ECDIS, Electronic Chart and Display System, is the name given to the hardware driving shipping’s switch to electronic navigation. Essentially a simplified computer designed for use on a vessel’s bridge, the most basic function of an ECDIS is to display navigational charts on a screen showing the vessel’s position.
It’s the additional functions which really set ECDIS apart from paper charts though – a powerful system of tools, notifications and alerts which provide the navigator with essential, real time information and warnings of potential hazards far ahead of time.
ECDIS alerts the navigator if any sections of the route are considered unsafe based on the vessel’s requirements, this could be as simple as avoiding water shallower than the vessel’s draft or as complex as avoiding heavy seas for a vessel minimising the risk of liquefaction to a nickel ore cargo.
Chart overlays show information of interest on top of the chart itself, including weather and tide forecasts and piracy hotspots. This weather and tidal data feeds into the ECDIS’ automatic, optimised route planning, leading to fuel savings and reduced transit times. More advanced systems also support ice charts for arctic navigation and radar overlay, eliminating the need for two screens and making it easier to cross-reference the information from each piece of equipment.
As well as route planning and ongoing navigation, ECDIS has the potential to make huge efficiency gains within ship management, collecting data throughout the voyage and automatically sending it ashore, allowing for more accurate scheduling and easier maintenance and delivery logistics.
Most importantly though, ECDIS requires a fraction of the work of traditional charts to update, taking a huge burden off the navigator and allowing him or her to concentrate on safe route planning. Even the most basic systems can be updated regularly using a few CDs, while better devices automatically download and install updates and notices to mariners at port or even mid-voyage, meaning an immediate, significant saving on paper charts.
Research from DNV shows that the use of ECDIS may reduce grounding frequency by at least 30%. The third most frequent accident involving ships larger than 100GT, grounding is also the fourth highest contributor to marine fatalities at 12%. Legally, the argument for ECDIS has been won. Electronic navigation is already required by law on new passenger vessels over 500 GT, new tankers over 3,000 GT and new cargo vessels larger than 10,000 GT. From June 2014 this will be extended to include new cargo ships above 3,000 GT and existing passenger ships built after July 2012 and larger than 500 GT. Two final waves will complete the legislation – existing tankers constructed after 2012 must navigate electronically no later than their first survey on or after July 1 2015, while existing cargo carriers bigger than 50,000 GT and constructed after July 1 2013 must meet the legislation no later than their first survey on or after 1 July 2016.
Despite the enthusiasm of the regulators though, ECDIS was not universally welcomed and lost trust among many users after early issues with the technology, including the lack of a legal requirement for different systems to use the same symbols to denote certain hazards. Meanwhile, opponents say it reduces important navigation skills and leads to decreased vigilance. Stories abound of navigators watching their screen intently as unmarked hazards sail past the bridge windows. After several years of hard work though, most of these issues have been cleared up and ECDIS equipment has emerged as reliable and meticulously thought-through, and opinion is starting to turn in its favour.
The biggest opposition to ECDIS though has always been over the timing of its implementation. Introduced after five years of rock-bottom freight rates and amid a raft of other expensive legislation, including emissions reduction and ballast water management, critics say that ECDIS is important but not urgent enough to justify such short, strict deadlines while owners and operators are struggling with tight margins and a crippling lack of accessible finance.
While legally required to implement ECDIS, there is a danger that companies will do as little as possible to meet the required legislation and wait until the last minute to implement the technology, which would be far more dangerous than continuing to use tried and tested paper charts. If companies use only the most basic functions of ECDIS and crew are not well-trained and comfortable with electronic navigation, there is a risk that we could see more groundings and collisions, all while the technology’s vast potential sits untapped.
This problem can be significantly eased by ECDIS manufacturers, who must make the responsible choice to offer…