The revolution that has taken place in bridge design and layout over the last two decades becomes apparent when comparing state of the art bridges from the mid 1990s and today. It might comes as a shock to some of the newer navigators and deck officers to learn that equipments such as GPS, GMDSS stations, VDRs, AIS, ECDIS and BNWAS were not required – and in some cases not even developed – on the older vessels.

The banks of screens that are the hallmark of a modern vessel would also have been absent with all pieces of equipment likely to be stand alone and housed where space permitted.

It might comes as a shock to some of the newer navigators and deck officers to learn that equipments such as GPS, GMDSS stations, VDRs, AIS, ECDIS and BNWAS were not required – and in some cases not even developed – on the older vessels.

The banks of screens that are the hallmark of a modern vessel would also have been absent with all pieces of equipment likely to be stand alone and housed where space permitted.

Although a modern bridge may look devoid of equipment other than the screens and a few controls it does in fact contain very many essential systems. In some cases – radar for example – the hardware other than controls and display is located outside of the bridge.

Their purpose is manifold; to provide the navigator with the information needed to plan a route from A to B; to watch and warn of hazards while navigating the route and to provide a constant stream of data needed to make decisions as circumstances change.

Today there are rules and guidelines that attempt to dictate how a bridge should be configured. The reason for this is that experts have determined that more regard must be taken of human/machine interfaces if safety is to be improved. They may be correct but there are conflicting points of view that state that reliance on equipment is contributing to lowering skill levels and can even be the prime cause of some incidents.

Regardless of the rights and wrongs, bridge design is changing and will continue to change as might the means of control where contact could become less hands on and more hands movement as gestures and sensors combine in the futuristic control systems that presently exist mostly in the realms of science fiction.

There is no doubt that the technological advances in navigation have made life a great deal easier for navigators but there are traditionalists who say that they have also had a detrimental effect on the skills needed to navigate safely. Today it is AIS, ECDIS and GPS that is taking some flak but much the same was said in the 1950s when radar was first making its way onto ships’ bridges.

GPS has revolutionised navigation and is used also for providing evidence of compliance with MARPOL and SOLAS requirements such as emission controls and collision avoidance. All these aids to navigation have been welcomed by seafarers even if sometimes reservations have been made as to their effect on traditional skills.

The introduction of mandatory ECDIS to the bridge of all passenger vessels and cargo ships above 3,000gt is nearing the end of the initial roll-out programme. Along with the VDR and GPS, ECDIS provides the framework on which e-Navigation will be built although that would seem to suggest that smaller vessels will be outside of what eventually emerges.

Led by the EU, regulators and the IMO have firmly embraced e-navigation which is now also beginning to be linked with the concept of the autonomous unmanned ship. Projects involving both concepts are underway in various countries but the consensus is that while there may well be experimentation gaining universal acceptance is still some time in the future.
Another area that has received IMO attention in recent years is Arctic ship operation.

The driving force of reduced transit times between Europe and the Far East for cargo vessels has lessened at the present as has the interest in oil and gas in the high latitudes but the growth in expedition cruise ship construction offset those negative factors.