The ECDIS Revolution

By Art Garcia 2012-12-17 13:35:00

Like it or not, the age of paper charts for navigation is quickly coming to a close.

By Art Garcia

Clearly waiting on the horizon is the deadline for the IMO’s directive calling for mandatory carriage of Electronic Chart Display and Information Systems (ECDIS) by deepwater vessels. But there’s been no “full-ahead” response by some shipping companies to meet the 2012 requirement to switch from paper charts to electronic navigation. Besides not making a move to install the new computerized system, some lines and individual owners haven’t yet addressed training the bridge crews that eventually will use ECDIS.

Two years (well, almost) might seem adequate for carriers to prepare for a new age of all-digital bridges, and it may be for those who begin making their conversion moves soon; but as Jens Schröder-Fürstenberg points out, “There’s a big gap between the IMO requirement and the ECDIS knowledge of the people who have to operate the ship.” He’s head of the National Applications Branch of the German Hydrographic Agency in Rostock, a port city on Germany’s Baltic Coast, and he should know. Schröder-Fürstenberg also sees “problems” ahead in the tardiness of shipping lines in scheduling the training needed by their bridge personnel before the ECDIS 2012 deadline for vessels of more than 500 dwt. “It’s clear the shipping industry must fulfill the carriage requirement and there’s no doubt it will,” he said. “The problem is not just having the systems on board in time but rather ensuring that the people who have to operate them are adequately trained. That’s the main issue – training.”

Old School Versus New

 Some of the stalling reflects a resistance to go digital on the part of older captains and bridge crews. “They are very, very reluctant to give up their paper charts,” said Paul Welling, Sales Manager for Marine Technology at Transas USA in Fort Lauderdale, FL. Added George Toma, Transas’ President and General Manager in Bothwell, WA, near Seattle, “There’s a natural tendency to fight any sort of change where you already have a navigation officer with a high comfort level using paper charts.” 

“You see two generations,” agreed Mark Theissen, Vice President of Telemar USA’s Yachting Division in Fort Lauderdale. “There are the old school guys who are used to their way of navigation and then the new generation that’s more comfortable with computer systems. It’s sort of in their genes. The new officers coming on board are more accepting of ECDIS, whereas the old school captains tend to lean more to running the boat like they’ve been running it for years.”

  At the Maritime Institute of Technology and Graduate Studies (MITAGS) near Baltimore, an average of 50 to 70 students weekly attend a one-week ECDIS course, said Bob Becker, Business Development Manager. Each class has about 16 students. “We’ve seen an uptick in the number of people seeking training,” added John Brennan, head instructor, who has been teaching ECDIS at MITAGS since 2006. Students primarily are Second Mates looking to earn their Chief Mate’s license, and most are responsive to making the switch to digital navigation. “They don’t have any problem with it,” said Brennan. “Being younger, they’re more comfortable with electronics than we were. I try to emphasize ECDIS is a great tool, probably one of the best tools ever put on the bridge of a ship as far as situational awareness is concerned. Every mate who’s sailing should be looking to get this training. It’s mandated now; it’s coming and to be sailing on a ship with ECDIS and not having had ECDIS training, you’re worse off than you were before because now you’re putting your faith in a piece of equipment you really don’t know enough about. That can get you into more trouble than if you didn’t have it.”

A Wealth of Providers

Meanwhile, “In terms of shipowners jumping in with their money and saying, ‘Yes, let’s pay cash for ECDIS,’ I’d say the response has not been very good,” stated Steve Mariner, Business Development Director for London-based Kelvin Hughes, maker of a “turnkey” ECDIS solution including hardware and software. “A lot of companies are deciding what they want to do and putting off the actual decision until nearer the 2012 date. I think they’ll be cutting it pretty close, but it doesn’t really surprise me,” he added. Given the economic downturn, companies can’t be expected to rush to spend large amounts of money to install ECDIS on their newbuilds and retrofits. “They’re not going to do it unless it’s absolutely necessary,” Mariner said. Companies will have to install the system “eventually, but not necessarily right now.” Blue chip companies, tanker operators like BP, Shell and Chevron, whose first objective is safety, already have the majority of their vessels fitted with ECDIS. “What they’re trying to make sure of, though, is do they know how to use it properly,” said Mariner. “So while the number one concern is getting ECDIS on the ships that need it, the second is making sure their people are trained to use it.”

Transas’ Toma has seen a more aggressive reaction to the ECDIS deadline. “We’ve found the response to be very positive overall,” he noted. “Many shipowners, from small tug operators and owners of large vessels to the U.S. Military Sea Lift Command, have jumped the gun on the mandated regulations and have already chosen to place ECDIS in their fleet, so by the time the deadline does hit, they’re already prepared. Typically, unless a product’s been mandated for safety purposes, you don’t see it going on board a vessel until it has to. But with ECDIS I’ve seen something different. I’ve seen a more proactive position with respect to not only placing ECDIS on board but in providing the training to use it.”

Transas USA, the $10 million company that’s a division of Transas Marine International of Gothenburg, Sweden, manufactures an IMO-approved ECDIS system called the MFD (Multifunctional Display) 4000 that includes core ECDIS software. It has the ability to integrate an entire bridge system with the company’s INS (Integrated Navigation System). The division provides training tools that include an ECDIS classroom simulator that provides a week-long IMO model course for ship’s officers for upgrading and endorsing their licenses with the ECDIS certificate. It also services its equipment. “If somebody wants to put ECDIS on a ship, we’re a one-stop shop,” noted Paul Welling. “What we see a lot of is, say, a ship needs new radars and it’s never had ECDIS. Then, of course, it makes a lot of sense to install ECDIS at the same time because if you’re going to rip the bridge apart anyway, you might as well do the whole thing.”

Welling said many carriers are ready to adopt ECDIS because they see both safety and financial advantages: “You don’t have to carry paper charts anymore. You don’t have to have this laborious process of updating the charts and publications because it all goes into electronics. You download the updates and put them into your system and it takes seconds versus hours and hours of manually updating paper charts. It’s an enormous savings.”

Order backlog is strong for Transas, which has more than 5,000 vessels equipped with its ECDIS systems. “We’re doing very well,” said Toma. “I would say we have more than 30 percent of the ECDIS market worldwide.” Cost of a Transas paperless modular or console system and a redundant backup is about $40,000. The IMO requirement is that, with a single ECDIS, a qualifying vessel can’t go paperless. It must have a fully redundant, dual ECDIS system and the ability to download and upgrade charts.
Byron Stilwell, President of Telemar USA in Pasadena, TX, also sees the maritime industry’s response to the ECDIS edict as being very positive: “We have a number of clients that are already making plans to select OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) right now.” His company’s clients include ocean-going transporters, among them tankers, bulkers, container vessels and passenger ships. “We have some clients who are hesitating, but the vast majority of our clientele sees the value and advantages of ECDIS,” he reported. “A number of them have been single ECDIS users and are ready to go paperless. Most of our clients are fairly rapidly moving toward a dual paperless system as fast as they can. Other than some companies that are continuing to struggle from financial issues, we’re not seeing a lot of hesitation on this particular regulation.”

In early 2011, Telemar’s orders already were up about 20 percent from year-earlier sales of $10 to $12 million. Stilwell projects volume of $13 million to $14 million this year. The company doesn’t get involved in training, relying instead on vendors. One of Telemar’s key vendors is Transas, which he describes as having “a phenomenal training ability, right here in the U.S.”

Waiting for the Right Price

Telemar Yachting’s Theissen says yacht owners who are “very much forward-thinking and in tune with safety are jumping on the ECDIS requirement early and starting to outfit their large vessels. Then there’s the other batch that waits until the last moment, as with many regulatory requirements. We saw the same thing happen with the GMDSS (Global Maritime Distress Safety System) and AIS (Automated Information System).” The main reason for delaying installation is that some shipowners see more OEM players coming into the market and prices moving down substantially. “They kind of wait it out and let the manufacturers fight it out. They shop the price, let it drop as low as possible, then you see them come aboard,” Theissen said. “We’ve already seen prices come down a reasonable amount.”

Telemar doesn’t manufacture ECDIS equipment. It’s a factory-trained dealer for Japanese company Furuno, JRC (Japanese Radio Corporation), Transas, Maris and Kelvin Hughes. It’s authorized to sell the equipment and trained to install it.

Bluewater Books & Charts in Fort Lauderdale does marine navigation outfitting for boats from 35 to 350 feet in length. A major component of its business is the mega or superyacht category. “ECDIS speaks to megayachts,” said Justin Mann, Vice President. “Clients of ours are either building new vessels and considering going with the ECDIS environment or they’re retrofitting existing navigation systems with ECDIS.” The company is a retail seller and distributor of ENCs (Electronic Navigation Charts) running on ECDIS systems. It deals mainly with captains and chief officers rather than yacht owners. “On the newbuild side, we’re starting to see, with hulls that are launching, a decent acceptance of ECDIS, but it’s been slow up to this point,” Mann said. “It hasn’t been a watershed moment where all of a sudden every boat that’s coming out has decided to go with ECDIS.” Like the old saying goes, you can pay me now or pay me later. – MarEx
Art Garcia covers technology for The Maritime Executive.

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