avigation’s future is digital but not paperless

May 13 2013

As time and tide wait for no one, neither do the deadlines for installing ECDIS (Electronic Chart Display & Information Systems)*.

The process mandated by the revised SOLAS regulations began last July for all new tankers over 3,000 gt. From July 2015, they will also apply to all existing tankers over 3,000 gt.

As a result, it seems clear that the future of maritime navigation is digital, with tanker owners and operators advised to plan early and prepare thoroughly for the ECDIS transition. However, while ECDIS is taking over as the primary navigation system, paper charts will continue to play an important role on the global tanker fleet for years to come.

Whether a tanker is affected by the July 2012 deadline for newbuild vessels, or the July 2015 deadline for existing vessels, is dictated by the date that the vessel’s keel was laid. Existing vessels are required to install ECDIS in advance of their first survey following the July 2012 implementation date, which can be up to two years later, which means July 2014 at the latest.

Meanwhile, owners of existing vessels have just over two years before the July 2015 deadline. With a minimum period of 18 months recommended to manage the ECDIS transition process, the clock is ticking.

The process of installing ECDIS on a tanker, or across a fleet, is a complex one, with important decisions to be taken at every stage in order to maximise the benefits of digital navigation, while avoiding the pitfalls.

One of the most critical decisions is, of course, the choice of data that feeds your ECDIS system. The Admiralty Vector Chart Service (AVCS) from the UK Hydrographic Office (UKHO) is the world’s most chosen ENC service and offers the widest official coverage available, with over 12,000 electronic navigational charts (ENCs) from hydrographic offices around the world. AVCS also benefits from the same exacting standards of data preparation and verification as the UKHO’s paper chart portfolio.

In addition to the choice of data, there are plenty of other questions to consider, including the many different ECDIS models available, the installation process, the training needs of crew and the compliance requirements of flag states and classification societies. There also remains a challenge of understanding how rules are interpreted.

For example, some flag states specify that ECDIS must be used if it has been installed, while others will allow a vessel to continue to navigate on paper charts, even if it has ECDIS on board.


Bridge procedures

It is also necessary to understand how bridge procedures and on board safety management systems should be amended to fulfil SOLAS carriage requirements and ensure that port state inspections and audits go without a hitch. Therefore, early engagement with all parties, including flag states, class societies, ECDIS manufacturers, training institutions and digital chart providers, is imperative. To assist in this process the UKHO has produced a nine-stage process to guide shipping companies through the complexities of the transition to digital navigation.

As well as the physical installation of ECDIS, it is just as important to ensure that your crew are qualified and confident in its use. It is estimated that up to 200,000 bridge officers need to undergo generic and typespecific ECDIS training between now and 2018, which is a tremendous challenge for the maritime training industry.


An ECDIS training session underway at Warsash.


Moreover, shipping companies need to choose their training provider with care, ensuring that ECDIS training courses comply with the requirements of the IMO Model Course 1.27 and are approved by both the flag state of the country where the training is taking place and the flag state of the vessel on which the officer will serve.

More generally, it is vital that all parties, including shore staff and crew, have a clear understanding of not only the capabilities, but also the limitations of ECDIS. ECDIS systems are more complex than paper charts and there are many factors that can affect how ENCs appear on the ECDIS display, notwithstanding the standard rules governing this.

Mariners also have a lot more control over what appears on their display, as well as what doesn’t. Perhaps most importantly, while ECDIS is a very powerful navigational tool, it should not be treated as the navigator. It is an aid to navigation and not a substitute for the vigilance that is core to traditional navigational skills, learnt on paper charts.

It is also a misnomer to think that the future of maritime navigation will be entirely digital. In fact, paper charts will continue to have a big role to play for many years.

First and foremost, whilst SOLAS vessels will switch to ECDIS for their primary navigation system, they still have the choice of retaining paper charts for their back-up navigation systems.


Paper option

Many shipping companies are expected to retain paper charts on board, recognising the particular qualities that they bring to the bridge. Paper charts come with tremendous embedded value, having already been set up to contain all the information required for safe navigation on the chart scale in question.

Digital charts give the user far more control over the information that is displayed, but paper charts benefit from a pre-determined expert judgement over the navigationally important data that is required. In the event of a failure in the main ECDIS system, some owners and operators will also prefer to have a differentiated back-up system, instead of - or in some cases, as well as - a secondary ECDIS system.

There is no ‘one format suits all’ solution when it comes to striking the balance between electronic and paper charts, beyond compliance with the ECDIS carriage requirements. Each shipping company needs to find the solution that meets the navigational requirements of its vessels.

While paper will be supplanted as the primary method of navigation across the SOLAS fleet over the coming years, it remains the most popular choice today. Equally, the UKHO’s paper chart portfolio is continuing to grow and evolve in response to the needs of the shipping industry, whether it is new charts for new routes and new ports, new editions of existing charts, or new thematic charts to assist with voyage planning, such as our latest Maritime Security Charts, which have helped to create the world’s first suite of security charts.

For tanker owners and operators, the requirements of the ECDIS mandation may appear daunting, but by planning early and preparing properly, they can take full advantage of the benefits that digital navigation can deliver, when they are ready to make the transition. At the same time, paper charts will continue to play an important role, whether for voyage planning or back-up purposes, for years to come.

*This article was written by Jason Scholey, product manager, United Kingdom Hydrographic Office (UKHO).

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