Electronic Chart Display Information Systems (ECDIS) represent the navigational future. Used properly, they offer substantial advantages over the old paper and pencil variety, a continuous plot of the ship’s position, warnings about navigational hazards in the vicinity, and improved safety.
A huge bonus is the ease of correction compared to the labour-intensive manual correction process necessary with paper charts, which would drive a navigator with a world chart folio mad. So why is there some apprehension about the now-mandatory process that will see the world fleet fitted with ECDIS over a six year period? What is there to be afraid of in this hugely positive technological development?
There remain a number of major concerns about the adoption of electronic chart systems. None are new, but as with many developments which are enthused over by the manufacturers which have produced the new equipment, it is the translation from principle into practice that tends to be glossed over; for the changeover from paper to electronics represents a major change, and one that has important implications for training and bridge procedures. An ECDIS is not something that can be installed by the manufacturer, with a few reassuring words offered to the crew in residence, which is then left to make the most of this exciting piece of kit. Indeed, there have already been groundings where precisely this neglectful procedure had been adopted and had contributed to the mishap.
Perhaps it is the computer age we live in when few of us ever receive any formal training in the equipment we have to use every day which produces a mindset that regards an ECDIS as just another sort of business machine to become used to, when it is, for a navigator, a major “change of course”.
But it is also clear that during the developmental stage of ECDIS and its performance standards, insufficient emphasis was given to the need to develop a common presentation and standardised symbols and controls. There might be no great surprise at this – radar sets and most navigational equipment are subject to the same problems. But changing from one radar to another is very much less complex than changing from paper to electronic charts.
So training becomes a very much more serious matter. “Generic” training, which introduces the navigator to the principles of ECDIS, is absolutely essential as a precursor to the type training which will ensure that the navigator is capable of operating the equipment fitted to the ship he or she will sail in. And it is the development of this training which is still the subject of debate over its length, and extent, at a time when equipment is already being fitted to new ships, and retrofitted to others. It also has implications for the movement of officers around a fleet, especially if different types of ECDIS equipment are fitted. Officers will be required to undergo longer periods of familiarisation when they change ships, making them less flexible from a personnel department’s point of view. And in that the adoption of mandatory ECDIS will almost certainly be accompanied by a good deal of rapid development and equipment improvement, it is probable that regular updating and refresher training will be required. There are likely to be important implications for the operator who must, besides purchasing this new equipment, ensure that all the ships’ officers are competent with it. It is worth remembering that more than one significant “seaworthiness” legal case involved out of date paper charts. With ECDIS, the likelihood is that the charts will never be out of date, but the skill of the operator with his chart display will be the subject under review!
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