ECDIS — the rules and regulations

Malcolm Latarche

Malcolm Latarche · 12 July 2017


Electronic chart systems have their roots in the leisure sector which is not constrained by the SOLAS Convention with regard to performance standards and carriage requirements. Although most leisure sailors and private yacht owners have preferred the reliability of official paper charts, they can be cumbersome to use on small craft and by the early 1990s several companies were in the process of developing systems for displaying digitised versions of papers charts.

It could be said that the development was one of many made possible by rapidly improving computer technology that had earlier allowed the introduction of automatic radar plotting aids (ARPA) on to the navigation bridge of commercial ships.

Initial systems were developed by individual manufacturers with little collaboration and to diverging standards as there was no performance standard to comply with. Despite there being no requirement to install the early systems onboard SOLAS vessels, several ship operators were willing to act as pioneering guinea pigs in the field.

As systems became more complex and sophisticated with the ability to incorporate value added interactive features, the distinction between them needed to be made clear, especially as the IMO was beginning to formulate performance standards. Systems that could comply with the standards would be referred to as an Electronic Chart Display Information System (ECDIS) while those that did not would carry the label Electronic Chart System (ECS).

It is appropriate to say at this point that SOLAS requires ships to carry valid official charts and in the early days of electronic chart systems no official electronic charts existed. Official charts — both paper and Electronic Navigation Charts (ENC) — are produced by, or under licence from, national Hydrographic Offices or other relevant government institutions.

Who are the International Hydrographic Organization (IHO)?

Most national institutions are members of the International Hydrographic Organization (IHO) which has developed a set of standards covering collection of chart data and production of charts. Charts for use with ECDIS on SOLAS vessels must have been produced by a national hydrographic office using these standards.

With regard to ECDIS the most important of these standards are S-52 presentation library which contains all the symbols colours and lines styles required to recreate the ENC on the ECDIS screen and S-57 which includes a description of the data format, product specification for the production of ENC data, and an updating profile. Another IHO standard, S-63 covering security of data, became a requirement in 2009.

Each ECDIS maker has developed their own means of displaying ENCs which must adhere to the rules contained in IHO S-52. An ECDIS will convert an ENC into a SENC (system electronic navigational chart) and store the information which can then be added to for the purpose of updating charts by use of official Notice to Mariners or with third party information sources.

In 1995, the IMO adopted the first Performance Standards for ECDIS which are contained in Resolution A.817(19). These standards have been amended and added to since. In 1996 for example, resolution MSC.64(67) was adopted to reflect back-up arrangements in case of ECDIS failure and additional amendments were made in 1998 by resolution MSC 86(70) to permit operation of ECDIS in RCDS (raster chart) mode if official ENCs were unavailable.

In December of 2006, the IMO released Resolution MSC.232(82) which laid out completely new standards and specifications to apply with effect from 1 January 2009. This involved many ECDIS manufacturers having to adapt their equipment to meet the new standards and to renew their type approval. Vessels with older ECDIS systems are permitted to continue to use the system on board but if changing it will be required to install a system complying with the new standards.

The revised 2009 standards incorporate a number of decisions from within and outside of the IMO including:-

  • IEC Standard 61174 (2008/2009) – Operational and performance requirements, methods of testing and required results for ECDIS. (edition 4.0 effective August 2015).
  • IMO Resolution MSC.191(79) 2006 – Performance standards for the presentation of navigation-related information on shipborne navigational displays
  • IEC Standard 62288 (2008 revised edition 2.0 effective July 2014) – Presentation of navigation-related information on shipborne navigational displays – General requirements, methods of testing and required test results.
  • IHO S-52, Specifications for Chart Content and Display Aspects of ECDIS, edition 6.1.0 (Oct 2014)
  • IHO Presentation Library, S-52 Annex A edition 4.0.1 (Oct 2014)
  • IHO S-64 Test Data Sets in ECDIS, edition 3.0 (Dec 2014)
  • S-63 – IHO Data Protection Scheme edition 1.2 (Jan 2015)
  • IHO S-100 Universal Hydrographic Data Model, edition 2.0.0 (June 2015)

The MSC.191 and IEC62288 standards harmonise symbology and other display related elements across all navigational displays, and were new to ECDIS.

Previously ECDIS did not need to be tested against S-63, which defines the encryption and licensing of ENCs. Following its inclusion there are comprehensive tests that all ECDIS must pass to ensure that they provide appropriate error-checking with informative messaging. It also allows for improvements to ENC delivery on large media (DVD).

Resolution MSC.232(82) is a reasonably large document of 27 pages in its original form. Most of the information contained in it is directed more to manufacturers than users but it is important for users to understand the minimum requirements for a system so as to be aware what a PSC inspector might be looking for during a routine inspection.

In September 2014, IHO produced a new draft version (4.0) of its presentation library that covers the symbology used in ENCs and which ECDIS equipment must be able to display. In time this new library will become part of the ECDIS performance standards and it will be for makers to make use of them in new products and update existing operational systems.

They became effective for new ECDIS systems in August 2015 and there was an initial date set for 31 August 2016 for updating existing systems. At the IMO NCSR 3 meeting in March 2016, the date for existing vessels was extended by one year to 31 August 2017.

Many makers add functionality that goes beyond the performance standard and if the user cannot differentiate between these and the basic standards he cannot know if a problem with one makes the system invalid or not. At the NCSR 3 meeting there was also an off-session presentation coordinated by INTERTANKO which reported the wide variations in the skills of “certified ECDIS users”, a prevalent lack of awareness of software maintenance requirements and a lack of appropriate procedures aboard ships. The presentation questioned the relevance of some provisions of the IMO ECDIS Performance Standards related to display options and highlighted the lack of flexibility in setting the safety depth and the difficulty to optimise the anti-grounding function due to the insufficient density of contour lines in most ENCs. As the mandatory carriage of ECDIS proceeds to include more ships it is likely that many more similar issues will be raised.

At MSC 86 in June 2009, the IMO finally approved amendments to SOLAS V (19) making ECDIS mandatory on most ships over 500gt in accordance with a rolling timetable that began in July 2012. As can be seen from the table below, all new and pre-July 2012 passenger buildings over 500gt and all other new ship types over 3,000gt are now subject to the mandatory carriage requirements.

July 2015 saw the rollout begin to apply to other existing ship types and by 2019 the rollout will be complete.


  • 1 July 2012 New passenger ships over 500gt and new tankers over 3,000gt
  • 1 July 2013 New cargo ships over 10,000gt
  • 1 July 2014 New cargo ships over 3,000gt and existing passenger ships over 500gt
  • 1 July 2015 Existing tankers over 3,000gt
  • 1 July 2016 Existing cargo ships over 50,000gt
  • 1 July 2017 Exisiting cargo ships of 20,000gt and under 50,000gt
  • 1 July 2018 Exisiting cargo ships of 10,000gt and under 20,000gt
  • Existing refers to vessels constructed before 1 July 2012

The dates mentioned for existing vessels are actually the earliest possible date because the full text of the regulation says that the deadline is the ‘first annual, periodic or renewal survey after the date mentioned’. In theory that would mean that a ship that completes a survey just days before one of the trigger dates will be allowed a further year before an ECDIS has to be fitted.

There is also an exemption for ships that will be permanently taken out of service within two years of a trigger date. Policing that may be a challenge for some flag states and also for some port states because unless another reason for an extended inspection exists, the lack of an ECDIS may not be revealed.

Essential back-up

Until ECDIS is mandatory on a vessel, navigation and passage planning must be done using paper charts. When a ship becomes subject to the requirement to carry ECDIS there are options available to the ship operator although it should be noted that different flag states may interpret the regulations in different ways. For ships using ECDIS as their primary means of navigation and wishing to go ‘paperless’ an additional and independent ECDIS must be provided as a back-up.

The back-up ECDIS should be connected to an independent power supply and connected to systems providing continuous position-fixing capability. Ships making use of this dual ECDIS option must ensure that chart updating is maintained on both devices. When the ECDIS is being operated in Raster Chart Display System (RCDS) mode using RNC data due to lack of suitable coverage of ENCs then an appropriate folio of up-to-date paper charts must be maintained for areas where only raster chart coverage is available. For ships using ECDIS as an aid to navigation then only a single ECDIS is required but the ship must carry and maintain an appropriate folio of up-to-date paper charts.

In July 2014 an amendment to the VDR performance standards contained in MSC333(90) came into effect that has an implication for ECDIS users and manufacturers. The new regulation states “Where a vessel is fitted with an ECDIS installation, the VDR should record the electronic signals of the ECDIS display in use at the time, as the primary means of navigation. The recording method should be such that, on playback, it is possible to present a faithful replica of the entire ECDIS display that was on view at the time of recording, albeit within the limitations of any bandwidth compression techniques that are essential to the working of the VDR and in addition the source of the chart data and the version used”.

All new VDRs must now include the ability to capture ECDIS screen shots every 15 seconds, record the actual chart in use every 10 minutes and record all changes of chart. In order to meet this requirement it is clear that ECDIS systems must have the ability to send its output to the VDR. The new regulation only applies to new VDRs so it has no effect on existing set-ups providing the VDR is not replaced. If it is then an update to the ECDIS may also be required. Most ECDIS systems are designed for networking so this will not be an issue for new ECDIS systems.

Most operators and seafarers understand the requirement for up to date paper charts as meaning the most recent version, updated according to information contained in any Notice to Mariners issued since the chart was released. Electronic charts must also be similarly updated but this is not done by way of tracings or manual amendments but electronically. More details on this aspect are contained in later chapters together with information on the licensing of ENCs which introduces a complication not found with paper charts.

With the movement towards e-navigation gathering pace, ECDIS has been recognised as being a core element of the concept. As the main source of electronic information concerning the passage plan and with the potential for hazard avoidance (water depths, currents etc.), the ECDIS of future ships may need to integrate with shore-based systems and possibly even other vessels if some of the proposed aspects of e-navigation come to reality.

If this scenario comes about there will be an obvious need for new regulation and possible upgrade of equipment on existing ships. That is currently still in the future but may influence equipment choice and supplier.

Making ECDIS the core element of e-navigation may seem a good move but there is an obvious flaw in this strategy that will need to be addressed at some point. Under the present carriage requirements there is no mandated need for ECDIS for any cargo vessel under 3,000gt or for dry cargo vessels up to 10,000gt built before 1 July 2012. Ships of this size may be small in relation to the largest vessels afloat but they account for a high number of ships and include many of significant size up around 20,000dwt.

Many of these ‘small’ vessels will be fitted with ECDIS as a matter of choice by the owner. If they are using ECDIS as the prime means of navigation then they will have to meet the same regulatory requirements with regard to updated ENCs and ECDIS displays otherwise they need only carry and use properly updated paper charts.

Electronic charts and by implication ECDIS, were recognised in STCW95 as being equivalent to paper charts. A literal interpretation of what was written in that document concerning familiarity with all forms of chart would be that all navigation officers should have been examined for competence in electronic chart use from the time the code came into effect.

However, this requirement was widely ignored and it is doubtful if any state has actually followed the regulation as it was written. Fortunately this situation has been rectified and the Manila amendments to the code incorporated in STCW 2010 have formalised the need for navigational officers to undergo ECDIS training even if electronic chart navigation is just being used as an aid and not as a primary means to navigation.

The Manila amendments entered into force in January 2012 and carry with them a requirement for ECDIS operators to undergo specific training if an ECDIS is installed on board. As with the requirement for back up charts, there are differences in interpretation which is made more complex because not all navigators on every ship will have certificates issued by the ship’s flag state.

The 2010 Manila Amendments to the STCW Convention and Code have introduced several additional specific competencies in the use of ECDIS for officers in charge of a navigational watch both at management and operational levels (Refer STCW Code Tables A-II/1 and A-II/2) serving on ECDIS-fitted ships. STCW.7/Circ.18 stipulates that after 1 January 2017, all masters and navigating officers serving on ships fitted with ECDIS certificated under chapter II of the STCW Convention shall have undertaken appropriate generic ECDIS training (which may be based upon IMO model course 1.27), meeting the competence requirements of the 2010 Manila Amendments to the STCW Convention and Code.

The circular also highlights that masters and officers certificated 6.3 and 6.5 of the International Safety Management (ISM) Code require companies to ensure seafarers are provided with adequate familiarisation. A ship safety management system should include familiarisation with the ECDIS equipment fitted, including its back-up arrangements, sensors and related peripherals. To assist Member Governments, Parties to the STCW Convention, companies and seafarers, a record of such familiarisation should be provided. One of the issues mentioned in STCW is that of over reliance on ECDIS and this is definitely seen as an inherent problem by many experienced navigators.

A connected concern is that where ECDIS relies on GPS for determining vessel position and thus initiating alarms if a vessel strays off course, any GPS failure could lead to a hazardous situation developing very quickly. An absence of alarms from the ECDIS may lead navigators to believe all is well when in fact the opposite is the case.

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