ECDIS again blamed as cause of marine accident

A report by the UK’s Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) into the grounding of the 4,950dwt bulk carrier Muros in the North Sea in December 2016 once again highlights the incorrect use of ECDIS as a primary cause.

The report states that the ECDIS’ alarms had been disabled by use of software which it says is normally available only to service technicians but investigators could not determine when this was done and by whom. It is suggested that it may have been done to reduce the incidence of alarms sounding which is a common criticism directed at ECDIS in certain situations.

The examination of the ship’s ECDIS showed that although safety settings had been made, the ‘Check safety zone’ check box was not ticked and the ‘Highlight and display dangers’ box was set to ‘never’. Therefore, the guard zone was not active. Had it been active the route selected for the ship would have displayed over 3,000 warnings on the check route page – including the point at which the ship grounded.

The report was critical of the ‘simplistic’ manner in which the ECDIS was used. It also drew similarities with similar incidents investigated between 2008 and 2013 saying ‘Common themes identified included the disablement of the audible alarm, making the ‘guard zone’ inactive, not using automatic functions to check passage plans, using inappropriate chart scales and safety contours, and insufficient operator knowledge and training. Like the circumstances on board Muros, the ECDIS had not been used as expected by the regulators or the equipment manufacturers.

In its conclusions. The report says ‘the continued and potentially widespread deselection of automated functions to fit local contexts and reduce workload indicates that there are wider problems with the systems’ design. If this is the case, ECDIS has the potential to hinder rather than assist safe navigation.

The ‘alarm fatigue’ caused by ECDIS has been well-documented and it is anticipated that the introduction of version 4.0 of the IHO S52 presentation library19, which specifies the charted objects that should trigger and alarm, will result in fewer alarms. While other difficulties with the usability of ECDIS, such as those connected with the insufficient density of depth contours in pilotage waters, and the inconsistencies between ECDIS models related to terminology and safety-critical settings might be successfully addressed through hydrographic standards and regulation in due course, other usability issues will not.

Compliance with performance standards does not necessarily lead to the design of equipment that is intuitive to use and, as there are over 30 ECDIS manufacturers, the potential for variation is considerable. It is evident that several manufacturers are striving to improve ECDIS functionality, both at the request of users and on their own initiative. However, if ECDIS is to make its intended contribution to navigation safety, further research is required to assess in detail the difficulties faced by ECDIS operators and the consequences of the systems’ limitations so that these can be addressed in future designs.

There is however a twist to this case because the vessel’s gross tonnage is just 2998gt and therefore it falls outside of the minimum size for the compulsory carriage of ECDIS. It might be assumed that since the owner took the trouble and expense to retrofit an ECDIS three years after the ship was delivered, there would have been an effort to ensure it was used correctly. On the other hand, the ECDIS may have been ‘modified’ in the manner it was for the crew’s convenience only because it was not something that the ship was obliged to carry.

Nevertheless, the report’s findings on the use of ECDIS are probably repeated on many vessels. Having found ECDIS implicated in numerous previous incidents, the inclusion in the report of the findings of a recent academic study is perhaps grounds for the standards of ECDIS and its use to be revisited.

The study mentioned was by an MSc student student and investigator with the Danish Maritime Accident Investigation Board at Lund University and explored the experiences of ECDIS operators with a view to identifying ways to inform system design and development in the future. Inter alia, the research identified:

  • The technology was not reliable and could not be trusted.
  • User experience was required to determine when the information displayed was reliable.
  • Automated functions were deselected to fit local contexts and reduce workload.
  • Alarm functions were disturbing.
  • Information on ECDIS displays duplicated information shown elsewhere and led to clutter.
  • The operator-ECDIS interface was complex.
  • ECDIS use reduced basic navigational skills.
  • Difficulty was experienced when transferring between systems.

The MAIB report on the Muros can be found here.