Not just ECDIS problems, but solutions


Compared to paper charts, the benefits of ECDIS are astounding.  Now is the time when users, trainers, manufacturers, companies and authorities have the chance to ensure that the future digital ship is one of confidence, not concern. 


Globally, there is now a strong knowledge base of ship’s use, management and varying system’s capabilities and shortfalls that the ECDIS community needs to pool together to offer feed back into the regulators and manufacturers to make certain that tomorrow’s ECDIS and IBS’s are fit for purpose, the user is adequately trained and that confidence and reliability are words used to describe the next generation of ECDIS.  ECDISltd aims to do just that.   







Since Electronic Chart Systems became available over 10 years ago and the subsequent development of Electronic Chart Display and Information Systems, many papers have been written with much concern being raised about the standards of such systems and the need for adequate training.  This is of particular importance with the increasingly complex Integrated Bridge Systems available.  With the IMO implementing a mandatory ECDIS fit programme commencing in 2012 for new builds and existing passenger and cargo ships, it would be surprising if the STW 41 finalisation of the revision of the STCW Convention and Code due in January 2010 does not include a significant change to current ECDIS training requirements.  It is therefore widely expected that in the near future all certificated deck officers who navigate using an ECDIS (be it an IMO mandated fit or by choice) will by law, be required to have passed a Flag State approved ECDIS course.  






Currently, training of personnel in critical systems such as ECDIS is not clearly stipulated in IMO or flag state legislation, even though there is an IMO model ECDIS course.  Some companies are already taking measures to endeavour to satisfy their ISM code responsibilities by stipulating that their employees must have completed ‘an ECDIS course’ before being responsible for paperless digital navigation.  However, courses that include an ECDIS element may not be flag state approved as an ‘ECDIS course’ as they are not the full IMO model. For example the Navigation Aids Radar ARPA Simulation (NARAS) course, which may well be compliant with STCW95 and include the word ECDIS on the certificate, may not be the full IMO model and hence not be accepted by a flag state as an approved ‘ECDIS course’.  Only certain training organisations are able to offer an ECDIS certificate at this level.  It is also of interest, that an increasing number of court cases are being reported, particularly in the USA, that even though training is not mandatory under international legislation, maritime courts of law are taking action in cases that involve a lack of training which directly contributes to maritime incidents with phrases such as ‘best practice’ or ‘duty of care’.    


Bearing in mind what it was like ‘back in the days of paper’, joining a ship to take her to sea, as long as there were a couple of charts, tide tables, pencil, dividers and a parallel rule at hand, most deck officers could say they knew what to do. Now, even with generic ECDIS training, it is well known that ECDIS use is a very perishable skill.  It may not be prudent to rely on the fact that an OOW, Navigator or Master having merely attended a basic IMO model course ‘at some point in the past’, and not necessarily on the same system employed by their company, is capable of joining a ship with an unfamiliar system; have enough time to consult the user manuals and remember what was taught on course to plan, prepare and set it to work legally; understand the information presented; be able to identify inaccuracies or software malfunctions and importantly, know how to manipulate the system in order to move away safely from the ‘red line’ if / when necessary.    


Understanding the complexities of the transition to digital navigation is significant, to say the least.  Companies need to realise just how much of an impact this change has and how this new way of navigation is not simply watching your ship on a screen magically getting to where it needs to be without having to do very much.  It is especially important that companies respect the enormity of the task for a Master responsible for the ship, who has been at sea for 30 years using tried and trusted paper, to be confronted with no paper charts for reference; having to educate him/her self in how to navigate using a software programme; ensure that in their own mind the ship is safe and able to fulfil the charter agreement, while at the same time guiding and mentoring newly qualified OOWs in the meaning of life bobbing around the oceans.  The more the community realises this, the more that will hopefully be done to aid the situation and consequently lessen the concerns surrounding fatigue and retention. 


Keeping in mind the old saying ‘If you think safety is expensive…’  care must be taken by both the individual and management to ensure the user  is competent in the use of a vessel’s ECDIS.  Timely training and familiarisation is the key. 


eFood for thought:


  • ECDIS or ECS? For an ECDIS to be an ‘ECDIS’, it must contain an IMO type approval certificate – otherwise it is an ECS, and not a legal or recognised replacement for paper charts. 
  • An ECDIS only requires one continuous positional system, one heading input and one speed input.  Redundancy is a separate issue.
  • How accurate / reliable is the charted information in use?
  • How accurate is the general datum correction applied by the ECDIS, are there large variations in the vicinity?
  • Can you use a GNSS to navigate on charts without a known datum?
  • Does your system receive Loran C and does it convert this position to WGS84?       
  • How and when do you check the GPS position, can you navigate without GPS?
  • How do you monitor NAVWARNINGs, is a user file up to date and displayed at all times? 
  • Are you able to view a T+P notice?
  • Have you got a software maintenance system in place to remain IMO compliant with the latest standards? 
  • Are the terms `presentation independent of data` and `scamin` appreciated?
  • Are you required under your ISM to have conducted specific training and can all your deck officers prove it?
  • What do these symbols mean?




Wreck – Dangerous wreck / Obstruction – Depth unknown / Rock – Underwater, awash rock

Could be depth unknown or value of sounding known – only when interrogated.  Separate to depth contour.







Sounding 5.5, reported, unreliable / therefore will not show up with safety contour










Area information – Caution area – could be T+P and date dependant 




If unsure, ask.  ECDISltd has put a lot of work into developing clear guidance and procedures for the use of ECDIS in the event of a GNSS failure, be it from loss of input, interference or no useable datum.  The danger is not necessarily from complete failure of GNSS input, but is from the operator missing a significant degradation in the position source and subsequently standing the ship into danger without realising it.  It is therefore important that the operator can identify inaccuracies in order to take action, determine the ship’s true position and be able to derive an EP the same as on a paper chart.  Learning this skill is not only part of our courses but is something that should also be practiced at sea.  Consider referring to a series of type specific check of cards. 



Any ECDIS operator can see that many questions arise which require a deep understanding of the system compared to simply checking the paper chart.  This issue is one of the greatest hurdles as it requires time to study the manuals, of each different system, however manufacturers do not necessarily highlight their equipment’s shortfalls. 


A competent user is one who knows the minimum standard for legality and hence is able to spot a software malfunction that renders a system illegal in the eyes of the IMO.  One might say that as long as the system holds an IMO type approval certificate then why worry.  If a software glitch is observed, contact the manufacturer and have them fix it.  Considering we’re talking about a computer based system, every time a ‘glitch’ or ‘anomaly’ arises, does the ship remain alongside?  A confident user is one who knows the limitations and is therefore able to take measures to compensate.  An efficient user is one who can set up the display for maximum effect dependent upon the operation at hand.  This knowledge certainly develops with experience, both of the task and of different systems, but also by asking the right questions and ‘playing’ with the functions, as long as nothing goes too far wrong in the interim. 


This can however be made a little easier by having yet more check lists, but due to the complexity of these systems, the importance of having clear operating guidance, check lists or parameters for OOW’s or certain situations, cannot be over stated.   Trial and error with a bit of a ‘mish mash’ between ships and operators does not sit well with most Masters and Skippers that we deal with and the preferred option is a check card to work from, however it is important that sufficient flexibility remains for those in charge to use the system as they see fit.


Our intention to drive up standards is not just in the user, but in the ECDIS and ENCs themselves, which are just as, if not more, important than the ability of the user.  The greater the clarity and reliability the system has, the less likely the user is to make a mistake. 


For example, last year the MAIB report into the jack-up barge Octopus which ran aground being towed from Kirkwall to Seal

Skerry Bay in the Orkney Islands, recommended that:

  • The DfT and MCA review the future work schedule for the UK Civil Hydrography survey programme.
  • The UKHO and MCA put forward to the IHO/IMO a proposal to investigate ways of ensuring that ECDIS displays provide a clear warning or indication to the mariner whenever the survey data used to produce the electronic chart in use is of poor quality.


There are now 25 ECDIS manufacturers that have achieved, or are in the process of achieving approval as a compliant ECDIS.  It is clear that whilst some manufacturers will provide the minimum IMO sensor connection of; a continuous fixing positional system, heading information and speed information, others have developed inclusion of AIS, ARPA, echo sounders, anemometers and tidal information to name a few.  It is important to remember that optional equipment may be added but neither sensor nor ECDIS must degrade one another for the ECDIS to remain IMO compliant or indeed safe.  One of the founding `pillars` of the ECDISltd group is to monitor the varying standards and solutions available and to offer advice to regulators, manufacturers and the wider community.  Sensor inputs integrated with displays that are taking digital navigation into the next phase include active forward facing echo sounders, mast head video for coral navigation, meteorological overlays, digital satellite imagery and so on, making the future, as long as your processing power is sufficient, very interesting.   





ECDISltd would certainly like to see systems of the future with the following:


  1. Large planning or spatial awareness screens, available on the bridge and chart house if applicable.
  2. Simple, swift methods of clearly cross checking the GPS by a variety of methods, simplifying visual and or radar use.
  3. Planning functionality to be improved to enable voyage and pilotage plans to be quick and clear with the development of real time tide and one meter depth contours.
  4. Use of and display functions of ENCs to become less questionable and as reliable/simple as looking for a reference on a paper chart.


We are also aware that although OOW’s and Navigators get to ‘play’ with the system, the individual who has to approve the plan is the individual who has the greatest responsibility – the Master.  Quality control and risk assessment are great terms however conducting such tasks on a system that is unfamiliar, in not very much time, is difficult if not downright risky!  However, there are fixed or mobile short courses available that can aid Masters in developing ECDIS quality control with supporting cribs if desired.


Possible solutions:


All deck officers on paperless ships must have conducted an IMO model flag state approved ECDIS course.

ECDIS navigation is ingrained from joining as a cadet alongside paper navigation to appreciate the basics in both.

ECDIS forms a greater part in mandatory chart work exams for CoC’s. 

ECDIS and IBS training must evolve and develop concurrently with systems in use.

More stringent internal and external ISM / Port State control audits on a vessels digital navigation organisation. 


Stages to ECDIS operational capability.


  1. When will you be mandated, or when do you intend to navigate digitally?
  2. What ECDIS / IBS and redundancy system best suits your needs?
  3. Whose charts and service do you trust?
  4. Does that combination meet flag state certification / insurance requirements?
  5. Establish your fleet’s standing ECDIS procedures, SMS and training policy to satisfy ISM / Port State Inspections.
  6. When to fit and how to maintain.




ECDIS is not as clear or reliable as we would like it to be and ECDIS operation is a skill that perishes far quicker than paper chart work. 


Differing systems make, “This is the way I was taught in the old days” impossible to justify or support, to say the least.  Initial training, followed by regular use or re-familiarisation is a necessity if your aim is to maintain safety of navigation. 


Paper chart work is learned at the very beginning of a career as a professional deck officer and similarly, for the private boat or yacht skipper or owner, it lies at the root of that personal voyage of discovery SOLAS now has a bearing on. Either way, chart work remains fundamental to a successful and safe outcome. The future is ECDIS and not paper just as octants have given way to GPS, so it comes as no surprise that these fundamentals of learning, understanding and competence in the basic tools of the trade must continue to apply.  


Many personnel already have experience in using digital navigation systems, however it is all too apparent what happens when people use it without understanding it.  A high level of training is now available and the MCA are taking a very close look at the not so high standards currently offered.  The IMO has stipulated minimum standards expected of an ECDIS, including symbols that the IHO continues to update in the S52 library, which in order to stay legal, need to be displayed.  We hope that with the onset of mandated ECDIS that the quality and clarity will continue to improve however, you may be assured that we at ECDISltd are already prepared and can offer you the benefit of our experience in your transition to ECDIS. The fact that so many manufactures are now in the game can work to the mariners advantage, for competition based upon the right price; relevance to a specific need; clarity; reliability and of course, how the system interfaces with the operator as the ultimate shipboard decision maker, the more likely it is to win.  But we all know that evolution based upon natural selection takes many years.  As ECDISltd is an independent and unbiased body, we are well placed to pass on our professional experience.  We constantly strive to glean user and manager information, for the more information we receive, the better the analysis and the stronger the arguments for a particular line of development.  This is not a new methodology but we do need to harness your knowledge and experience if we are to apply lessons learned to the benefit of future generations of seafarers and ECDIS.


The experience is out there and users must speak out to drive forward the development of ECDIS to ensure the highest levels of safety and confidence in the future.  The solution is simple – timely training, feedback, improvement.    







To offer experiences and thoughts, or to discuss ECDIS issues and training solutions further, please contact:



Peter Richard Thornton MBE MNI

Director ECDISltd





Peter Thornton is an MCA Master Mariner unlimited and an RYA Yacht Master with experience operating and training ECDIS and ECS on a range of vessels across the world.  Employed by the ROYAL FLEET AUXILIARY as a specialist navigator the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the MoD.