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Navigation on ships (charts, ECDIS and passage planning)

Charts (paper and electronic)

Charts (paper and electronic)

Other than in exceptional circumstances, ships are supposed to navigate using only information supplied by national hydrographic institutions for that specific purpose. Historically, the data was presented on paper navigation charts but although paper charts are still an authorised aid to navigation and in regular use on many ships, most ships today make use of electronic charts displayed on an ECDIS. SOLAS requires ships to have a back up for ECDIS which can a second set but which is often a portfolio of paper charts.

Navigation charts are primarily used for passage planning and this is done on the chart table which is commonly placed behind the bridge itself. It is important that the chart relating to the current position of the ship is always on the chart table in case of an emergency as this will allow hazards in the immediate vicinity to be identified and appropriate action taken.

Once they have been produced, paper charts remain valid until a new chart is produced by the relevant hydrographic office. During this time, if they are part of a ship’s folio of charts they must be maintained up to date with information that is published from time to time in Notices to Mariners. As long as this is done, the chart may be several years old before it needs to be replaced.

The situation with ENCs is quite different and, to many peoples’ minds, unnecessarily complicated and expensive. The cost issue was quite controversial in the run-up to making ECDIS mandatory and there is no doubt that installing an ECDIS will add to the costs for ship operators, especially those that opt for maintaining paper charts either as the primary or back-up method of navigating – in some cases being obliged to do so by the flag state. With paper charts and ENCs being approximately equal in price, the result will be a doubling of initial costs.

The greatest criticism that has been levelled at the method of supply of electronic charts is that true ownership does not really pass to the ship operator because the payment is not for the chart itself but a licence to use it for a fixed period. The licence period for ENCs can be three, six, nine or 12 months. Additional chart data may be added to the licence at any point during the licence period and there is no requirement for all data to expire at a common date.

This allows users to hold only the data that is appropriate for their operations at any given time. Some countries do not allow data to be licensed for a shorter period than 12 months. Where shorter licences are available, they generally carry a pro-rata price although the rebate is less in some cases.

One thing that can be said in favour of the licensing system is that, for ships operating in the spot charter market, a voyage outside of its normal trading region need not cost as much in charts as would otherwise be the case. Obtaining a licence to use a chart can be done in a variety of ways. On systems where the ECDIS is populated with ENCs bought as and when needed, the licence will be included in the price charged for the ENC which might be supplied by way of digital media, USB or download. On those ECDIS that are delivered with a complete folio of ENCs pre-installed, shipowners may subscribe to a service that either requires them to request a licence for a particular chart in advance or one where the licence is activated the moment the ship sails into the area covered by the ENC. Once the licence for a chart expires, the chart will continue to display but it will no longer be possible to load and apply updates to it.

If the chart is still needed for navigation because the ship must pass through the area covered by it to complete a voyage, this may leave the vessel open to action by PSC inspectors. If this does happen it should be quite simple for the shipowner to purchase a new licence and update the chart within a very short space of time. It should be noted that much of the data used to produce ENCs is historic and not the result of recent surveys. It is for each national hydrographic office to produce ENCs of its territory but not that of its neighbours even though in some cases this may mean that the display on the ECDIS may be missing features in parts.

The problems that could arise because of this and which could impact on the safety of ECDIS were recognised by the International Hydrographic Organization (IHO) which responded by establishing the Worldwide Electronic Navigational Chart Database (WEND). WEND covers the standards to which charts must be produced and principles of co-operation between hydrographic offices and establishes the concept of a network of Regional Electronic Chart Coordinating Centres (RENCs) that allows members of the IHO to cooperate to resolve overlaps and gaps in coverage.

Each RENC takes over the responsibility in its area for the collation of ENCs and updates for the region and through the exchange of the regional datasets and their updates between all RENCs each RENC can offer an identical global dataset for ECDIS. It was not intended for the RENCs to become distributors of ENCs to vessels. That role was left for commercial organisations to apply to become value added retailers (VARs) and to develop their own distribution channels in much the same way as Inmarsat services are delivered by service providers. The WEND concept has not been fully adopted by all ENC producing nations and some still insist on distributing their ENCs individually either through chart data suppliers or directly. There are currently two RENCs in existence: Primar and IC-ENC.

Primar is headquartered in Norway and includes the national hydrographic offices in Brazil, Croatia, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Greece, Iran, Latvia, Mozambique, Norway, Poland, Russia and Sweden. IC-ENC has offices in the UK and Australia and its membership comprises Argentina, Australia, Bahrain, Belgium, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, Denmark, Ecuador, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Mexico, Mozambique, Netherlands, New Zealand, Pakistan, Peru, Portugal, Romania, Russia, South Africa, Spain, Turkey, United Kingdom, Uruguay and Venezuela.

When an ECDIS is supplied by its manufacturer, some will be delivered with a complete world folio of ENCs, some will come preloaded with ENCs agreed between buyer and seller and some will be devoid of ENCs altogether. It remains the owner’s responsibility to ensure that ENCs for the voyages a ship is undertaking are both licensed for use and up to date.

If the ECDIS has no or insufficient ENCs installed, the owner must obtain them from an authorised distributor appointed by a RENC or national hydrographic office as appropriate. Being only data, an ENC can be delivered by any method of direct transfer (CD, DVD, USB etc) the ECDIS supports or via broadcast download using the ship’s communication system.

Martek Marine’s iECDIS also has an additional option of updating using the GSM networks by way of an integrated modem.

There are distributors all over the globe just as there always have been for paper charts, but the very different method of using ENCs has led to a small number of specialist distributors appearing. All distributors can deliver ENCs in S-57or S-63 format for the ECDIS to convert into system electronic navigational chart (SENC) format but some of the major companies will have a proprietary SENC format that certain ECDIS makers have integrated into their systems.

Where an ECDIS maker has preloaded the system with a full or partial folio, the licences still need to be obtained from a distributor. Even when the only charts available were paper charts, SOLAS required ships to have up-to-date official charts on board for their intended voyage.

Updating Charts

Paper charts are updated manually by way of tracings supplied by chart agents and using information contained in Notices to Mariners (NtMs) which are distributed by various flag states and which can be obtained by subscription or by collection from customs and port authority offices. Most port agents maintain a collection of NtMs which they make available to ships consigned to them. With the advent of satellite communications it has become possible to distribute NtMs using broadcast services and e-mail.

ENC updating is a far easier task, only involving installing the update data, which can be provided by CD/DVD, e-mail or broadband. Some ECDIS and some chart providers’ software can recognise which ENCs need updating and perform the update automatically whereas others require intervention from the ECDIS user. It is important when updates are done by ECDIS users to log which updates have been applied.

If a user forgets to update an ENC, it will still display but obviously without the update. This could prove dangerous and could result in a PSC detention. In this respect, ENCs are no different from paper charts. Some advanced ECDIS have additional features such as weather, tidal and even information on latest pirate activity that can be overlaid on the ENC display. These services also rely on broadcast information and often use the same software that manages chart updates to ensure the latest information from these services is being displayed.

ENC graphics and standards

National hydrographic offices are the only official sources for chart data for SOLAS and electronic charts produced by official hydrographic offices for use with ECDIS must be vector charts that conform to standards laid down by the IHO. The key standard that applies to current ENCs is S-57 which covers the data and S-63 which is an S-57 chart with additional security encryption to deter illegal amendments and pirating of ENCs. ECDIS makers have been obliged to incorporate means of dealing with the encryption in their products.

Raster charts are not considered as complying with SOLAS requirement for ECDIS, but their use may be permitted for navigation in areas where no official ENC exists. A raster chart may also qualify as a back-up for an ECDIS.

Although an S-57 ENC is the requirement for SOLAS, manufacturers of ECDIS have devised their own graphics and hardware configurations and the data that is contained within an ENC will need to be converted into a System Electronic Navigation Chart (SENC).

Some major distributors of ENCs have developed their own system standards which a number of ECDIS makers have incorporated into their systems. Sometimes ECDIS makers refer to products that can operate with several of these distributors as ‘multifuel’ ECDIS. There are a number of ECDIS makers that distribute the official AVCS dataset in their own internal SENC format.

These services can in some instances reduce the ENC installation time as the dataset has come in a converted state. The number of OEMs offering this service is low because of the need for a large install base to make the service profitable as each SENC is proprietary. Not all hydrographic offices allow their data to be converted to SENC on shore.

S-57 is the current standard for ENC production but the ECDIS makers and the IHO are already looking to the future and a new standard, S-100, is in the process of development. S-100 came into force on 1 January 2010 and is the document that explains how the IHO will use and extend the geospatial standards for hydrographic, maritime and related issues. S-100 extends the scope of the existing S-57 Hydrographic Transfer standard.

Unlike S-57, S-100 is inherently more flexible and makes provision for such things as the use of imagery and gridded data types, enhanced metadata and multiple encoding formats. It also provides a more flexible and dynamic maintenance regime via a dedicated on-line registry. S-100 provides the data framework for the development of the next generation of ENC products, as well as other related digital products required by the hydrographic, maritime and geographic information system (GIS) communities.

Work has been completed at the IHO on the latest version of the presentation library which is now mandatory for all systems. IHO is also working on the new ENC standard S-101, derived using S-100. The International Association of Lighthouse Authorities is using S-100 as the basis for the e-Navigation concepts being developed.

Because the new presentation library will mean that new systems will need to incorporate it and older systems may need upgrading, buyers of ECDIS systems should satisfy themselves that they are purchasing a system that conforms to the latest requirements.



ECDIS has evolved from a means of displaying charts electronically to the foundation of e-navigation. For a long time, and until it was clear that ECDIS would be made mandatory, there were few manufacturers active in the field targeting commercial ships. Several of the early systems, which had evolved from products for the leisure sector, did not meet the initial performance standards for ECDIS and have been discontinued although they can still be used on non-SOLAS vessels if required.

In essence an ECDIS is a computer programmed with appropriate systems to display electronic charts either on the device itself if it is stand alone, or onto a screen in an integrated bridge or navigation system.

The requirements for installing ECDIS have been rolled out according to a programme begun in 2012. Although the majority of vessels are obliged to have an ECDIS, the requirement is not universal and applies only to passenger vessels above 500gt, tankers above 3,000gt, other vessels above 10,000gt and other vessels between 3,000gt and 10,000gt built after 2014. This leaves many shortsea vessels exempt from installing an ECDIS and could hinder the uptake of e-navigation or its effectiveness in future.

ECDIS Operations

An ECDIS can be used in two ways – for passage planning and for operational navigation. When both are done by navigators on board, there are benefits to be had but many ECDIS models allow for passage plans to be imported rather than entered manually.

The idea that a passage plan can be prepared in a shore office and transmitted as a data file is intriguing but can be dangerous if wrong parameters for the ship (draught, beam or length for example) are included and not checked. Some ECDIS models apparently have the ability for a passage plan to be reversed at the touch of a button, which is a useful feature for some ships on regular routes but highly dangerous if the system cannot make allowances for traffic separation schemes as has happened in some cases.

The prime role of an ECDIS is to display navigational detail. Both paper charts and their modern equivalent are produced using the exact same information. But whereas the former is nothing more than a graphic representation of a defined area with depth contours and hazards marked, either when the chart was produced or added by navigators using information from Notices to Mariners, electronic navigation charts (ENCs) are designed to have an interactive element.

Electronic charts come in two basic types: raster and vector. Both types are drawn or compiled using data from actual surveys and information from authorities concerning aids to navigation, restricted zones, navigational hazards (wrecks or submarine cables for example).

A raster chart is a scan of a paper chart and as such has the same clear and easy to use style mariners have been accustomed to. What makes navigation with raster charts appealing is that the updating is automated and GPS position can be overlaid to give real time situational awareness.

A vector chart on the other hand is derived from a database that permits a computer generated representation of the chart making use of detailed data that can be further interrogated.

Objects on a vector chart can be selected or ‘clicked on’ to reveal further details and the data that is contained within the chart can be accessed by the ECDIS to activate certain features. For example, the depths and contours on a raster chart are mere inanimate pixels. While the vector chart will show the same figures and lines, if an alarm feature relying on depth is activated, the ECDIS can inform the user of any conflict or danger.

Zooming is a highly useful feature of modern computing capability and the ECDIS is no different. However, when zooming a raster chart, every detail will grow larger and more pixelated, making it difficult to interpret. By contrast, zooming on a vector chart will simply move the display to a different scale without any pixilation occurring. If zooming out on a vector chart to the smallest scale, some objects and features may become over-written and it may be necessary for the operator to turn off some layers of detailing.

In addition to its basic role as a device for working with electronic charts, the ECDIS can also be used to display additional layers of information. Not all can do this and not all are set up to do it. When navigating, it is not unusual for radar, ENC, AIS and other data all to be displayed on a single screen. This permits all information to be visible at all times but not everyone agrees that this is a good thing. A cluttered display can lead to some important information being missed while in the event of a system failure it may take vital time in setting up displays on other screens or on the radar or AIS equipment itself.

However, the ability to overlay information when passage planning can be very useful. Depending on the ECDIS maker, it may be possible to overlay information on weather, piracy, ECAs and Notices to Mariners (NtMs). One service that can do the latter is the UKHO’s Admiralty Information Overlay. Distributed as a free service to subscribers to AVCS, the overlay is designed to be displayed on top of a standard ECDIS chart display and can be switched on and off without changing the underlying chart.

As the user zooms in or out, the ECDIS will automatically select charts of a suitable scale and the overlay features relevant to that selected chart. For example, a Temporary NtM that applies only to a large-scale chart will not be displayed when smaller scale charts of the same area are being used.

All Admiralty temporary and permanent NtMs that are in force are included and each is displayed as a simple red polygon (usually rectangular) with red hatched fill which indicates the area affected by the NtM. Each NtM carries the same NtM number that is used in the Notices to Mariners Bulletin. The full text of the NtM is included as an associated text file which can be displayed by selecting the ‘Temporary Notice to Mariners’ or ‘Preliminary Notice to Mariners’ feature in the ECDIS Pick Report. Any associated diagrams can also be viewed through the Pick Report.

C-MAP also has an overlay service for NtMs and its OceanView service allows weather and piracy overlays either on systems on board or in a shore-based office for voyage planning purposes.

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. At issue are the various different operating systems and the fact that there are several documented cases of incorrect use of systems having led to groundings and collisions.

Almost all modern vessels leave the shipyard with a fully integrated navigation or bridge system in which ECDIS is a vital element. Undoubtedly an ECDIS is most effective when combined with other navigation systems but this may not have been possible on every, or even most, retrofit ships.

Many owners have opted for a simple standalone 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 backup 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.

The requirement for a second ECDIS if paper charts are not carried is to ensure that in the event of a system failure, a backup system will be available. With paper charts onboard, a means of navigation will always be there even should a machine fail but the question has been raised concerning what the legal situation will be if a ship with dual-ECDIS installation has a system failure that would mean only one ECDIS available.

If this occurs at sea, the assumption is that the failed ECDIS will be repaired at the next port of call, but if that is not possible will PSC authorities permit the ship to sail since it is clear that no backup will be available in the event of the second ECDIS also failing? Some have suggested that a third ECDIS will resolve this problem but that is true only if two units do not fail.

Since an ECDIS is nothing more than a specialised computer, the likelihood of systems suffering electronic failure is on par with any other computer system. In an integrated bridge system it is likely that an extra display will always be available thus removing one source of potential failure that exists with stand-alone systems.

The matter of virus infection is however a different problem altogether and although recognised as a problem from the early days, the rising interest in cyber security does mean that more attention is being paid to the possibility of deliberate attempts to disable ships’ navigation systems.

Few ECDIS 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 preloaded and only require a licence key to be entered for the chart to become available.

For shipowners 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.

Passage planning

Passage planning

Since the purpose of navigation is to get safely from one place to another, perhaps the most essential item in this regard is the passage plan, which can exist both in written form and as an electronic version programmed into an ECDIS or track control system. Proper passage planning should take into account not only the shortest or most economic route but also hazards that may be encountered on the voyage.

Passage planning is a lesson taught to navigators at most nautical colleges and the IMO has produced its own guidelines on the subject and these can be found in the regulation section. The guidelines were formulated in 1999 before the advent of emission control areas so they do not cover factors such as switching fuels to meet local requirements. In fact, in order to avoid having to comply with rules that mean burning more expensive fuels, some ships are now routed so as to remain outside of ECAs for as long as possible. This added dimension to passage planning is something that navigators must be aware of.

The advent of ECDIS has brought about a major change in the way passage planning is undertaken on some ships with some systems having passage planning features that can produce plans more or less automatically taking into account various parameters entered into the system by the navigating officer. These features are intended as improving safety but they have been identified as being implicated in a number of grounding incidents over the last few years.

Nevertheless, the features of some ECDIS equipment is also helpful in ensuring compliance with emission regulations as ECA boundaries can be entered as a planning parameter. The same will apply to areas where discharges of things such as sewage or scrubber washwater are forbidden.

In most cases where an ECDIS has been implicated in an incident the problem has not been a failing of the feature itself but more a matter of unfamiliarity and misunderstanding of messages and alerts generated by the passage planning feature.

ECDIS also permits passage plans to be stored and used again for future voyages. While this can be a labour-saving feature, there should always be a validation of the passage plan for each voyage. In particular, attention should be paid to checking that the ENC data has been updated for new hazards and that the stored plan is appropriate for changed parameters such as increased draught or limited manoeuvrability.

Not every ECDIS has the ability for passage plans to be reused time and time again but third party systems that can are available. Some of these combine several products that allow for passage planning on board taking account of flag state, international and local regulations. The system can also take into account information from ship systems that, together with the integrated environmental regulations, can allow for better management of waste and operational requirements. Some can transmit information ashore and allow the shore office to monitor an operator’s entire fleet and update passage plans and systems as necessary.

Polar Navigation

Polar Navigation

An issue that has come in for particular attention in recent years is navigation in high latitudes and especially the use of the northern sea routes for commercial traffic and oil and gas exploration.

Ships have always navigated through ice-infested waters, but the conditions found in the Baltic, Black Sea and other areas that freeze, although harsh and damaging to ships, are quite benign compared to conditions nearer the poles. The interest shown in polar navigation has led the IMO to undertake the development of a Polar Code that places new requirements on ships operating in such regions.

As part of the work, the IMO first adopted voluntary guidelines for ships that have since evolved into the IMO’s mandatory Polar Code which has now been adopted and which came into effect for new vessels on 1 January 2017 and for existing ships a year after that.

The Polar Code is less extensive in many ways than the earlier guidelines with three chapters (9-11) covering navigation-related aspects including equipment, communications and procedures.

With regard to functionality and the type of equipment, almost nothing is said in the code, leaving the guidelines as the most comprehensive source of information. These are laid out in IMO document A 26/Res.1024 Guidelines for ships operating in polar waters. The document was published in March 2010 and flag states have been ‘invited’ to apply it to ships built after January 2011 and ‘encouraged’ to apply it to older vessels as far as practical.

The guidelines cover a number of areas with Chapters 1 and 12 being of particular interest to those involved in navigation.

Chapter 1 deals with the requirement for special ice navigators and refers to a later chapter as regards their qualification. In some parts of the world – Canada is a good example – ships were obliged to have an accredited ice navigator on board when operating in ice even before the guidelines were adopted and published. In recent years, the number of courses developed to teach ice recognition (there are more than 30 different types of recognised ice formations) and ice navigation has multiplied and there are even simulator courses available in some locations.

The additional requirements of Chapter 12 of the guidelines are not particularly onerous but the final requirement is one that equipment makers have responded to in a number of ways.

Ice radars

Ice radars

Conventional marine radars are inadequate for ice navigation (except when following an icebreaker) because they make use of echo stretching, or expansion. This technique stretches’ a radar echo to enable the target to be determined easily against background clutter. It is useful in high seas where the only high-intensity radar echoes are those from vessels, land or weather clutter but when used in ice the resultant radar image is at such a consistently high intensity that the radar operator must make adjustments to reduce the number of echoes – invariably removing many of the ice echoes.

With the prospect of extended navigation in Arctic waters, several leading radar makers have developed systems specifically designed for use in ice-infested waters. The technologies used by the companies to enhance their radar systems vary.

Some prefer to make use of standard 9GHz X-band navigation radar with special software being used to enhance the image. Kelvin Hughes’ ice version of its ETD radar systems, called MDICE, is available as an upgrade. MDICE uses a scan to scan correlation technique which integrates the returns from a large number of scans to improve target detection. Advanced image processing techniques enhance the visual quality of these returns, allowing clearer target differentiation via a quasi-3D representation. Adjustments are possible to fine-tune the system to suit prevailing conditions.

The Simrad ARGUS system also uses enhanced software that can display different types of ice in different colours. This allows navigators to distinguish softer younger ice from older and more dangerous hard ice and solid objects. In order to gain the best image of the ice, Simrad advocates having a dedicated X-band ice radar with its antenna sited a little lower than the main S-band radar and says it is better still to have two ice radars located at a distance from each other. Coupled with the software this can produce an almost stereoscopic image and having two ice radars also adds a degree of redundancy. The software needed can be pre-loaded into the radars but will only be activated if an upgrade key is purchased.

An alternative method adopted by other system makers is to split the signal feed from the X-band antennae into two, with one branch going to the conventional display and the other to the ice radar display by way of a processor module containing the necessary software. Rutter’s S6 radar is one such system, but its display is 12-bit as opposed to the normal 4-bit maximum systems used by most vessels. This allows for a display with 256 intensity levels and a much higher definition. Rutter also plans to incorporate wave and current information into its products to generate more information for end users.

Furuno’s FICE-100 ice radar is another hybrid device and when installed is connected to Furuno FAR 2xx7ARPA navigation radar without affecting any of that device’s properties or performance. Furuno says in its product description that the ice radar’s principle of operation is the opposite of the navigation radar, so it is not suitable to the actual navigation. It requires its own processor and device in order to be efficient due its different calculation algorithms.

Thermal imaging ice detection

Complementing radar with other methods of ice detection is a comparatively new idea. One means that has been tested by Kelvin Hughes is the use of thermal imaging cameras. The company the Kelvin Hughes worked with – FLIR – has also conducted its own tests in Greenland. FLIR claims its equipment is of particular use for detecting smaller pieces of ice.

A good lookout can spot these during daytime but at night the combination of darkness and fog or snow can limit the capability of regular eyesight to detect ice hazards. Thermal imaging cameras record the intensity of electromagnetic radiation in the infrared spectrum. All matter emits infrared radiation, even cold objects such as ice. In a thermal imaging camera, this infrared radiation is focused by a lens onto a detector and the intensity of the recorded infrared radiation is translated into a visual image.

Because thermal imaging cameras rely on thermal contrast instead of colour contrast they do not need lighting to produce crisp images during the night. They provide a good overview of the situation giving a much better idea of the surroundings than the narrow beam of a searchlight.

During tests in Greenland thermal imaging cameras were successfully used to detect pieces of ice of different sizes and shapes. These are generally divided into three categories: icebergs, bergy bits and growlers. Icebergs are floating chunks of ice with more than 5m of their height exposed above sea level. Bergy bits are pieces of icebergs showing 1m-1.5m above sea level. Growlers are pieces of icebergs showing less than 1m above sea level. With the thermal imaging camera all of those three categories were detected.

Due to their size, icebergs are usually relatively easy to detect by radar. On most occasions, using radar should suffice in detecting them but bergy bits are smaller than full-grown icebergs, making them harder to detect, both by radar and visually. Even the large bergy bits can be difficult to detect using marine radar, due to their shape: their sides are often oriented in such a way that radar energy is deflected away from the antennae. Combined with sea clutter, this characteristic can make it very difficult to spot them on the radar. During the test, many bergy bits were observed with the thermal imaging camera and they showed up very clearly in its image.

Growlers, being the smallest category, are the most difficult form of ice to detect both visually and on radar. Though small, growlers can still pose a serious threat even for ice-strengthened vessels. Growlers made out of ice less than one year old should not cause much damage to such vessels, if they maintain a safe speed. But due to its pressurised environment, ice from glaciers and multi-year sea ice can have a much higher density, so growlers made of multi-year ice can be a lot heavier than those made out of the less dense younger ice.


E-Navigation is a term that has come into vogue since 2000 but, like the word ‘digitalisation’, exactly what the term means can vary between individuals. Proponents and regulators alike see e-navigation as a universal force for good that will, among other things, improve safety, protect environments and enhance the commercial operation of ships and ports.

Others view it with suspicion, believing that there are ulterior motives behind its development and that there is little support for some of the declared aims of the various projects espousing it. Before exploring the concept further, it is necessary to look at the developments that have taken place in navigating technology and regulatory moves over the last two decades.

Today, e-navigation development has fallen under the auspices of the IMO but the idea has much earlier roots and could be traced back to the EU ATOMOS project begun in 1992. ATOMOS was an acronym for Advanced Technology for Optimizing Manpower on Ships, and its goal was simply to find ways to reduce manning on EU ships as a means of making them more competitive. At the time, the EU felt that European shipping was losing out to Asian and Eastern European competitors who had lower wage costs and could therefore consistently undercut European operators. In the early 1990s it was wages and not fuel that constituted the greatest part of an owner’s outlay.

The summary document of the first ATOMOS project (there were to be at least three more stages) contained the following conclusion:

“In terms of significance, many of the ATOMOS results should prove to be of substantial value. It is no secret that competition in the shipping industry is increasing day by day, with European shipowners being under constant pressure from third-world owners, or owners operating under third-world flags. The developments in the Soviet Union has not eased the situation for the EU fleet.

“Much related to the issue of competition is the issue of maritime safety, however very often in reverse proportion. ATOMOS research has found that everything else being equal, a low-manning ship equipped with ATOMOS technology is more competitive than a similar vessel equipped with conventional technology. A further finding of research is that modern, low manned, high-tech ships are (at least) as safe as conventional ships. Many of the technologies looked into during the ATOMOS project shows great potential for an even further increase in maritime safety, an increase that could easily become mandatory, and an increase that might not be possible for vessels with conventional equipment. 

“Given the trends outlined very briefly above, and given any EU owner operating conventionally equipped vessels profitably today, the combined ATOMOS results indicates that competitiveness, safety and profits would increase by the utilisation of high-tech vessels.”

While it may not be recorded in the ATOMOS documents, there was a belief that the project could eventually lead to unmanned ships being operated remotely by shipping companies and shore traffic controllers Perhaps realising that such a scenario was not going to be an easy sell, the project morphed in to something less revolutionary and aimed more at safer shipping.

The first summary document contains hints at what the IMO would be asked to promote, and which will be recognised as the core elements of e-navigation.

For example: “The aim was to develop and integrate voyage planning, track planning and navigation tools such as electronic seacharts and situation analysis in order to minimise manpower needs and operator workloads in the ship control centre. The direct consequence of the research was expected to provide means for optimised voyage plans with respect to economy and safety, taking account of fuel consumption, weather, wave data and other information.

“Further, the track planning part of the system was expected to increase safety by providing decision support during close encounters with other vessels, based on the international rules for collision avoidance.” It also said that “work was undertaken with the objective of examining current approaches to the integration of navigation, cargo handling and the control and monitoring of machinery to allow them to be performed, under normal operational conditions, by one man at a centralised ship control station.

“By considering factors such as ergonomic layout, man/machine interfaces and the optimisation of operating procedures, the aim of the task was to produce guidelines for the safe and efficient implementation of centralised ship control stations.”

It is interesting to note that the idea of unmanned ships has not gone away and between 2012 and 2015 the EU funded the Maritime Unmanned Navigation through Intelligence in Networks (MUNIN) project which according to the official description had the specific tasks to:

  • Develop the technology concept needed to implement the autonomous and unmanned ship.
  • Develop the critical integration mechanisms, including the ICT architecture and the cooperative procedural specifications, which ensure that the technology works seamlessly enabling safe and efficient implementation of autonomy.
  • Verify and validate the concept through tests runs in a range of scenarios and critical situations.
  • Document and show how this technology, together with new and more centralised operational principles gives direct benefits for non-autonomous ships, eg in reduced off-hire due to fewer unexpected technical problems etc.
  • Document how legislation and commercial contracts need to be changed to allow for autonomous and unmanned ships.
  • Provide an in-depth economic, safety and legal assessment showing how the MUNIN results will impact European shipping competitiveness and safety.

“Further MUNIN’s results will provide efficiency, safety and sustainability advantages for existing vessels in short term, without necessitating the use of autonomous ships. This includes eg environmental optimisation, new maintenance and operational concepts as well as improved bridge applications.”

It is clear that the EU is determined to follow through on the original intentions of the ATOMOS projects even if initially there did not appear to be much international interest in the idea outside of Europe.

Over the last few years this has changed and there are now numerous projects around the globe researching autonomous ship operation. Whether the concept will catch on remains to be seen because there are many obstacles both technical and commercial to overcome.

Defining e-navigation

Exactly what constitutes e-navigation is difficult to pin down. As far as the IMO is concerned, it has its roots in the MSC(81) meeting in 2006 when a roadmap aiming for eventual implementation in 2013 was drawn up. By 2009 it had developed these definitions:

  • E-navigation is the harmonised collection, integration, exchange, presentation and analysis of marine information on board and ashore by electronic means to enhance berth to berth navigation and related services
  • for safety and security at sea and protection of the marine environment.
  • E-navigation is intended to meet present and future user needs through
  • harmonisation of marine navigation systems and supporting shore services.

Even so, the IMO has added the concept of unmanned vessels to its safety agenda and at MSC 98 in June 2017 it considered a proposal on how IMO instruments might be revised to address the complex issue to ensure safe, secure and environmentally sound operation of Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS), including interactions with ports, pilotage, responses to incidents and marine pollution. It was considered essential to maintain the reliability, robustness, resiliency and redundancy of underlying communications, software and engineering systems. As a starting point, MSC agreed to start a regulatory scoping exercise over the four sessions of the committee, until 2020, which would take into account the different levels of automation, including semi-autonomous and unmanned ships.

While the IMO continues on its course for e-navigation, the EU and European governments are pursuing practical projects of their own. From the MONA LISA projects, the concept has advance to the STM (sea traffic management) validation project being carried out in Europe. The project has its own website at where details of the ports and ships involved in trial projects can found.

As its name suggests, STM is less about pure navigation and more concerned with managing marine traffic. Under the project, ships and ports share information openly with the declared aims of improving both safety and efficiency of shipping.

The IMO has also begun look at the efficiency angle and has established the Global Industry Alliance (GIA) as a new public-private partnership initiative of the IMO under the framework of the GEF-UNDP-IMO GloMEEP Project that aims to bring together maritime industry leaders to support an energy efficient and low carbon maritime transport system.

The GIA partners include a number of class societies, ship operators (mostly from the liner sector) and some equipment and marine fuel suppliers. The GIA was officially inaugurated on 29 June 2017 at a launch ceremony held at IMO’s headquarters at the margins of the first meeting of the IMO Intersessional Working Group on Reduction of GHG emissions from ships.

In his GIA launch speech, IMO Secretary-General Kitack Lim said the new alliance would help shipping to make its contribution towards greenhouse gas reduction and the mitigation of climate change, a key target for the United Nations under its Sustainable Development Goals.

One method of fuel consumption reduction being promoted by the GIA is the concept of Just in Time (JIT) ship arrival. Normally, when arriving at a destination port, ships can remain anchored for many hours or days until getting a berth. During this time, fuel is still being used – which can have a significant impact on port air quality. The parties involved recognise that JIT operation is not currently a common industry practice but want to determine if it could be applied across a number of different shipping sectors.

These are laudable aims, but some analysts believe that the commercial interests of cargo owners and ship operators are not being fully taken into account. In addition, the idea would mean that established legal principles around ship arrival under charter parties would become obsolete with all the implications that has for disputes and court actions until a new framework is established.

The independent view

The IMO’s concept of e-navigation is not shared by all and interest in independent navigational apps for mobile computing systems is growing among shipowners and other shipping bodies. Whether this is a trend that will continue is debatable. Some of the apps do appear to have attracted devotees but unless there is a regulation that mandates the use of any apps, the fact that they will not be universally adopted means that they could adversely affect safety under many circumstances.

It has been suggested that e-navigation would reduce the cost of maintaining existing aids to navigation. The argument for this is hard to justify because it would seem to imply that buoys and lights could be abandoned. Although that would be possible with the aids to navigation becoming merely items of data in an ENC, the consequences of a failure of satellite positioning systems or the onboard ECDIS would effectively leave the crew of a ship underway in restricted waters blind to all hazards and with no way of avoiding them short of their own experience and knowledge.

Just as with the use of existing navigational aids in the days before they were mandated, few can doubt that apps will inevitably find their way onto the bridges of some vessels. Their use restricted to the navigators’ own ships will not necessarily be contentious unless an incident results, but where apps are designed to interact with other ships the question of safety is paramount. There are a very small number of apps either in use of under development designed to be interactive with other ships.

Some have even suggested that such apps could make COLREGs redundant as ships’ systems will be able to calculate and carry out appropriate manoeuvres. Such a use would almost certainly be resisted by navigators and regulators alike because the manoeuvres chosen would not be predictable or even understandable to other vessels nearby that were not under the control of a similar app.

Whatever direction e-navigation does take, one thing that is certain is that national governments and bodies such as the IMO can only regulate for systems that are available and few national governments are in the position to invest much in the way of financial resources.

Implementing e-navigation

At NAV 59 in September 2013 the IMO re-established a Correspondence Group on e-navigation under the coordination of Norway. The group included many flag states and industry bodies along with organisations such as the IHO and IMSO. The terms of reference of the group for those interested in further research are set out in document NAV 59/20, paragraph 6.37. The Correspondence Group completed a report in March 2014 which was discussed at the inaugural meeting of the IMO’s Sub-Committee on Navigation, Communications and Search and Rescue (NCSR) in July 2014 and passed to the MSC meeting in November 2014.

The report contained an e-navigation Strategy Implementation Plan (SIP) which can be accessed at the Norwegian Coast Guard website. The SIP sets up a list of tasks and specific timelines for the implementation of ‘prioritised e-navigation solutions’ during the period 2015-2019. Several ‘solutions’ are included in the SIP of which five have been prioritised.

Using the numbering given in the plan, the five prioritised solutions are:

  • S1: improved, harmonised and user friendly bridge design;
  • S2: means for standardised and automated reporting;
  • S3: improved reliability, resilience and integrity of bridge equipment and navigation information;
  • S4: integration and presentation of available information in graphical displays received via communications equipment; and
  • S9: improved communication of VTS Service Portfolio.

S1, S3 and S4 address the equipment and its use on the ship, while S2 and S9 address improved communications between ships and ship to shore and shore to ship. It is quite possible that the SIP will be revised over time but its existence now provides a structural framework in which further developments are likely to take place and also gives those involved in developing and using the technology needed to realise e-navigation further information to work with.

It could be argued that as long as all developments are related to the ship’s equipment, e-navigation is little more than the development of standards and integration of equipment that operates just as well on a standalone basis. This is a valid argument because even though ships above a certain gross tonnage are required to be fitted with an operational ECDIS meeting current requirements, there is in fact no obligation upon the ship’s officers to use it for navigation unless a flag state or the ship’s owners says otherwise.

However, point S9 of the SIP mentioned above would suggest that more control over vessel traffic management will be possible if ports and regional authorities wish to invest in appropriate equipment. Real time information on water depths, currents, wind and weather coupled with programmed vessel movements will potentially allow for more efficient traffic control and improved safety.

As things stand, ships – whether they are using ECDIS or not – must rely on data that is fixed either electronically in the ENC or in tide tables and printed publications. Despite ENCs being a recent development, in some cases the data used in their production may be many years old. The only dynamic data that is available is the wind speed and direction as recorded on the ship’s instruments and water depth directly under the vessel.

In situations where wind and tide are in conflict, expected water depths may not be made and the potential for grounding is very real. In a port equipped with tidal gauges and buoys feeding real time data from sensors at appropriate locations, ships could be provided with far more accurate information that could be used to improve both efficiency and saving. Whether ports or other authorities will be prepared to invest in the equipment and systems needed to make e-navigation worthwhile will depend upon several factors. In many countries, the cost could be beyond the resources of the authorities and in some ports the level of traffic may not warrant any outlay. In 2018, the IMO issued an updated version of the SIP under MSC.1/Circ.1595.

Towards standardisation in e-navigation

The subject of e-navigation has been a fixture of the agendas of MSC and the NAV sub-committee for several years now and at MSC 101 in June 2019, the IMO approved a number of circulars related to the development of e-navigation.

These included Guidelines for the standardisation of user interface design for navigation equipment. The aim is to promote improved standardisation of the user interface and information used by seafarers to monitor, manage and perform navigational tasks which will enhance situational awareness and improve safety of navigation. The guidelines, including icons, apply to INS, ECDIS and radar equipment, and they may be applied to other electronic navigation equipment where applicable.

Another approved circular covered amendments to the performance standards for the presentation of navigation-related information on shipborne navigational displays (resolution MSC.191(79)). The implementation date of the revised standard for shipborne navigational displays on the bridge of a ship for radar equipment, ECDIS and INS should be 1 January 2024; and for all other navigational displays on the bridge of a ship 1 July 2025.

The IMO has also issued a MSC resolution on guidance on the definition and harmonisation of the format and structure of maritime services in the context of e-navigation.

The purpose of the guidance is to ensure that maritime-related information and data exchanged as part of different maritime services are implemented internationally in a harmonised, standardised and unified format. All maritime services should be conformant with the International Hydrographic Organization (IHO) S-100 framework standard, which specifies the method for data modelling and developing product specifications.

An MSC circular on initial descriptions of maritime services in the context of e-navigation includes what is intended to be the first draft of maritime service descriptions and is an initial contribution for the harmonisation of their format and structure. The initial descriptions of maritime services include vessel traffic service information, navigational assistance, traffic organisation, maritime safety information, pilotage, tugs, vessel shore reporting, telemedical assistance, local port information, nautical charts and publications, ice navigation, meteorological, hydrographic and environmental information and search and rescue.

These are expected to be periodically updated, taking into account developments and related work on harmonisation being conducted in collaboration with other international organisations, such as International Hydrographic Organization (IHO), the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the International Association of Marine Aids to Navigation and Lighthouse Authorities (IALA), the International Maritime Pilots Association (IMPA) and the International Harbour Masters Association (IHMA).

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