funds would be better spent getting a naval architect’s advice.”

Helm is now working with Morek Design Engineering to find a way of fixing Embark®,   to ships.

“This will expand our patenting potential and set us up for full-scale testing in the future,” says Madelaine.

“It has also enabled the team to do a risk analysis of the design with experienced maritime designers and to get new perspectives on things we had missed. This has changed our perspective on the design as well as the manufacturing.”

Our grant has been pivotal in bringing Helm’s life-saving innovations to a wider audience, Madelaine explains:

“This funding has given me the confidence to invest in the company and the reassurance that we are on the right track. Gaining recognition from Lloyd's Register and the Lloyd's Register Foundation has been fundamental towards convincing the maritime industry that we are a game-changing solution. It's such positive validation and a reminder to me of how important our products are as well as the responsibility we have to get our product out into the world.”

Madelaine has also received a £5K grant through the InnovateUK Young Innovators Award 2020/21, and a year’s mentorship. Helm Innovation have now partnered with Plymouth University, who will help them with setting up testing facilities to continue research and development, with the intention of becoming a Lloyd’s Register-certified industry safety standard.

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