E-navigation needs to be designed to enable seafarers, not hinder them, says Martyn Wingrove
Smart navigation is the combination of multiple technologies that improve safety, reduce voyage costs and integrate with port operations. ECDIS is the beating heart of this technological trend as the central navigation point on a ship’s bridge.
ECDIS and electronic navigational charts (ENCs) can optimise voyage planning and safe route execution, but only if they are designed by navigators. By adding radar overlays and information from the automatic identification system (AIS), watchkeepers can view surrounding vessels and hazards.
Sharing route data improves the situational awareness of bridge teams helping to prevent groundings and collisions.
All this has been tested by the €43M (US$47.5M) Ship Traffic Management validation project that concluded in June this year and demonstrated the benefits of e-navigation, including 20% fuel savings and fewer collision incidents. Other trials are underway in Singapore and South Korea to test more e-navigation technology.
Using smart navigation, bunker costs and emissions can be reduced by optimising routes using software, algorithms, weather routeing and artificial intelligence. Voyages are reviewed on the bridge by captains and senior officers to verify safety and fuel efficiency and analysed by shore managers who advise captains on routeing. However, the responsibility remains with the ship master.
Therefore, ECDIS should be accessible e-navigation technology, but for some seafarers, operating its functions and applications is challenging.
A European ferry captain told me in July about some of the ECDIS issues he has faced during his career. These are common issues that many others have encountered and overcome.
"ECDIS should be accessible e-navigation technology, but for some seafarers, operating its functions and applications is challenging"
This friendly captain, who wished to remain nameless, told me it is cumbersome to view and create routes on ECDIS, even on a large display. Because, unlike paper charts, the screen can only show a slice of the voyage – like looking at a hallway through a keyhole. However, unlike paper charts, safety navigation notices can be added swiftly and more information can be displayed.
This captain said some ECDIS (not wanting to name any particular manufacturers, except they are from eastern Asia) are not intuitive enough for users. He thinks they are developed by computer experts and not seafarers, citing the forms in the menu system as evidence. In comparison, he found that ECDIS by European manufacturers was better designed for users.
These issues can be overcome through familiarisation training and redesigning ECDIS software, which manufacturers are working on.
ECDIS is reliant on information from outside sources, from ENCs, global positioning satellites (GPS), gyrocompass and other bridge devices, and alarm ranges set by officers. If one of these is incorrect, such as an out-of-date ENC, badly set safety contour alerts, or the GPS is jammed, then navigation risks arise.
Sometimes issues can go unnoticed. The European ferry master told me there was an issue with the gyrocompass on one ship that meant the ferry’s navigation, including docking, was out 1.5˚ for five years before the issue was fixed.
The point is ECDIS can be the centre of e-navigation, but so should seafarers. Without their intuition, experience and knowledge, navigation cannot be smart enough.
Technology should assist navigators, not hinder them. It should enhance their operations as much as saving shipowners’ money, to reduce collision and grounding risk and ensure everyone gets to their port safely and on time. Companies are looking at autonomous shipping, but, the industry should develop human-enabling smart navigation technology.