What ECDIS equipment do I choose?

Malcolm Latarche
Malcolm Latarche

05 June 2016

There may be a common performance standard for ECDIS but there are very large differences between individual makers’ products and in the way they are intended to be used on board. There will almost certainly be big differences in the level of support and service offered but this will only be learnt from experience. Using ECDIS will eventually become second nature to navigators but for the time being the range of options is not seen as a good thing in all quarters. As an indication, the foreword to the UK’s MAIB report into the grounding of the chemical tanker Ovit in the Dover Straits in 2013 highlighted the problem saying “This is the third grounding investigated by the MAIB where watchkeepers’ failure to use an electronic chart display and information system (ECDIS) properly has been identified as one of the causal factors. As this report is published, there are over 30 manufacturers of ECDIS equipment, each with their own designs of user interface, and little evidence that a common approach is developing”. The report had other comments about ECDIS use and training but while incidents of this type are regrettable, they were not unforeseen. Almost all modern vessels leave the shipyard with a fully integrated navigation or bridge system in which ECDIS is a vital element. However, now the retrofit part of the rollout programme is in full swing several different types of ECDIS will be required to meet the different standards of bridge facilities. Undoubtedly an ECDIS is most effective when combined with other navigation systems but this will not be possible on every, or even most, retrofit ships. Here the commonest and cheapest solution will be a simple stand-alone system that allows compliance but little more than that. It may well be that on some ships the ECDIS will be declared as an aid to navigation and sit unused in the corner of the bridge while navigation on board is practised as it always has with paper charts and little else. There are more advanced stand-alone console types that can be fed with data from other systems often making use of the fact that the VDR already draws much of the data together and provides a good source to tap in to. In an integrated navigation system with multiple screens it will be possible for even a single ECDIS to be linked to several of them allowing for a high degree of flexibility in workstations. If an operator decides to settle for a ‘paperless’ bridge and this is allowed by the flag state, then a dual ECDIS system is required under SOLAS. This would naturally suggest a second machine but some manufacturers do provide a dual ECDIS solution in a single console. The back-up ECDIS is permitted to have a marginally smaller minimum display size and this may favour the makers of PC type systems, although it has to be said that most systems on the market do have displays that exceed the minimum size required by a considerable margin.

A matter of choice

The number of type-approved systems on the market has mushroomed since the IMO decided to make ECDIS carriage mandatory. The handful of pioneers from ten years ago has now been joined by at least 30 more manufacturers. Some of the newcomers are actually selling badge-engineered products from other makers rather than developing and producing the systems themselves, and in some new integrated navigation systems a choice of ECDIS may be offered to the shipowner. Aside from a very few basic models designed to allow compliance and little else, most ECDIS have unique value added features meaning users may find some difficulty in migrating between systems. For this reason some ship operators have adopted a policy of using just one manufacturer’s products across their fleet. Some have even replaced an existing ECDIS on a ship with one of a different make to ensure uniformity. Buyers of ECDIS should realise that although the equipment is mandatory and despite the cost in some cases running into tens of thousands of dollars, it is in reality little more than a marinised PC and it is the software and some of the electronics at the heart of the system that make it function. While it is possible that the hardware that goes into an ECDIS may last the life of a vessel, the regulatory requirements and technological advances over that time may mean that regular updates to the operating system are required and possibly it may be more cost effective to replace rather than upgrade. Some early systems and many new models are supplied with hard disk drives but these seem to be losing out in popularity to more robust solid state memory. Few manufacturers offer a wide range of systems although some have recognised the different needs of customers and can offer a system to suit most pockets. In many cases the difference between a basic machine and the most advanced will not be obvious from the outside since the difference is in the software loaded onto the machine or the features activated. These machines make upgrading to a higher level easier and cheaper than might otherwise be the case. In a small number of cases, the same device might be sold as a radar, a chart radar or an ECDIS with different aspects of the same pre-loaded software being activated. Some ECDIS come with a full catalogue of ENCs pre-loaded and only require a licence key to be entered for the chart to become available. For operators still overwhelmed or unsure of what to commit to, there are alternatives to outright purchase. A growing number of makers and some independent service companies are offering a leasing service. Leasing would appear to be an ideal way of equipping a fleet without a high capital outlay and also permits a ‘try before you buy’ approach that will identify the best system to suit an individual operator. Another benefit is that leased equipment can be exchanged for upgraded models as required and can also be swapped in case of a breakdown under the terms of the lease agreement.