Shortcomings in current e-navigation technology compounded by limited bathymetry data is making safe navigation challenging, say maritime accident investigators
ECDIS can be difficult to use to its full potential and its safety alerts are widely ignored, according to a report published by two European government investigation branches.
The Danish Maritime Accident Investigation Board (DMAIB) and the UK’s Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) published a report following their joint study into understanding the practical application and usability of ECDIS.
Their key findings show there are still many deficiencies in ECDIS application and functionality. Both DMAIB and MAIB said the study “found a wide spectrum of ECDIS integration and usage”.
From their interviews with 155 ECDIS operators, users unanimously said, “the real-time positioning provided by ECDIS was a major contributor to safe navigation.”
However, thereafter the picture was bleak for ECDIS use, despite these systems being in service for nearly two decades on ship bridges. DMAIB and UK MAIB described ECDIS as still being in an implementation phase globally.
Investigators specifically found navigators were ignoring safety alerts or had disabled these functions from ECDIS for several reasons.
“Most of the automated functions designed to alert the watchkeeper to impending dangers were not easy to use and lacked the granularity for navigation in pilotage waters,” said DMAIB head Oessur Hilduberg and MAIB chief inspector of marine accidents Andrew Moll in a joint statement.
This leads to a high number of false alarms, which eroded confidence in automated warning functions. “Most operators disabled the alarms or ignored alerts,” they said.
“To be an effective tool for safe navigation, ECDIS needs a high degree of operator input, but many watchkeepers appeared to have limited understanding of the systems they were using.”
Bridge teams mainly use ECDIS to the extent they felt necessary for regulatory and company policy purposes.
“Current system shortcomings, compounded by limited bathymetry data, make safe navigation challenging and do not augur well for future automation of the navigation function,” said Mr Moll and Mr Hilduberg.
They hope this report will be a catalyst for change in ECDIS design, implementation and application.
“Improvements can be made at every level,” they said, “from the agile setting of performance standards, through human-centred design to ensure users interface effectively with complex technological systems, down to operator training and setting procedures and best practice.”
Mr Hilduberg and Mr Moll thought the most important factor for improving ECDIS is ensuring “digital navigation becomes the primary means of navigation across the industry.”
The study was conducted to support future ECDIS design, training strategies and to develop best practice.
It followed a qualitative methodology, primarily based on semi-structured interviews with users and observation data gathered between February and July 2018 during sea voyages in European waters on 31 ships of various types.
Both MAIBs also used information from investigations into ship groundings since 2008, which repeatedly discovered ECDIS was the primary means of navigation, but was not being used to its full potential.
“There was a significant mismatch between the intention of the performance standards and system designers, and the way the watchkeepers were using the system,” said Mr Moll and Mr Hilduberg.
During the study, investigators found ECDIS was used as the primary means of navigation, or as a back-up or navigation aid. At one end of the spectrum, ECDIS was used on paperless ships with a high level of bridge system integration, with purpose-designed cockpit-style bridge layouts and multiple ECDIS and multi-function displays integrated with sensors and systems.
At the other end of the spectrum, there was a stand-alone ECDIS and paper charts were the primary means of navigation. ECDIS was used as a navigation aid or for ‘training purposes only.’
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