Getting to grips with ECDIS

ECDIS is becoming mandatory across the shipping sector for safer navigation, but are operators ready for it? Two ECDIS instructors shed some light on the industry's familiarity with the technology (or lack thereof), and offer tips for a smooth transition from paper-based to electronic navigation.

The shipping industry's transition from time-honoured paper navigation charts to digital navigation systems has now been underway for long enough that has increasingly come to be seen as the new norm. The shift was heavily prompted by a 2009 ruling by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) making the Electronic Chart Display and Information System (ECDIS) a mandatory technology for an expanding range of commercial ships under the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS).

The requirement's first deadline in July 2012 made ECDIS compulsory for newbuild passenger ships, tankers and dry cargo ships of at least 500gt, 3,000gt and 10,000gt respectively, and in 2014 the next stage of the roll-out will require all existing passenger ships of 500gt and over to implement the system. ECDIS has been presented as a life-saving shift in the way navigation is carried out, a shift that will reduce the incidence of dangerous groundings and bring the advantages of real-time digital route planning to navigators' fingertips.

ECDIS will almost certainly make good on this promise, and is already doing so to a certain extent. But the fact remains that this transition period, the awkward half-step between one paradigm and the next, has thrown up a number of issues for the technology, including grounding incidents that have been at least partly attributed to improper usage of ECDIS. With International Hydrographic Organisation president Robert Ward warning that the rise of electronic navigation is prompting "incredible overconfidence in the data", it's worth asking if operators and their crews have been adequately prepared for the change.

Training is clearly the core of the issue, and maritime liability insurer the London P&I Club has highlighted a general lack of type-specific ECDIS training as a particular problem, with crews at risk of making errors on unfamiliar systems. Ship Technology's Chris Lo spoke to Robyn Harrigan, senior instructor and Becky Hyde, instructor, at training organisation ECDIS Ltd to discuss the issues and the best ways to ensure a smooth transition from paper to digital.

Chris Lo: How far do you think ECDIS and its nuances have penetrated the shipping industry? Do you think there is work left to do to familiarise ship crews with the proper use of ECDIS?

Becky Hyde: Technology still has a long way to go to get it all perfect. There is only about 40% coverage of ENC [electronic navigational charts] throughout the world at the moment, so there is still a long wait for ships to become totally paperless. At the moment many ships have to use their ECDIS in RCDS [raster chart display system] mode which means they have to have paper charts available as a backup.

We are still getting a high demand for generic ECDIS training. There is slowly an increase of the requirement for type-specific training; however this can only be done when companies have decided which ECDIS system they are installing on their vessels.

Robyn Harrigan: The impact of ECDIS at present is having more of an effect with shipping companies that are using ECDIS as their primary means of navigation compared to shipping companies still relying on paper charts.

Where paper charts are still available on a bridge, they are still going to be relied upon by people because they are familiar and it is what all navigators are brought up on. Until paper charts are completely removed from a bridge, they will still have a method of choice, and the majority of the time seafarers will go with their tried and tested method of paper charts.

Re-familiarisation is necessary for many reasons, such as long term sickness, long periods of leave and change of shipping company. However one of the chief reasons which has become apparent to me is that the second officer in most bridge teams is solely in charge of chart updating and route planning on the ECDIS, therefore in my experience, it is the senior officers who are less familiar and even uncomfortable when operating the ECDIS due to these tasks being designated to the second officers.

"In my experience, it is the senior officers who are less familiar when operating the ECDIS."

CL: One of the most important issues seems to be that some operators have carried out generic ECDIS training, but not type-specific training for individual systems. To what extent do ECDIS systems differ from one another, and can it be easy to make mistakes if a crew member is not familiar with a particular system?

BH: The way ENC charts are displayed on every ECDIS system are the same due to the IHO S57 and IHO S52 specifications. However, ECDIS systems themselves differ in many ways due to different menu structures and the way functions are carried out, for example manual corrects and manual position fixing is different with every manufacturer. Each system has its advantages and disadvantages in how it operates.

RH: Even though approved/official ECDIS systems have to have performance standards, this does not make them all function in the same way, like menu structures, sub menu sequences, navigational tool functions, monitoring displays and interrogations, which can all be displayed in a variety of ways. This plethora of ECDIS is the reason why navigators must complete a type-specific course on every system that is from a different manufacturer if they are to work with them onboard.

CL: ECDIS Ltd has combined generic and type-specific training into a single course - what are the advantages of this integration?

BH: Generic and type-specific training can be combined if enquired about during the booking process. This means the generic course can be completed on their required system and therefore a type-specific certificate can also be issued. The advantages of this integration are that students are using this one ECDIS system for a whole week rather than just one day for a type-specific course, so become more familiar with the system.

"ECDIS makes good navigators better but makes bad ones worse."

CL: Can overconfidence in digital navigation data be a risk for ECDIS users, and could it have played a role in some of the groundings that have been attributed to improper ECDIS use?

BH: It is impossible to say for certain if ECDIS has in fact aided collision. ECDIS can help improve navigational safety but only if it is used correctly. A good saying is that ECDIS makes good navigators better but makes bad ones worse. If people are unfamiliar with the system they may not fully understand how it all works and what they can get out of it. Proper setup and management needs to be in place to ensure it is used correctly; this could be in the form of standard company procedures or check off cards for various operating conditions, for example confined waters planning.

RH: Over-reliance and complacency on the ECDIS only becomes a danger when the officer is not cross-checking the information, proving the electronic navigational equipment right or wrong. SOPs [standard operating procedures] and checklists can help navigators set up the display in varying conditions.

CL: What are the most common human errors in ECDIS use that you have observed in training sessions and in ECDIS-related grounding incidents? Setting incorrect safety contours seems to be one common theme...

BH: The most common human errors are not setting up the display correctly and not using all alarms available to their full advantage. The use of a safety frame / anti grounding cone will alarm when it comes into contact with any potential dangers.

RH: In my opinion the most common human error is not actually understanding what the ECDIS can do; not knowing how to create a passage plan, not recognising the differences between a RNC [raster navigational chart] and ENC and not being able to make a fix using the ECDIS.

"Computer-based training is still being used and often has many weaknesses."

CL: Can an ECDIS unit be installed and positioned on a bridge in a way that makes its use easier or more effective?

BH: An ECDIS unit can be installed and positioned anywhere on a bridge. The most ergonomic and effective position is at the centre forward of the bridge so the navigator can constantly monitor events out of the window and also check their ECDIS. Repeaters or a second ECDIS could be installed on the bridge wings to aid in confined waters and pilotage.

CL: Over the next few years, what steps would you like to see taken to encourage a smoother transition to widespread ECDIS use?

BH: Widespread ECDIS use will only be done properly if people have had the adequate training required. Computer-based training is still being used and often has many weaknesses. I am sure the industry will soon come up with the idea of refresher ECDIS training so that everyone is kept up-to-date with the use of ECDIS and any recent changes to regulations.

RH: Standardisation across all ECDIS manufactures is something that many of our delegates have queried. My suggestion is ensuring that navigators conduct an ECDIS familiarisation to revalidate their ECDIS certificate.

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