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ECDIS Evolves

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By Wendy Laursen 2016-04-20 19:11:45

(Article originally published in Jan/Feb 2016 edition.)

New products and the push for standardization are reducing the potential for human error.

By Wendy Laursen

Late last year, for the first time, the number of internationally trading vessels with an Electronic Chart Display and Information System (ECDIS) exceeded those without. Of an estimated 41,500 merchant ships, 24,300 or 59 percent are now using ECDIS.

Thomas Mellor, the U.K. Hydrographic Office’s Head of OEM Technical Support and Digital Standards, greeted the news with a warning: “It’s important to understand that ECDIS compliance and effective ECDIS use are not the same thing. All shipping companies need to ensure that they have put in place revised bridge policies and procedures that reflect the requirements of safe, effective and compliant ECDIS operation, that ECDIS software is upgraded to comply with the latest International Hydrographic Organization (IHO) standards, and that their bridge teams are competent and confident in using ECDIS to its full potential.”

Marine insurer Skuld had earlier warned that training needs to take into account not merely ECDIS instruction but training on the specific type of ECDIS installed on the vessel. The company cited a number of cases where ECDIS may have hindered rather than helped safe navigation. These cases included a grounding in the English Channel, in part due to the crew’s not having sufficient voyage management skills, with resulting incorrect depth settings being used on the ECDIS. Investigations into another collision in the U.S. revealed that the pilot was unable to use the vessel’s radar correctly and did not properly understand the symbols on the electronic chart.

The Quest for Uniformity

There are over 30 ECDIS manufacturers, many of whom have more than one model, and some of the key operational features differ widely from one manufacturer to another. The IMO’s e-Navigation project aims to ensure seafarers are provided with the information they need for safe and efficient navigation and includes the development of an “S mode” or standard mode of operation for navigation displays across all manufacturers. This has been recognized as a priority by the IMO, but it is still some years away.

Of more immediate concern is the requirement for manufacturers to adopt the latest revisions of the IHO’s ECDIS standards. The updates resolve ambiguities and include more symbols and features designed to reduce the number of audible alarms triggered by ECDIS while ensuring mariners remain aware of dangers such as rocks and wrecks. The changes also include an alert mode, based on the IMO ECDIS Performance Standard, which will harmonize ECDIS alerts across different manufacturers.

These new standards will be incorporated into type approvals beginning July 31, 2016, and no grandfathering provisions have been made. Last November Transas’ Navi-Sailor 4000 ECDIS became the first product on the market to pass all DNV GL tests according to the new standards. The new-generation Transas system also provides a number of additional features, including clearing bearings, anchor planning and improved user tools.

Improved ECDIS systems will not require crew retraining if the seafarer is already certified according to the STCW ˊ10 requirements, but demand for good quality and standardized ECDIS training is greater than ever, says Transas CEO Frank Coles. In order to meet that challenge, Transas created the Global ECDIS Training Network (GET-Net) to provide high quality, standardized and certified ECDIS training worldwide through a network of manufacturer-approved training providers. Partnering training centers in over 20 countries now receive detailed instructor training and pass regular quality audits.

Technological Advances

ECDIS systems are being developed and integrated with additional technologies as part of the industry’s move to simplify and improve the human interface. Simrad recently launched a new range of ECDIS products featuring advanced route-planning tools, a search-and-rescue module, a docking module, a predictor precision navigation module, and a digital logbook. Depending on the needs of the captain, optional radar overlay is also available.

FarSounder, a developer of 3D forward-looking sonar systems for navigation and obstacle avoidance, recently announced an integration partnership with Wärtsilä SAM Electronics. 3D sonar data from FarSounder’s navigation systems can now be visualized and controlled directly from all Nacos Multipilot workstations.

FarSounder has dramatically improved its 3D sonar display over the last year. These improvements include target persistence via new image stabilization techniques, improved color mapping and expanded chart overlay, including full 3D images. “All of these innovations are really part of a comprehensive effort to improve situational awareness,” says CEO Cheryl Zimmerman. “We recognize that the bridge is very busy and that vessel operators have extremely high task loads. We want to make sure that we are adding valuable information, not noise.”

When FarSounder initially launched its products, they were installed as stand-alone systems. The rollout of new ECDIS products emphasizes an ongoing technological transformation. “More and more of our customers are moving toward integrated bridge systems,” says Zimmerman. “This integrated approach removes the issue of information overload, where the operator has to analyze information from too many displays and sensors.”

Zimmerman says forward-looking 3D navigation sonar will become more important in polar regions as well as in other challenging, relatively unexplored areas. Even the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) states that the nautical charts for U.S. Arctic waters are “severely deficient in many of the capabilities that NOAA extends to the rest of the nation.”

Adds Zimmerman: “Just as GPS coupled with electronic charts, and previously radar, changed marine navigation in the 20th century, I believe 3D forward-looking navigation sonar is the 21st century’s cutting edge tool for marine navigation. It is the logical technological innovation that opens up the real-time view underwater in front of vessels, just as radar has been used above the water.”

Traffic Management

Last December the Norwegian Coastal Administration (NCA) initiated the first full-scale trial of a new e-navigation technology in Norwegian waters in conjunction with technology and services company Navtor. The test sees the ferry MS Stavangerfjord digitally sharing its routing information with NCA via Navtor’s NavStation, a unique software product that gathers the information navigators need into a single interface.

Until now, ships had to contact the authority via maritime VHF radio to verbally communicate routing information before both departure and arrival. NCA could then update vessel navigators on traffic and advise of any necessary changes in speed or routing.

Bjørn Åge Hjøllo, Project Development Manager at Navtor, explains: “The vessel sends its sailing data automatically, eliminating any risk of communication misunderstandings, and the center receives this accurate data instantaneously, allowing it to approve, or if necessary adjust, the route. For the vessel, it offers increased efficiency and a real simplicity of service while the NCA gets the information it needs to effectively monitor and control traffic. This is a perfect demonstration of the ability of e-navigation, making life significantly easier, safer and more efficient for navigators and land-based decision makers.”

The trial is being undertaken in partnership with Kongsberg Maritime and subsidiary Kongsberg Norcontrol IT, which worked with Navtor to deliver the software.

The MONALISA Project

More sophisticated traffic management is becoming available through the E.U.-funded MONALISA 2.0 project with the debut late last year of a follow-on sea traffic management (STM) validation project. MONALISA 2.0 developed a system that will enable vessel route information to be shared between ships and centers on shore.

Using this data, other service providers will be able to offer advice to vessels, such as recommendations to avoid congestion in areas with high traffic, avoidance of environmentally sensitive areas, and maritime safety information. The information exchange between vessel and ports is anticipated to improve planning and performance regarding arrivals, departures and turnaround times.

The system will be installed on 300 ships free-of-charge by ECDIS manufacturers. Some of those involved are Transas, Wärtsilä SAM Electronics, Furuno, Raytheon Anschütz, Kongsberg and Jeppesen. Five service centers will support two test beds, one in the Nordic countries and one in the Mediterranean. Testing is expected to begin in 2017. 

“STM will not be yet another system put on board that will increase the workload for the on-board user,” says Håkan Heurlin, project leader at the Swedish Maritime Authority. “STM will use standardized formats that enable it to be used by different manufacturers’ equipment. This interoperability will reduce user workload and help automate ship-to-shore reporting.”

Lessons Learned

Many of these advances reflect further advice from marine insurer Skuld. The company proposes that, while human error is often taken as the cause or dominant cause of an incident, it is worth taking a look at safety investigations in the airline industry for reference. Airlines long ago recognized that errors can be the product of a number of contributing factors, both human and product-related, including equipment design, procedures, training, and the environment in which people work, e.g., whether people are willing and able to question orders given by a superior.

In other words, the more that is invested in ensuring that the crew has the right training, the right support, and works in the right type of environment, the greater the loss prevention effect will be. – MarEx

Wendy Laursen is the magazine’s News Editor for Asia Pacific.

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