The ECDIS revolution is upon us, apparently. Beginning in 2012 various classes of vessels will be required by law to carry ECDIS. In light of the the first of a series of international conferences was held in London, UK, on the 23rd and 24th Nov to discuss the revolution and ponder how it might all work out. I decided to waddle over there and see what was going on.
Here is the ubiquitous diagram showing how ECDIS is going to be phased in.
The opening keynote speaker began with a look at a grounding incident, the LT Cortesia. It is traditional at shipping type conferences to begin with a grounding and I usually look forward to it. The vessel had ECDIS on board and this might have helped avoid the incident if they had known how to use it. However while you could conclude, as many did, that training in ECDIS could have caused the incident to be avoided, you could also conclude that training in radar, charts, navigation and getting enough sleep would also have helped.
A subsequent speaker pondered the question as to whether the glass is half full or half empty. His suggestion was that maybe the glass was over specified for the requirement and was therefore a waste of money. This is an interesting notion. It says look at the problem from a different angle which I like. Unfortunately that was about the last glance I got at any lateral thinking.
According to another speaker George Patten once declared “Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.” Another worthy sentiment which also got mostly ignored as the main topic at the conference was training and this is an awful lot about telling people how to do things. I am interested to know why training is taken as an unquestionably necessity. It is expensive, difficult to organize and time consuming. The alternative is to make the kit easier to use. There were some hints at this. One speaker noted that young people could easily switch from one computer game to another. He associated this, quite validly, with a certain mind-set but I would also have added that those games are designed to be easy to use. They are often also more sophisticated and complex than ECDIS will ever be.
A second theme that ran through the conference was one of paranoia. The pirates are coming for us, the cyber ‘somethings’ have probably already got us and the GPS satellites are going to fall out of the sky. There was much anecdotal evidence to support this but a lot of this was really just a combination of technophobia and people generally being daft. The shipping community often act as if they don’t realize that there are other users of GPS or even that GPS was not actually developed for shipping in the first place. From this perspective it is very easy to see how the notion of reviving the antique Loran transmitters might seem appealing. This is now called eLoran which sounds sexier and presumably we will be seeing iLoran shortly. In the meantime if the solar flare maximum in 2013 does cripple the GPS system then there are many sectors where this would cause a massive impact. Possibly there is some scope for collaboration here or at least an interchange of knowledge.
Who knows the truth? Is the GPS chain really very vulnerable?
Although this was an ECDIS conference there were still plenty of raster charts around. 10 out of a total of 24 chart slides were, by my count, raster charts. In fact whenever somebody wanted to illustrate something on a chart rather that make a point about ECDIS they tended to use raster. Why? Well probably because raster charts look better. The cartography is clearer and more readable. ECDIS may be the future but it looks rubbish.
Safety is another common underlying theme of all these conferences. Safety is one of these unassailable things that give rise to a lot of hypocrisy. Everyone makes a big fuss about how safety is really, really important. No cost is too great if it might save just one life. Then everybody goes cutting corners and only implementing the absolute minimum that the law will allow. In the case of ECDIS why does it have to be mandated? If it were any good then why of the world’s 50,000 odd large commercial vessels do only 10% currently use ECDIS? The questions were raised ‘Has it ever been
proved that eNav is safer than paper navigation? What would constitute proof?’. Good questions I thought and possibly tricky to answer. The problem is that people operate to a perceived risk level. They avoid what they think is dangerous and are comfortable with what they think is safe. Real and apparent risk can of course be quite different which is why some car drivers (genuinely dangerous) are scared to go in a plane (proven to be very safe). So if something affects your level of perceived risk, makes you feel safer, then you will start behaving more dangerously. ECDIS will make masters more confident with their situation and so less risk adverse. They will cur more corners and narrow the margins. The vessels will get there faster and be more efficient but there will be incidents on the back of this. Vessels will be piloted in a way that would be fool hardy without ECDIS and the question about improved safety gets a bit hypothetical.
The ever wonderful UKHO made a presentation where they claimed that chart licenses were not really so difficult to figure out. ENC cells are sold in groups called units. So having identified which cells you need you then need to find the set of units which contain these cells. For each unit you can choose a license period from 3 to 12 months. 4 x 3 months is obviously more expensive than 1 x 12 months (why?). Then you can apply quantity discounts and this gives a starting price in USD. But this is not what you will pay since the chart agent will have a special and undisclosed rate with the UKHO and then your shipping company will likely have a deal with the chart agent. This all adds up to a complex sum involving guesswork. I can’t actually think of a way of making this more complicated. This presentation also gave rise to the most tweeted comment from the whole conference ‘You wouldn't leave your desktop 10 years without updating. ECDIS is no different especially with charts’. A comment with a certain irony since some 30% of that organization's desktop computers are over 7 years old and still running Windows 2000.
This is a sneak preview of the UKHO’s e-Navigator due to be launched early next year.
The purpose of the conference is to understand the ECDIS revolution and determine what is needed to make it happen. Thus began day two. Understanding ECDIS is a worthy cause but possibly understanding computers, even if just a little, would be a worthy pre-requisite. The conference as a whole had a definite tendency to slip into what could be termed ‘comfortable’ discussions. How many ECDIS should be on board? Exactly how many days training are needed? How often should the officer of the watch look at the ECDIS? The ECDIS as such is kind of taken as a fait-accompli, a black box all done and dusted which everyone has to work round. The truth is that ECDIS is a poorly specified and rather primitive computing system. The effect of all the regulations surrounding ECDIS has been to badly stifle its development. Rather than considering ECDIS to be finished we should really be looking at ways to improve it. Until the shackles of regulation are released a little the ECDIS chart display is always going to look poor and cluttered, the user interface will require a manual and every route plan will generate hundreds of useless alarms.
Day two was interrupted for me by spending an hour trapped in one of the hotel lifts. That really wasn’t fun although I did escape unscathed.
Concluding the conference it was agreed that lots of training would be needed, that over-reliance on ECDIS was bad and that the only way to tame the ECDIS beast was a broad swathe of standardization. The concluding remarks from the conference were published by ECDIS Ltd here.