Interview: RADM Peter Sparkes, CEO of the UK Hydrographic Office

Rear Adm. Peter Sparkes, UKHO
Image courtesy UKHO

Published Oct 10, 2022 11:08 PM by Tom Cox

The Maritime Executive’s Tom Cox recently sat down with RADM Peter Sparkes, UKHO's CEO, to discuss the pace of digital change and his thoughts on the future of navigation.

TC: Now that the pandemic is mostly behind us, how are things going behind the scenes at UKHO?

It’s going well at UKHO, really well. On the back of what have been two very challenging years for everyone, the UKHO has emerged from COVID-19 in good order. We have continued to support all our stakeholders and our customers and managed to maintain the transition that we're working on at the moment to take the UKHO forward.

TC: I can imagine a lot of remote working. 

Yes, historically we've been an organization that has required people to work in the office, but now we've adopted a hybrid system, which is a really inclusive way of working. Clearly our Defence colleagues have to come into work, because of the classified work we do, but working remotely allows us to realize enormous benefits, recruiting skilled staff from further afield, attracting more of the right skills, notably the digital skills that we need and bringing them into the organization. So we now have colleagues that work all over the UK.

TC: So we've covered your bold decision recently to phase out paper charts. How are things going with the project?

It’s going really well. The decline of paper charts has been long foretold, but there has been a notable acceleration during recent years as a consequence of COVID-19. 10 years ago in 2011, 80 percent of what we sold was paper based. In 2021, at the height of the COVID pandemic, 84 percent of what was sold was digital. And just 16 percent was paper.

The decline of paper products and services has been at a rate of advance of 17 percent a year. So it's not a decision on financial terms. It is a recognition that paper charts are not what our users need. And we've done exhaustive analysis finding that only seven percent of the 16 percent of people who actually buy a paper chart use it for its primary means of navigation.

Many of our users are colleges and people who buy paper charts for regulatory compliance. So our view is that what we need to be able to do is to shift users to the digital product, which is significantly safer than a paper product.

We feel strongly that we need to be a customer-centric organization that supports our users and the safety of navigation. And so by investing in the next generation of digital services, we feel that we can make barriers smaller and ships safer.

TC: So the pandemic presumably encouraged a lot of owners to move towards digitizing their voyage planning. Did you see any accelerating?

The pandemic required us all to think about working remotely. One of the things that we did find, was that the physical contact and transaction of paper products may have been a reason why people shifted to digital services. Digital services were more accessible, easier to access, and required fewer interfaces

But that's not the only reason. I think this has been coming for quite some time.  I'm a navigator by background and I used paper charts, and they're really good, but they only tell you where you used to be, not where you are. If you are driving a 250,000-tonne tanker at 12 knots you're going 400 yards every minute. It's a big difference.  

TC: Can you tell our readers a little bit more about yourself? I know you have a long history at sea, as you were saying, and have served in the Navy.

So I'm very fortunate to have had a fabulous career in the Royal Navy, which gave me a tremendous opportunity. I joined as a graduate at age 22 and I specialized as a warfare officer. So I was a navigator and navigation officer and a navigator and communications officer. I have served on operations around the world, including Somalia as the captain of a frigate, and in Antarctica as the captain of the Ice Patrol ship.

TC: Very cool! I can imagine that it was a cold voyage.

Yes, that was pretty cold. Actually, I don't ever need or want to be that cold again! But I had a fabulous opportunity on the tour and learned lots. It was a real education for what I do now as well, because we were surveying down at Benton using a multibeam echo sounder. But I was acutely aware that for much of my time down there, I was operating on a blank chart. There were no depths. We were making those charts as we were down there. 

It’s fascinating how much the environment had changed from when many people first went down there in the 1830s, notably whalers. We recognized when we were down there that with so many cruise ships and other visiting vessels, it was incumbent upon us to provide the latest and safest information possible to those ships, because the risk to life was significant. It’s the most inhospitable seaway in the world.

TC: A very interesting career. And you were also responsible for rolling out electronic charts in the Royal Navy, the Warship ECDIS rollout. 

Yes. It was between 2003 and 2006. I was the Project Officer and it represented a very significant cultural shift for the Navy, much as we're seeing now with some of those who are reluctant to adopt digital charting. It required close engagement to show people the benefits of digital navigation. And it was at a time when the Royal Navy

was experiencing a number of navigational accidents per year. I'm happy to say, touch wood, since the introduction, the Royal Navy has not experienced a grounding incident where a ship has been fitted with WECDIS.

But prior to that, there were one or two navigational accidents a year where a Royal Navy ship was grounded, costing millions of pounds. And what we managed to do with the rollout of WECDIS was mitigate that risk very significantly. So there haven't been any groundings since.  

TC: There are currently over 18,000 digital charts managed by UKHO. Is there going to be a need to increase that number as you phase out the remaining paper charts?

We have global coverage through our ADMIRALTY Vector Chart Service. What we will need to do as we embark on the development of the next generation of electronic navigational charts, the S-100 suite, is restructure our entire data holdings in a gridded format. That will enable us to more accurately chart the world, but also provide layered services that are far more comprehensive.

TC: That's a massive undertaking.

Yes, it is. But we've been undertaking it for some time and we've got a pretty coherent solution and we're looking forward to rolling it out. But it's reflective of the scale of change and the ambition for change that we have at UKHO as the fundamental precursor to our digital transformation.

TC: Do you foresee any areas where a lack of satcom coverage will necessitate paper charts to be held as backup?

I think that's a good question. Many of us know about Elon Musk and Starlink, a constellation of low earth satellites, but you'll also be aware of the very impressive development that Inmarsat and OneWeb have undertaken recently to increase their constellation coverage. I think connectivity is going to improve dramatically by the end of this decade.

While we will be able to update our electronic navigational charts far more effectively in the future, satellite connectivity won't preclude the operational electronic navigation chart because you will be able to operate offline as well as online. We won't be streaming electronic navigational charts.

What we will be providing is updates, using the connectivity. And this is a key point: if you lose your connectivity, your digital chart will be even more up to date than a paper chart, because you had automatic updates right up to the point that you were disconnected.

TC: Do you have any final thoughts to share with our readers?

I think the key point for me is that we stand at the threshold of significant change in our sector. I am very fortunate at the UKHO to work with colleagues who are absolutely passionate about what they do and are really invested in making that change. We are public servants who want to ensure the mariners at sea have the best possible information to navigate safely.