Instruction in use of Ecdis is tipped to be on IMO agenda despite adding to owners’ costs

Tuesday 15 September 2009 Lloyds List by Craig Eason

Instruction in use of Ecdis is tipped to be on IMO agenda despite adding to owners’ costs

TRAINING in the use of electronic chart display and information systems could become mandatory for seafarers, adding to the expense of shipowners already facing the costs of compulsory Ecdis equipment on their vessels.

Next January, the committee within the International Maritime Organization that deals with standards in training and watchkeeping will meet and industry experts believe the lack of formal training in Ecdis will be high on the agenda.

Earlier this year, the IMO formally agreed to make the installation of Ecdis equipment mandatory on all ships that fall under the requirements of the Solas convention.

In many cases, with the requirement for back-up services and the move to paperless navigation, this will mean that ships will require two systems to be installed.

Equipment makers are now rushing to get their systems fully approved to meet this burgeoning market in what is seen as the most significant change in navigation since the invention of the radar about 100 years ago.

To date, there are understood to be about 25 fully compliant Ecdis models on the market. But each will vary in the systems they offer. The most basic could cost about $17,000 while the top of the range system, with a host of additional features and data inputs, could set a shipowner back $220,000 per unit. A small fortune if the vessel is to require two systems to be able to eliminate the use of paper charts.

But with the range of systems there is the need for training. There is an IMO model course, but this is neither mandatory nor, in some experts’ opinions, does it cover the key issues.

“It is woefully inadequate. It does not cover the reason why ships ground at all,” said one ex-navigator, who has worked on a range of Ecdis systems. He said there was a huge lack of understanding of the functions of Ecdis and supported the move to create a formal level of training for ships’ navigators. He added that traditionally cadets spend months at college learning about navigation with paper charts, yet there are only vague guidelines on teaching the use of a technology that is supposed to replace them.

Some flag states could be developing rules to make Ecdis training mandatory already, and more advanced shipping companies are believed to have placed Ecdis training as part of their International Safety Management code.

But such rules are not specified as mandatory, nor widespread, and often refer to officers requiring only a degree of familiarisation with Ecdis, such as in the port states inspection criteria for countries in the Paris Memorandum of Understanding.

Seafarer training colleges around the world have started offering Ecdis courses, as have a range of other providers. These are not compulsory, and in some cases not approved by a flag state.

There are concerns that should Ecdis training become mandatory, there are not enough training facilities, approved or not, to cater for the demand that could ensue. Experts think there could be up to half a million seafarers, who would need to be trained over the coming eight years.

The UK Maritime and Coastguard Agency has approved a number of courses, one of which is a private training specialist, Ecdis Ltd. A founder of the company, Mal Instone, said seafarers were left with too little training and develop too much faith in the system.

He cited the incident in January 2008 when the P&O ferry Pride of Canterbury hit a submerged but charted wreck because the bridge team had been relying on an Ecdis, which was not being used on the best settings.

One of the limitations of an Ecdis chart, said Mr Instone, is the reduction of information available as a user zooms into a specific chart area — a little like using a larger scale chart but zooming in on a web based map on the internet. Known as scamin, or scale minimum, crucial information, which could include depth data, can be lost, as the screen would otherwise become too cluttered. “You have to understand the system, and you still have to understand navigation. The same skills are required,” Mr Instone said.

Ecdis Ltd insists on a five-day training course for navigators on the use of the technology. This includes learning how to use the Ecdis system without having a satellite fix input.

According to Mr Instone, many bridge teams rely too heavily on their global positioning satellite position fixes, which can be disrupted or inaccurate. Therefore, navigators should be able to use other data inputs to the Ecdis system to create a position fix.

According to the rules of the International Maritime Organization, all owners must have their vessels’ electronic chart display and information systems compliant between 2012 and 2018, depending on vessel type.

There have to be approved systems, knowledge of how to use the systems, and the right electronic charts to put into the hardware. There is currently a scramble to get the charts ready.

A proper Ecdis chart is known as S57 compliant, referring to the specifications set by the International Hydrographic Organization. Hydrographic offices of coastal states are converting their charts to this format, or getting more experienced hydrographic offices to do it for them.

An S57 compliant electronic navigation chart has to be deployed in an Ecdis, otherwise the system is considered a raster chart display service — raster charts are a scanned replication of the paper chart in an electronic display over which the vessel’s position can be laid, along with a voyage route.

Ecdis charts are more like databases of information that can be interrogated. They provide all of the navigation functionality of the raster chart but add capabilities such as additional alarms triggered by the chart data and the ability to remove some chart information to simplify the display. They also allow additional features to be used, such as weather routing, light and buoy details and even three-dimensional mapping.

Chart providers are in a position to make a lot of money with mandatory Ecdis, as a vessel sailing in a particular cell, a term for the specific Ecdis chart area, has no choice but to use it.

Hydrographic offices have been active in converting their paper charts to Ecdis versions. However, this means using an approved datum, a kind of zero sea level point and position, to ensure all the areas match each other. There are many paper charts that have areas that have not been surveyed for centuries. To become Ecdis compliant, such a chart could need to be resurveyed to ensure it is reported at the right datum, allowing vessels to sail in and out of cells seamlessly.

Mal Instone, a co-founder of the training provider Ecdis Ltd, said shipowners and ship masters are unaware of the issues at stake in the deployment of Ecdis and the lack of coverage that might still be lacking once Ecdis becomes mandatory.

The more profitable busy sea routes will have been converted to the right format, less-used charts will probably be last, if at all, he suggested.

The UKHO has its own brand of Ecdis data, and has signed contracts with other government HOs to develop and use its data, but it admits to having a programme of developing the major sea routes and ports first.

It has also set itself the ambitious target of achieving full coverage by the end of the year and to date has 9,500 encs in its vector chart service, covering 1,800 ports.