Charting the Way Forward for ECDIS: UKHO's Tom Mellor

ECDIS
File image courtesy Royal Caribbean

By MarEx 2016-04-19 21:06:58

On July 1, 2018 – or the first survey thereafter – internationally trading vessels over 3,000 gt will be required to carry an Electronic Chart Display and Information System (ECDIS), a worldwide sea change for watchstanders and shipowners. 

The United Kingdom Hydrographic Office, or UKHO, has played a pivotal role with the International Hydrographic Organization to set the standards for ECDIS and to track its implementation. UKHO paper and electronic chart data is used by navigators around the world, and the office has close relationships with ECDIS manufacturers, making it well-positioned to offer insight into the system's adoption by the world fleet.

Maritime Executive spoke with the UKHO's Tom Mellor, head of original equipment manufacturer support and digital standards, to learn more about the state of electronic navigation and the remaining challenges facing the rollout of the new technology.

MarEx: Could you tell us briefly about the UKHO and its mission?

Mellor: The United Kingdom Hydrographic Office is the UK’s agency providing hydrographic and geospatial data to mariners and maritime organizations across the world, as well as to the Navy.

MarEx: How has UKHO been facilitating the adoption of ECDIS?

Mellor: In 2011, after the advent of the IMO mandate requiring shipowners to install the system, we started a series of seminars, first entitled “Are You Ready for ECDIS” and now called “Living with ECDIS.” The seminar has gone through four versions, we've taken it to 70 countries and we've seen 4,000 people. It's taken a lot of effort and resource but we've provided it to the maritime industry at no charge.

We've also analyzed the market to give us an indication of ECDIS readiness in the internationally trading fleet.  In September 2014 existing tankers were nine months away from their ECDIS mandate, and only 42 percent were ‘ECDIS-ready’ at that point in the process. It has since risen to over 75 percent. 

The most recent ships to be affected are the cargo ships over 50,000 gt, and at about five months away from their deadline, about two thirds were already using ENC service, well ahead of where tankers were at that point.

Compliance aside, the real showstopper for us is that we've gone past the tipping point, and we're now in a period where the majority of ships (of all types) trading internationally are “living with ECDIS.”

MarEx: Why is the installation rate on cargo vessels outpacing the rate on tankers? 

Mellor: In part, it's that the deadline for cargo vessels has come three years into the overall mandate. They've been able to attend the seminars and speak to their peers and to distributors, so have a higher base level of knowledge and education about the system compared to tanker vessels. There's also the growing realization that this isn't going away, that ECDIS is here to stay. 

The actual number of vessels is smaller, too – there were just under 9,000 tankers (over 3,000 gt) affected last year, and there are only about 3,500 cargo ships (over 50,000 gt) that will have to be ready on July 1, 2016.

MarEx: As the number of installed systems and the number of manufacturers rises, have you seen the cost of ECDIS for the shipowner coming down?

Mellor: There is a drive to lower costs, and there are basic systems on the market that meet the base level of IMO requirements for an ECDIS. But what I've found is that many of these less expensive systems may not have the full range of functions that a mariner may require – they have none of the additional richness that you get with some of the costlier systems. The budget ECDIS equipment is really for the shipping company that just wants to satisfy the IMO requirement, and isn't looking to purchase an Integrated Navigation System

To address the variety of options for the shipowner, we've put together an ECDIS Buyer's Guide given out at our seminars, detailing the many available features on the market; we want to make sure that the shipowner has the information they need to purchase the most suitable system for their fleet.

MarEx: Are operators using paper charts as their back-up system still, and are paper chart orders falling as ENC subscriptions rise?

Mellor: There has been a decline in paper chart sales, but not a sharp fall, and I think that's because mariners are still keeping an extra back-up of paper charts, even if they have a primary ECDIS and a secondary, back-up ECDIS. They still want to have something in the drawer that they can pull out if somehow everything were to go down.

MarEx: Are shipowners or regulators still concerned about the so-called “ECDIS-assisted grounding?

Mellor: You know, it's interesting – before ECDIS we never had “paper chart assisted groundings.” My argument with all of these “ECDIS-assisted groundings” is that if the training were sufficient and if the crews were more competent in ECDIS operation, then you wouldn't necessarily see that phrase used. Currently, the ECDIS training is only about a week long – is that long enough to move from a paper chart to a new, sophisticated form of navigation? I think the answer is no, and I think the industry is finding that we need to have more instruction and perhaps a “buddy system” in place, with a more experienced operator watching over when officers are first getting used to the system.

What we've also found in marine casualty reports involving ECDIS is that mariners are often setting the system up incorrectly, and in doing so they disable the features that were there to improve their safety. If you leave the system's safety depth contour at the factory default of 100 feet of water, suddenly many harbors and coastal areas are “unsafe,” and alarms are going off all over – leading crews to disable the alarm because it is always going off. If you set the system up correctly you wouldn't have that problem and the job of navigation would become a lot easier. 

In one noteworthy case, the crew of a passenger vessel contacted their company and said that they couldn't operate the ECDIS with the audio alarm going off all the time, and asked permission to disable it. The company approved the move, and then went a step further, instructing the rest of the fleet that it would be acceptable to disable the ECDIS alarm on all vessels. The vessel later ran aground on a charted rock, tearing a hole in the hull, and when marine investigators boarded, they found that the ECDIS alarm was shut off, and could not have alerted the bridge team to the impending danger.

We believe that with proper setup, training and system maintenance, ultimately ECDIS will make shipping safer, and we're working to help industry address the training question. In addition to our successful seminars for shipowners, we've made Youtube videos for users on how to install chart products and update the system. At our offices in the UK and Singapore, we have many ECDIS and a technical product support team to investigate problems our customers are having on their systems, so we're well placed to help facilitate the transition.

MarEx: Could more tightly regulated installation procedures solve the problem of improper setup?

There are moves within the ECDIS manufacturer community to start looking at that, and they're putting together draft guidelines on software maintenance, including installation. 

We've been working on the question of excessive alarms from our end too, as they are the number one user complaint about ECDIS. We've recently produced a new version of the presentation library [part of the IHO's standards for manufacturers] to address the issue. When we publish an electronic chart, it contains data, but it doesn't have any colors, symbols, or line styles – it is the manufacturer's ECDIS software that creates the chart image that the mariner sees, based on the IHO's standards.

One of the main goals of this change in the presentation library is to remove the excess alarms that have been triggered by many relatively benign chart features. In the past the IHO has not been involved in that functionality, it's been up to the ECDIS manufacturer. Without any guidance on which objects should alarm, the manufacturers erred on the side of caution and alarmed too many object types. What we've done on the new version of the presentation library is to offer a clear picture to the manufacturers on which objects should generate alarms and which should not. This should help reduce “alarm fatigue” for the watchstander. Also, information such as fairway and anchorage area names now appear on screen, with landmarks, lights and buoys' details viewable via a “hover-over” function, presenting a clearer picture.

We should emphasize that for these improvements to take effect, the system needs to be maintained. We can issue a new presentation library, but the shipowner has to install it; not having the most up-to-date software means that the mariner won't see the presentation that we as a hydrographic office intend to show, which may have safety implications.

MarEx: Is ECDIS maintenance addressed by inspections or audits, perhaps by flag states or class societies?

Mellor: You've got to have up-to-date charts and publications under SOLAS – that's a carriage requirement. But no one comes to do an annual inspection or performance check on ECDIS, and that's something that industry is looking at. With ECDIS becoming mandatory on SOLAS vessels, it is surprising that you've got an annual check for AIS and VDR but not for the primary ECDIS. Why would you check AIS and not ECDIS? I think that in the future there will be a requirement to inspect, and that if you don't have the latest presentation library installed, you're not leaving port. 

MarEx: With iPhones and computers, most people have become used to automatic system updates. Has there been discussion of similar automation for updating and maintaining an ECDIS' software, perhaps via a vessel's internet connection?

Mellor: There's been a lot of talk about it, but shipping companies are actually moving the other way. They’re really concerned about having viruses come onboard the vessel, and more and more they want closed, isolated networks so that no one shore side can corrupt their vessels' systems. 

Our security experts suggest that the biggest risk to cyber security for vessels may actually be the crews themselves, when they bring on their own data sticks carrying malware or viruses. But with terrorism and with the world the way it is, shipowners are concerned that the ECDIS could be hacked externally via an internet connection – there are many bad things that could happen if someone got ahold of the navigation system. 

However, for owners who are comfortable with remote maintenance and want to handle updates that way, there are now type-approved, firewall-equipped ECDIS systems that may be connected via an internet connection to the trusted, secure network of a chart distributor to download only chart updates.

MarEx: Are there any remaining obstacles to adoption?

Mellor: Purchase cost is a concern, but generally it is miniscule compared to the running cost of the ship. The maintenance costs are a sticking point. shipowners are used to buying bridge equipment and having it last the life of the ship, but ECDIS will have to be regularly maintained. ECDIS manufacturers need to look next at making it possible for shipowners themselves to maintain, fix and update an ECDIS – if a ship’s crew can apply software patches directly rather than hiring in a technician, that will help cut costs and improve acceptance. 

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.