The route to more user-friendly ECDIS

Overreliance and misuse of ECDIS has been blamed for a rise in ECDIS-assisted groundings. Credit: Jeppesen

The use of electronic chart display information systems (ECDIS) represents a significant change to bridge operation. If operated correctly in combination with traditional techniques, they should increase situational awareness and navigational precision to improve vessel safety. However, despite the constant march of technology, the term ‘ECDIS-assisted grounding’ continues to appear in headlines and accident reports with disturbing frequency, as investigators repeatedly uncover inappropriate or negligent use of the technology by crews.

Human error is to blame for about 60–80% of all accidents at sea and, in the realm of ECDIS, people have been blamed for poor set-up and system knowledge, over-reliance on the technology, operating it with key safety features and alarms disabled or circumvented, and failure to comply with the ship management system. There is also evidence of users struggling to make the transition from paper to electronic charts and to come to terms with conflicting controls and user interfaces.

In an effort to improve the industry’s track record, the UK Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) has partnered with the Danish Maritime Accident Investigation Board to carry out a qualitative study that will involve interviewing bridge teams on 20 vessels, as well as company management and pilots, to gain a first-hand understanding of all the issues related to human error.

Meanwhile, the Nautical Institute is working with the Comité International Radio-Maritime (CIRM), the principle international association for marine electronics companies, and the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to develop design principles for a standard interface, known as S-Mode, expected to bring proprietary ECDIS into closer alignment.

Tony Brown, principal inspector at the MAIB, told SAS there were currently more than 30 ECDIS manufacturers and “umpteen different versions”, which can cause confusion for navigators moving between ships using different systems.

Modern electronic navigation systems no doubt have had a positive impact on safety, providing navigators with access to a mass of information in one place and enabling them to view critical position and voyage information in real time. However, crews’ misuse of equipment remains a major cause for concern.

John Dolan, deputy director of loss prevention at the Standard Club, said human error was involved in a large number of the club’s claims, particularly with modern electronic navigation systems. He stressed that equipment failure with ECDIS was less common.

The human behind the screen

Evidence suggests that officers often use ECDIS incorrectly to appraise charts and other navigation information when planning and executing voyages because of factors such as laziness and a lack of competence in the use of the technology. While ECDIS can be modified to adhere to the draught of the vessel to give a real-time picture of where the water is safe, the inputs must be correct for that to function effectively. That is the responsibility of the human behind the screen.

In addition, ECDIS certified as compliant with regulatory requirements are sometimes operated at a very low level of functionality and with many key safety features disabled or circumvented. On the flip side, they may be relied upon entirely, at the expense of using visual, audio, and other cues.

Paul Drouin, course leader for the Diploma in Marine Accident Investigation at Lloyd’s Maritime Academy, told SAS, “Even if inputs are all correct, users can be lulled into a false sense of security by their over-dependence on electronic charts, which could mean they do not see small fishing boats or pleasure craft that don’t have an automatic identification system [AIS]. ECDIS may have a radar overlay, but small vessels do not always show up on that until in close proximity.”

Human error was identified as the main factor in the much publicised grounding of chemical tanker Ovit in the Dover Strait in 2013. A report by MAIB found that ECDIS was used as the primary means of navigation, which the officer of the watch followed even though the route shown passed directly over the shallow Varne Bank.

A more recent MAIB report into the December 2016 grounding of bulk carrier Muros on Haisborough Sands, off the coast of Norfolk, United Kingdom, revealed several errors in officers’ use of ECDIS. Among other things, the passage plan was revised by the second officer less than three hours before the grounding and this had not been seen or approved by the master. Warnings of the dangers of the route, automatically generated by the system’s ‘check route’ function, were ignored.

Brown said that in six of MAIB’s published investigations into groundings, ECDIS was the primary means of navigation. He added that there was a “mismatch” between how ECDIS was being used and the way the “manufacturers had designed it to be used and the way regulators had regulated for it to be used”.

Statutory requirements for ECDIS training are covered in the STCW Convention, the ISM Code, and SOLAS Chapter V. The IMO ECDIS Model Course 1.27 was introduced to ensure that navigators have the required generic level of understanding, competency, and confidence to apply ECDIS in all aspects of navigation. However, the vast array of ECDIS manufacturers and systems prompted the requirement, under ISM and STCW, for companies to be responsible for familiarising users with the specific equipment installed on board their vessels.

However, companies should really be exceeding statutory requirements to ensure their crew members are fully competent and understand the limitations of ECDIS, Dolan believes, with additional training for navigators that goes beyond simply adhering to compliance. “On occasions, we see senior officers needing more time to become proficient in the use of the equipment.” He added that crew should be taught about how uncertainty and stress can affect people’s decisions.

Finalising S-Mode

The use of different ECDIS and user interfaces on board every ship creates “unnecessary complications” for crew, according to Colin Gillespie, deputy director of loss prevention at North of England P&I Association. It is a piece of safety equipment that should be “as simple as possible to use”, he stressed, yet the range of icons and naming conventions can be a headache for navigators who have to move frequently between vessels and for pilots required to board vessels they have never seen before. For this reason some pilotage authorities now require staff to use portable pilot units.

The Nautical Institute, CIRM, and IMO are currently finalising specifications for S-Mode, a framework that will standardise the way navigation systems, including ECDIS, present essential information used to perform key functions related to safe navigation.

In line with its e-navigation Strategy Implementation Plan, the IMO will set out core design principles, adapted from commonly recognised interface design heuristics, for things such as standardised terminology, abbreviations, and icons for frequently used functions (hot keys) and groups of functions (shortcuts). The intention is to enable users to locate and interpret important information quickly and react decisively.

Draft guidelines were submitted to the IMO’s subcommittee on navigation, communications, and search and rescue in March 2017, and the final document is scheduled for delivery later this year or in early 2019.

Harry Gale, technical manager at The Nautical Institute, told SAS that the push for S-Mode had been going on for 10 years, but it now had “significant” backing from industry,

manufacturers, and flag states. “When S-Mode is applied in the design process, it should reduce the time needed for familiarisation and improve users’ understanding of safety functions.”

Understanding human error

When it comes to reducing the potential for human error, improving technology is only part of the answer. You also need to examine the safety culture of the company, as well as crews’ attitudes to using ECDIS, particularly as it continues to evolve and take over from paper charts and less advanced digital systems, such as Decca Navigator System, sat nav, and GPS.

This is what prompted the MAIB/Danish Maritime Accident Investigation Board study. In the project, researchers will shadow officers of the watch and navigators on board about 20 commercial vessels where ECDIS is the primary means of navigation, including cruise ships, tankers, container vessels, ferries, general cargo ships, and dredgers. They will examine and investigate, in everyday use, how well systems perform, and whether they meet user requirements in terms of ease of use, safety, and other factors.

Brown, of MAIB, said, “We want to explore why it is being used the way it is and, through informal questioning, uncover end users’ views on things. We really have no agenda and no preconceptions of where that will lead us.”

The plan is to interview shipowners and ship managers on issues such as why a particular ECDIS was installed, the training they have in place, and how the ship management system reflects electronic aids to navigation. ECDIS manufacturers and hydrographic firms will be questioned about their motivations, and pilots, who have experience as independent parties on board vessels, will be asked how crews perform when using systems.

The report’s findings, due to be published in early or mid-2019, are expected to feed into the design of future navigation equipment and, potentially, industry guidance and legislation. Given the fact that there are more than 400,000 navigation officers employed worldwide and that the human element has been identified as one of the weakest links for safety, the results could have a far-reaching effect on the safety of the global fleet.

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