Pilots in Ireland use handheld e-navigation units to assist ships into ports and overcome ECDIS limitations for harbour manoeuvrings
While ECDIS has become a key navigation aid for sea voyages, it has its limitations for harbour navigation, which a portable pilot unit (PPU) can overcome.
Port of Cork pilots John Horgan and Tony Mulcahy discuss the challenges and benefits of PPUs and ECDIS with Maritime Optimisation & Communications.
During the early years of ECDIS adoption, it was primarily used to create passage plans from one port to another. On arrival at the destination port, a harbour pilot would join the bridge team and agree a passage plan from sea to the berth.
As more regulations were introduced, ships were required to produce passage plans for their complete voyage from berth to berth.
Nowadays, when a pilot boards a vessel fully equipped with ECDIS, a passage plan produced by the ship’s crew is already displayed on the ECDIS. “Although it may differ slightly from the pilot’s intended plan, it is discussed and adjusted as the pilotage proceeds,” say the two pilots.
With many different ECDIS manufacturers, the hardware and software can vary greatly. “Although the functionality of an ECDIS will be fairly uniform, it is not feasible for a pilot to be familiar with every system and configuration,” they say.
“In practice, most bridge teams prefer to interact with the ECDIS themselves rather than have a pilot change their configuration or preferences. Pilots will often request a certain view or zoom level which will then be set up with the bridge team.”
Sometimes, this arrangement can be a limitation as the pilot does not have full access to a very important aid to navigation during a critical time for any vessel – when it is entering or leaving a port.
PPUs counteract limitations
In response, a pilot will often use their own device which could be a mobile standalone unit or plugged into a ship’s automatic identification system (AIS). “Irrespective of which PPU system the pilot uses, they have full control over the type of information displayed,” say the Port of Cork pilots.
“The format and displays can be set to the pilot’s own preferences. Passage planning and berthing plans can all be added in advance of boarding and are quick and easy to deploy.
“Thus, the pilot can move from ship to ship and be confident that the PPU can immediately get down to the task of conducting the pilotage of the vessel,” they say.
The portable display allows pilots to move around the bridge and bridge wings while still having access to the display.
“As with ECDIS, during river passages and transits, headings, speeds, AIS targets, passage plans with safety zones and predictions are all displayed,” say the pilots.
“It is when carrying out close quarter manoeuvres close to berths that the portable systems are of real benefit. The pilot has instant access to immediate information on the dynamic movements of the ship, from accurate position fixing, course and speed determination and predicted movements,” they add.
Using the PPU effectively allows the pilot to place less emphasis on viewing the ship’s systems such as ECDIS, although they will always want access to the ship’s radar display.
“It is important that pilots and bridge teams are aware of the benefits and potential problems with both ECDIS and PPUs. Bridge teams should be encouraged to take an interest in the pilot’s PPU,” says the pilots.
“Both the ECDIS and PPU can be used as a check against the other. The pilot will be capable of diagnosing if any errors or problems are as a result of information from the pilot plug interface or from their own equipment.”
PPUs, as opposed to ship’s navigation equipment, are not covered by specific standards of design, compliance or performance under the IMO requirements. Each PPU manufacturer has designed and built their devices using pilots during their development and testing programmes.
“As a result, pilots, because of their knowledge of their area and the ships they handle, have proved crucial in providing feedback during this process. The manufacturers have therefore produced excellent, robust and fit-for-purpose systems,” say the pilots.
“It is, however, the pilot’s own expertise, in combination with the PPU’s benefits that makes the PPU an invaluable aid and useful tool in the bag of the ship’s pilot.”
Two types of PPU explained
A PPU is a mobile, computer-based system pilots bring aboard a vessel to use as a decision-support tool to aid navigation in confined waters.
PPUs come in two categories, either as a standalone device, or one that connects to the ship’s AIS via a pilot plug. Both systems provide a functional personal ECDIS with the electronic chart displayed as it would be on a laptop or tablet.
The standalone equipment operates independently of the ship’s systems and applies a real time kinetic (RTK) correction received from a shore station.
Using the RTK signal ensures the position, heading and rate of turn accuracy is very high. The information is displayed on an iPad or laptop with ENC charts and suitable pilotage software.
The pilot plug system uses inputs from the ship’s equipment. It is lightweight with one/two small units, one a wireless pilot plug repeater, the other a sensor which gives position, course and speed data independent of the ship’s sensors.
Information is displayed on an iPad or laptop with ENC charts and suitable pilotage software. Due to sometimes unknown errors in the ship’s equipment, the pilot must be aware that the information delivered via the pilot plug may have reliability issues and must be treated with caution.
P&I advises on risk mitigation through e-navigation
Shipping companies can reduce the risk to life, cargo and their vessels through careful planning, training and having redundancy processes for e-navigation. They should invest in their navigators and ECDIS to prevent ship collisions and groundings. For shipping insurers at the world’s protection and indemnity (P&I) clubs, reducing the risk of financial loss through accident prevention is critical.
UK P&I Club risk assessor Markus Westphal outlined some of the key issues and solutions shipping companies should consider in e-navigation.
“Undoubtedly, the advent of electronic navigation aids over the last few years have eased the workload on bridge teams,” he says. “But their use comes with a certain amount of risk.”
This includes their power needs and the increasing levels of data they produce.
Mr Westphal says owners should consider redundancy and maintenance strategies for e-navigation systems.
“Sophisticated electronic systems do not always thrive in the harsh maritime environment,” he explains, “So, uninterrupted power supplies should be used and the equipment maintained to the highest standard,” Mr Westphal advises.
Perhaps the greatest safety focus should be on training seafarers on the correct use of ECDIS and other forms of ship navigation to prevent accidents occurring.
“Overreliance on electronic aids needs to be avoided, and information verified when possible, such as establishing the ship’s position by traditional means,” says Mr Westphal.
For example, plotting the position of the vessel on the ECDIS system to confirm the quality of the signal from the global positioning system satellite constellation.
Mr Westphal says owners should ensure their seafarers can use ECDIS correctly with the right safety depth contours and alarms set.
“The bridge team should have received type-specific training on the ECDIS system,” he explains. “While careful passage planning and supervision will verify the alarm parameters such as depth contours are set appropriately.”
E-navigation technology provides information to the officer on watch on a ship in a timely manner. But there are dangers with providing the watchkeeper with too much data. Ship operators should reduce the risks of data overload.
“During busy parts of the passage, radar ranges and chart overlays should also be considered to avoid information overload on the officer on watch,” says Mr Westphal.