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Gard News 200, November 2010/January 2011

An Electronic Chart Display and Information System displays a ship's position on electronic nautical charts in real time with very little effort on the part of the navigator, and is generally hailed to be an invention set to revolutionise and vastly improve the safety of navigation.

ECDIS: a very useful navigation tool, but does not replace the navigator.

Amendments to the International Convention for Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) Chapter V, Regulation 19 (V/19) make the carriage of an Electronic Chart Display and Information System (ECDIS) mandatory for ships flying the flag of contracting states.1 The amendment will come into force on 1st January 2011.

The following ships must be fitted with ECDIS if engaged in international voyages:
- passenger ships of 500 GT or upwards constructed on or after 1st July 2012;
- tankers of 3,000 GT or upwards constructed on or after 1st July 2012;
- cargo ships, other than tankers, of 10,000 GT or upwards constructed on or after 1st July 2013;
- cargo ships, other than tankers, of 3,000 GT or upwards but less than 10,000 GT constructed on or after 1st July 2014;
- passenger ships of 500 GT or upwards constructed before 1st July 2012 must be fitted not later than the first survey on or after 1st July 2014;
- tankers of 3000 GT or upwards constructed before 1st July 2012 must be fitted not later than the first survey on or after 1st July 2015;
- cargo ships, other than tankers, of 50,000 GT or upwards constructed before 1st July 2013 must be fitted not later than the first survey on or after 1st July 2016;
- cargo ships, other than tankers, of 20,000 GT or upwards but less than 50,000 GT constructed before 1st July 2013 must be fitted not later than the first survey on or after 1st July 2017;
- cargo ships, other than tankers, of 10,000 GT or upwards but less than 20,000 GT constructed before 1st July 2013 must be fitted not later than the first survey on or after 1st July 2018.

As can be seen from the above, ECDIS will become mandatory for certain new ships on delivery. Existing ships not fitted with ECDIS will be required to retrofit the equipment "at the first survey", in accordance with the applicable schedule above.  Although the "first survey" may not coincide with dry-docking, owners should be aware that substantial work could be involved in retrofitting this equipment, which could take the ship out of service. IMO has recommended that consideration should therefore be given to carrying out the necessary modifications in dry dock before the mandatory implementation date. The agreement of the ship's flag administration would be required to postpone retrofitting beyond this date.

Existing ships that will be permanently taken out of service within two years of the  applicable implementation date may be exempt from its application.

The mandatory carriage of ECDIS already applies to high-speed craft built after 2008, with the requirement applying from 2010 to high-speed craft built before 2008.

Chart carriage requirements
From 1st January 2011 carriage of ECDIS will be accepted as compliance with the carriage of nautical charts requirement in SOLAS V/19, paragraph 2.1.4, as long as the ECDIS meets the latest IMO performance standards2 and the ship has in place a back-up system as required by IMO and the flag state. An electronic chart display system that does not meet IMO ECDIS requirements is called an ECS, and does not fulfil the SOLAS chart carriage requirement.

In order to comply with chart carriage requirements ECDIS can only use SOLAS-approved charts (official charts).3 To meet SOLAS requirements the chart must be issued by or on the authority of a government, a hydrographic office authorised by a contracting state or another relevant institution so authorised.

Electronic Navigation Chart (ENC) is the database used with ECDIS. ENCs are vector charts, issued officially by or on the authority of a state, authorised hydrographic office or other relevant government institution and is designed to meet the requirements of marine navigation. An ENC meets the standards set by the International Hydrographic Organization (IHO) and uses a data format defined by IHO, known as S-57.

Although ENCs are available for most frequently used routes and ports, it may be some time before ENCs cover all navigational areas, especially more remote parts of the world. If ENCs are not available for a certain area, ECDIS may be operated in Raster Chart Display System (RCDS) mode. The RCDS mode uses Raster Navigation Charts (RNCs), which are digital copies of paper charts and are issued officially. The use of RNCs requires the approval of the flag state, and the vessel is also required to carry an approved portfolio of charts (APC), for use together with RNCs.

Regular updates are available for ENCs and RNCs. This information is normally available in digital format, but manual updating is also possible. Manual updates would normally be emergency updates which may be provided by way of warnings using systems like Navtex or Marine Notices. Remote updating may also be a possibility. It is of extreme importance that the performance of the ECDIS is not compromised during installation of updates.

If an ECDIS uses unofficial charts, it no longer complies with SOLAS requirements, and enjoys the same status as an ECS. ECDIS will provide a continuous warning if the chart in use has not been issued officially.

In addition to alarms and alerts generated by ECDIS to indicate system malfunctions, ECDIS provides automatic route checking in the planning stage and automatic alarms and alerts to respond to set parameters during the route planning and monitoring stages. Irrespective of the chart on display, ECDIS will generate alerts with reference to the largest scale available of the relevant chart. However, as the ECDIS automatic alarm function is lost when it is operated in the RCDS mode, it is recommended that a corresponding paper chart is used for ensuring that the best situational awareness is achieved, as the ECDIS screen size restricts the size of the chart display.

ECDIS is an aid to navigation that is liable to malfunction or power loss. As such, it is required that a vessel should have an approved back-up for ECDIS that meets IMO and flag state requirements. The two most common back-up systems are expected to be either an approved portfolio of paper charts or an additional ECDIS. If ECDIS is used as a back-up, the back-up should be connected to an electrical source independent of the primary ECDIS and should have independent GPS input. Like the primary ECDIS, it is a requirement that the back-up system contains up to date information. The back-up should be so arranged that in case of ECDIS failure the transition to navigation using it should be as smooth as possible and should not in any way compromise the safety of navigation.

Although ECDIS is a sophisticated piece of equipment, and may have the facility to display and use data from various other equipment, including overlay of information such as radar targets and information, AIS information, etc., its primary function is to facilitate route planning and route monitoring to ensure that a vessel gets safely to her destination. Even though the additional information available may be useful to navigation, it may clutter the display or result in information overload that may serve to distract the navigator or lull the navigator into a false sense of security. Non-chart data should be used judiciously, and the operator should be aware of how to activate the function that will instantly disable all non-chart data.

As an example, ECDIS is not a replacement for radar, GPS or other navigational systems. The radar should continue to be used for anti-collision. Cross-checks should regularly be carried out to verify the integrity of ECDIS, such as, but not restricted to, verification by visual references and in poor visibility by radar. Most importantly, lookout by sight and hearing should be maintained as required by the "Collision Avoidance Regulations". If these simple important rules are not followed, the navigator could quite easily lose situational awareness and fail to notice any deviations that may result in dire consequences. Over-reliance on electronic systems is quite common. It is easy to be lulled into a sense of complacency, especially when there has been no cause for concern over extended periods. Such complacency leads to the navigator being out of the loop to the extent that he fails to notice errors or discrepancies which would have been noticed if watch-keeping guidelines and bridge management procedures were correctly adhered to. Such lapses have often led to accidents that should have been avoided. The human should be in control at all times.

ECDIS is a very useful navigation tool, but does not replace the navigator. ECDIS is designed to make navigation safer and to reduce the workload on navigators by replacing paper charts with an electronic system capable of useful automatic functions. However, the efficiency and usefulness of the equipment is defined by the operating skill of the navigator, his understanding of the information displayed, his appreciation and management of any shortcomings of the equipment and his ability to make optimum use of the information in order to ensure safe navigation. This can only be achieved by proper training.

ISM and STCW make it incumbent on the owner/operator of the vessel to ensure that their navigating officers are adequately trained to ensure safe operation of their ships. There are many sources of ECDIS training, such as maritime colleges, specialist flag state-approved training centres, courses run by the manufacturers of the equipment, etc. As functionality and operational controls of equipment may vary considerably depending on the make and model of the ECDIS, training should be not only generic but also specific to the equipment to be used, and of a structure that recognises the complexity of the equipment. It is quite normal for port state inspectors to check that the ship's personnel are adequately trained to perform their duties; navigating officers using ECDIS will need to provide the inspector with  satisfactory evidence of such training. Certificate of successful completion of the ECDIS course should be government-approved.

The above amendments to SOLAS have been introduced on the back of results of studies carried out by various organisations. A DNV technical report4 indicated that the use of ECDIS may reduce grounding frequency by 11 per cent to 38 per cent. This was based on the actual current and near-future ENC coverage at the time the report was issued. One would hope that with continuing improvement in ENC coverage a high reduction in groundings will be seen. One would also hope that with proper training the human-machine interface would operate at levels high enough to achieve results far better than predicted.

Read more about ECDIS
More detailed information is available from the IMO, IHO and BIMCO websites and from various books published on the topic, such as ECDIS and Positioning by Dr Andy Norris, published by the Nautical Institute.

1 As set out in regulation V/19, Paragraph 2.10.
2 In the EU, ECDIS compliance with the latest IMO performance standards is denoted by a label on the equipment comprising a wheel. In addition, the label will denote the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) standard to which the equipment is approved. IEC is an independent approval required by flag states; the standard for ECDIS is IEC 61174.
3 As defined by SOLAS V Regulation 2.2.
4 Report No: 2007-0304, rev. 01.