E-navigation and GMDSS Force Changes

Malcolm Latarche
Malcolm Latarche

19 August 2016


As far as changes to navigation and bridge equipment goes, the current interest in autonomous ships and the assertion that they will become commercial reality in a very short time span would seem to suggest that the time is nigh when future developments and regulatory changes will be made with the presumption that there will be no human presence on the bridge. If such a time will ever come is debatable but it is certain that what changes are being made presently are quite rightly centred on conventional vessels. That is not to say that new technology that is considered as a halfway house to autonomous ships is being ignored for it is not.   The clearest examples of this are ECDIS and Integrated Navigation Systems (INS). INS is a voluntary choice for owners placing newbuilding orders and along with ECDIS is considered as one of the essentials for delivering e-navigation. The slowdown in new ship orders will inevitably mean that take up of INS will be slower than was perhaps envisaged earlier. Meanwhile ECDIS is presently in the mid stages of a retrofit rollout having already been made mandatory for new ships. Although ECDIS carriage is now mandatory on many ships, it is not yet a universal requirement for it even to be used for navigation but even where it is not, the ECDIS and its ENCs must be up to date and functional and the navigators on board able to operate it. In May this year a new bulk carrier the African Alke delivered just months previously apparently sailed through the Great Barrier Reef on its way to Brisbane but was detained for an almost unbelievable reason PSC inspectors who boarded the vessel on its arrival discovered that although the ship had an ECDIS on board as required by SOLAS regulations, none of the navigating officers were able to demonstrate an ability to operate it. In order to obtain release from detention, the operators were obliged to fly out a trainer to give the officers instructions on using the system. This case may never have happened if the crew were not using the ECDIS and navigating by more traditional means (assuming that they knew the route taken was off limits). However, it is clearly not the ECDIS that was at fault on this occasion although doubtless as its use grows, failures will occur and incidents take place. An ECDIS is after all no more than a computer making use of electronic data and all computers seem to fail eventually. Another recent official navigation – that by the UK MAIB into the grounding of the cruise ship Hamburg off Scotland in 2015 – could be considered as the reverse of that of the African Alke. In this case the ship was not equipped with an ECDIS because as a passenger vessel over 500gt it had yet to undergo the first survey following the July 2014 application date. Instead the vessel was navigated using paper charts complemented by a Chartpilot ECDIS that was not recognised as type-approved by the flag state. The grounding was put down to an error in passage planning although other circumstances contributed to the incident which led to the ship being out of service for three months. Although it is easy to prove when an incident has been caused by poor use of charts or ECDIS it is not so easy to show how many incidents have ever been avoided. Port State Control deficiencies coming under the heading of Safety of Navigation are always high on the list of annual statistics and detentions due to factors such as poor chart management, non-functioning equipment and crew competence are increasing. While the number overall is small – around 112 detentions recorded in 2015 – the fact that they were increasing at a time when the ECDIS retrofit programme was still in its early stages is sufficient cause for concern for the Paris, Tokyo and Black Sea MoUs on PSC to announce a joint concentrated inspection campaign in 2017. There have been recent rule changes affecting ECDIS displays but until the rollout is complete, there are no more in the immediate pipeline. What is around the corner is the development of e-navigation in which both ECDIs and INS are key components. E-navigation is first and foremost a European concept that has been promoted and funded by the EU, most notably in the MONA LISA projects. The idea of e-navigation is to require marine traffic to be regulated and controlled much as air traffic is by air traffic control. While some traffic management is already carried out in individual ports or groups of ports, the long term aim is to manage all movements over a wider zone, so as to improve safety but also to limit emissions by way of regulating ship speed and arrival/departure times. There are many objections to e-navigation, not least that marine traffic comprises many individual ships, carrying individual cargoes for individual shippers and receivers and to multiple ports. The potential for delaying vessels to reduce emissions – perhaps by minute amounts – is huge and the impact on the legal aspects of commercial shipping is potentially so great it would require the whole structure to be demolished and rebuilt. At an early stage, more than 10 years ago, the IMO stressed the need for navigators to be involved in developing e-navigation but there has been little done to bring commercial interests onboard. Earlier this year it was announced that a validation process for Sea Traffic Management (STM) - an offshoot of the MONA LISA projects – would begin this year. Once the procurement process is complete in the autumn, 300 volunteer ships will receive STM services, such as route optimisation and monitoring tools, from leading suppliers for testing. There will be no test bed participation costs for the ships. All installation and communication costs are included in the suppliers’ obligations in line with the procurement. Onboard installations will probably start during Q2 2017. The aim is to understand the impact of instant information exchange, such as voyage plans and arrival times, between selected parties. During the validation project Voyage Management services will support individual ships in both the planning process and during a voyage, including route planning, route exchange, and route optimisation services. Voyage Management will be validated in two test beds, one in the Mediterranean and one in the Nordic region. In the latter, STM services will focus on testing more efficient winter navigation and crisis management. The suggestions that ships’ passage plans should be sent to services delivering STM for validation might seem sensible and may perhaps prevent one of the ECDIS-related incidents taking place, it could be argued that the validating service will be no less liable than the crew to make mistakes and there could be legal implications in the event of an incident. It will be some time before the STM project is complete but probably much longer for e-navigation related rules to pass through the IMO processes. At the sub-committee on Navigation, Communication and Search & Rescue (NCSR3) held in early March this year, a number of agenda items had connections with e-navigation and its development. Three specific items were discussed during the session: revision of Performance Standards for INS; development of Guidelines for the harmonised display of navigation information received via communications equipment; and development of Revised Guidelines and criteria for ship reporting systems. There was no particular outcome and it was agreed that the work will continue inter-sessionally and at the next NCSR session. Few expect the IMO to complete examining the issues and to begin regulating on e-navigation before 2020 and many expect that even that date is ambitious. Given that the EU is the source of funding for many of the projects developing and proving e-navigation, the current tensions within the group and the loss of the UK’s £15Bn annual net contribution may add to the expected slippage. There was also discussion on S-Mode, a concept that has been a perennial item for some years. As navigation equipment has developed, individual makers have incorporated proprietary features that can cause confusion for navigators faced with an unfamiliar piece of equipment. The Nautical Institute has proposed an S-mode feature that would require all makers’ navigation displays to be fitted with a button that when pressed, brings the display into a standard format with a standard menu/control system, standard interface and basic features. The idea of S-Mode has been supported by many but some manufacturers believe that it would limit the appeal of differentiating features that have been developed and would slow innovation. After discussing the submissions, NCSR3 decided that the subject should be wrapped with the revision of performance standards and discussed further at NCSR4. NCSR3 also covered the issue of the possible inclusion of Iridium into GMDSS. As mentioned in the Company Profile article in this issue, Iridium is soon to begin its replacement of the existing satellite constellation and is developing new ship terminal equipment in parallel. One of the objections that have been made with regard to Iridium’s acceptance as a GMDSS provider is that even if it can meet the availability requirements for its satellites, there is no equipment that can meet the GMDSS equipment requirements. To address this specific case and also others that might arise as the IMO opens up GMDSS to others besides Inmarsat, it has been decided that a new generic performance standard for shipborne equipment is needed. This is now an ongoing project and will be discussed further at NCSR 4. This will add another dimension to the review into GMDSS that is ongoing. Image courtesy of Rolls-Royce