ECDIS – A new chapter begins

It is twenty years since the first ever ECDIS type-approval certificate to the IMO performance standards was issued by the Russian authorities on 29 March 1998 to Transas’ Marine NaviSailor 2400 although it is just six years since ships have been obliged to be fitted with one.

There had been earlier systems described as ECDIS but that was before the IMO adopted its first performance standard. After that, any systems built to earlier standards were reclassified as electronic chart systems or ECS. The IMO performance standards were revised in 2006 but mainly because of a lack of electronic charts, the IMO did not decide to make ECDIS mandatory until 2009, with the carriage requirement coming into force in 2012.

After first becoming mandatory on new passenger vessels of 500gt and above and new tankers over 3,000gt in July 2012, the rollout of ECDIS reaches its finale in July when all existing cargo ships other than tankers, of between 10,000 and 20,000gt will become liable to fit an ECDIS at their first survey after that date.

What constitutes the ‘first survey is defined in MSC.1/Circ.1290 and is ‘the first annual survey, the first periodical survey or the first renewal survey whichever is due first after the date specified in the relevant regulation or any other survey if the flag state deems it to be reasonable and practicable.

Unlike some of the more expensive equipment items that have been mandated in recent years, ECDIS was extensively taken up on a voluntary basis long before any requirement to do so was written into SOLAS. This final retrofit rollout will be the last opportunity for ECDIS makers to benefit from a mass market for after this, it will be only for new vessels and replacements that systems will be needed.

Last September was the deadline for upgrading ECDIS systems to the IHO S-52 presentation library standard released in 2015. Initially the upgrade was to have been completed in 2016, but due to some delays in preparing the new software by some system makers, the deadline was extended by the IMO. All new systems installed after 31 August last year should be compliant.

This was the first major upgrade to ECDIS and while most systems were upgraded successfully, there were problems with some makes and machines needed to be replaced completely. There is a lesson to be learned here because a mandatory software upgrade to machines that in some cases were just a few years old is an expense that shipowners had not expected.

There will inevitably be more updates needed in future so shipowners should probably consider makers that have a long record rather than cheaper newcomers. That said, the market has now shrunk to some two to three thousand ships annually which may be a bar to new entrants to the market.

Accidents will happen

When the last rollout phase is completed, there will no doubt be a move to expand e-navigation projects – especially in Northern Europe where there is a strong desire by local and regional authorities to manage shipping movements. However, the fact that no cargo ship under 3,000gt is required to use ECDIS and only those above 3,000gt constructed since 2014 must carry it does mean that thousands of smaller ships will be outside of e-navigation regimes unless new rules are formulated.

Small ships are very common in all parts of the world but especially in the crowded waters in Europe and Asia where there are many ports and large populations. Ships of just under 3,000gt are large enough to create hazards for other ships and if grounded could even close major ports. They are equipped with AIS and traffic management systems will have some information from them because of this but not the comprehensive passage plan that is recorded in the ECDIS.

Many vessels under 3,000gt do carry ECDIS but since it is not mandated, the controls on using and maintaining it do not apply, neither are there restrictions on modifications. It was the latter that was cited by the UK’s MAIB as a main cause of the grounding of the 4,950dwt bulk carrier Muros in the North Sea in December 2016 (see The Muros is a 2,998dwt ship so was not obliged to carry ECDIS.

The MAIB report also mentioned a study that had been undertaken at Lund University in Denmark that had identified several issues with ECDIS as reported by experienced users. It would appear that although many seafarers are perfectly happy with using ECDIS, some are more critical and raise serious concerns.

Many described the systems as unreliable, having a complex interface, cluttered displays and disturbing alarm functions among others. A not unexpected finding was that many experienced difficulties when transferring between systems.

Search for a common standard

The concerns identified will come as no surprise to many mariners as the Nautical Institute has been arguing for almost a decade now that there is an urgent need for a standardised display for navigational equipment and systems. The idea has been given the title S-Mode and the view of its supporters is that the standardisation would apply to most navigation systems.

The idea is that if all systems had an S-Mode that presented certain key information in identical ways, then seafarers moving between ships and different systems would not be faced with unfamiliar user interface of layouts, menus and displays when the S-Mode was activated. Equipment makers would still be free to develop their own unique features for systems if they wished to differentiate their products from the crowd.

The IMO has accepted the wisdom of the arguments in favour of S-Mode and has been progressing the concept; initially through the Navigation sub-committee and later its successor the Navigation, Communications and Search and Rescue (NCSR) sub-committee. NCSR has had a busy agenda over the past few years with the revision of GMDSS and e-navigation dominating its work load. In that period work on S-Mode has not been entirely dropped but has been put on the back burner.

In 2016 a correspondence group was established at NCSR3 to work on S-Mode and at the next meeting in February 2017 an information paper presented by Australia, South Korea, Nautical Institute and Intermanager was discussed at the meeting. It is planned that draft guidelines will be ready to discuss at NCSR5 in late February with a view to have a final version ready for adoption in late 2019.

If S-Mode is adopted and put into practice, its supporters believe that safety will be improved in emergencies and that could very well be true. But, the ability to revert to a standard display will not remove the errors that can occur through incorrect inputs, corrupted data or if the user decides not to make use of the S-Mode and misses some important information because of that.