Ideas for a new ECDIS

Dash GPS Unit

Techcrunch brings us the Dash in-car GPS navigator;

Map mashups may be one of the coolest things on the Web, but they would be even cooler in your car. Dash Navigation is announcing today that it will make possible exactly such vehicular mashups (the Web kind, not the actual kind). Dash is developing a GPS navigation system for cars that will go on sale early next year. The device will collects data about traffic conditions from all other Dash drivers, and estimates how long alternative routes will take on any given day. Since they will be connected through a cellular data network to the Internet, all sorts of geo-tagged information can be pushed to the device and combined with the on-board maps. Everything from restaurants and open houses to concerts, gas, and golf courses could be sent to the Dash and appear there on the map. Owners will be able to manage which mashups they receive through Dash’s Website. There, they will be able to drag feeds from sites like Platial, where they can create a Google Map of dog runs in San Francisco or yoga schools in LA. Link it to Zillow, and you will be able to get data on houses as you are driving around the neighborhood. Read More…

So what does this have to do with navigating a large ship? It is my belief this type of technology is going to save lives and millions of dollars in claims. As I’ve stated previously we need better collaboration at sea. GMDSS, the radio electronics suite carried aboard ship, is a powerful tool that provides tools such as group calling via DSC and real time chat via INMARSAT C, but how many ships utilize these user unfriendly features? The sad answer; almost never.

The now antiquated GMDSS system is not soley to blame. Inmarsat-B is no more difficult to use than pulling out the phone book (or in our case the ITU directory) and calling a local number but it’s rarely used even when it can prevent a collision at sea. The reason I explain in my first Pasha Bulker commentary HERE but I’ll share the pertinent excerpt;

To clarify there are two type of prevention systems; active and passive. The former being systems that require positive effort. In this case did the crew used their satellite comms to discuss the weather patterns with meteorologists or did they simply ignore the port authority’s warnings? Did the captain use his AIS to identify the surrounding ships and call fellow captains via GMDSS to discuss the situation? Did they have access to and use real-time weather data or wait for a 2-dimensional weather fax?

I go on to discuss how the technological improvements that are saving lives today are mostly passive. EPIRBs (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons) are the simplest example of this; they are secured to an outside bulkhead with a hydrostatic unit that releases and activates the device automatically when a ship sinks. In an emergency, however, we are trained to activate the device prior to sinking but the statistics show active use of this passive device is rarely seen by Coast Guard rescuers. The reasons are simple. Human nature has instilled us with a Can Do attitude that is only fostered by the dangers of our profession. Furthermore with recent moves to criminalize the mariner and increased pressures from management that real time communication enables some captains simple wait for the moment of eminent doom before asking rescuers for help. With the Coast Guard performing multiple duties (law making, judiciary, law enforcement, rescue) and new laws being written at an accelerated pace the fact mariners make the dangerous decision to delay rescue should not be surprising.

Early this year Jim Gray, a Microsoft researcher and beloved member of the tech community was lost at sea. The specific cause of his disappearance is still unknown but we are certain his EPIRB was never activated. Wired has a plausible explination for the failure;

Like many sailors, Gray could also be slightly careless about safety equipment. He stashed his emergency radio beacon — designed to deploy automatically underwater—on a shelf in the companionway, below deck, and didn’t always remember to bring it up before leaving the dock, according to Carnes.1 If a log had opened a big enough hole in the hull, Bilger estimates, Tenacious could have sunk in as little as 30 seconds; hardly enough time to fetch the EPIRB or start inflating a dinghy with the foot pump stored under the cockpit seat. If something bad did happen out there, Jim Bellingham says, Gray’s unflappable attitude may not have served him well. “With Jim being an engineer, you can imagine him thinking, ‘I can fix this’ — and then the whole thing snowballs. He was a level-headed, steady guy who wasn’t likely to panic. Which is maybe too bad, because a less-competent person might have grabbed the radio and shouted for help.” (click here for the full article)

As a Master Mariner I would say this explanation is not only plausible but likely. I would, however, like to add one additional reason he might not have grabbed the EPIRB; emergency situations challenge your persons resources. On commercial ships every officer is required to take a course in Bridge Resource Management. BRM is a process to use all of your available resources during critical operations. It came from the airline industry which found an alarming number of accidents happened despite prior warning from the equipment or crew…. mostly by captains with military backgrounds and a “can do” attitude who did not use or fully process information from either the equipment or junior personnel. Boiled down it’s a course in teamwork and processing the large amounts of data (lookout reports, radar, radio comms, gps charting, weather information….) that pours into the bridge. The last part is critical and a likely reason Jim Gray did not activate the most important emergency device carried at sea, he was simply too busy handling the situtation.

Let’s quickly list some of the most important improvements to our industry in the last ten years;

  • EPIRBs
  • Double Hulls
  • Weather Routing
  • Inert Gas Systems for Tankers
  • Vessel Traffic Services
  • AIS
  • GPS

Now a list of improvements that have great potential but have failed to be embraced by the industry;

  • Advanced GMDSS DSC features
  • Cyber-based training
  • Container tracking and scanning
  • Personnel Tracking (TWIC)
  • Homeport

Notice the difference? The first set are passive systems. Double Hulls require no action after being built, weather routing instructions get sent to the ship, IG systems are simply turned on (awaiting hate mail from engineering), Vessel Traffic requires only call ins, AIS and GPS only display not require data. On the flip side DSC features like group calling requires hours in front of the manual, container and personnel tracking require accurate/time consuming data from the field, ECDIS requires both data input and extensive training and the internet based solutions, Homeport and cyber-based training, require active user participation.

Looking at the above list Weather Routing, the collection and deciphering of weather data to re-route a vessel’s path around storms, is by far the most difficult activity but is a success and considered passive. Why? The hard work is done by shore-based experts. It also augments rather than replacing shipboard weather planning and it arrives via an easy to use device, the fax machine. This is the reason the DASH in-car system has great potential to save lives, it’s mostly passive.

The DASH has the potential to take information from the ship via satellite, be reprocessed by third party providers, and send it back to the ship in an easy to use format. Right now we have the ability to collect AIS data from surrounding ships, we also have third party providers who take the data and plot it in on well known platforms like google earth (visit then download their Google Earth plug in for an example). What we are missing is a delivery system, some way to get the data out to the vessel. DASH could be the answer.

Imagine this, an Electronic Charting Display (ecdis) that plots both AIS data and a radar overlay. This already exists but let’s add weather charting (or a weather dashboard?), real time piracy reports, Coast Pilot information…. How about the ability to highlight a section of the ocean with your mouse and send a text message to ships in that area? What if NOAA had the same ability to text only the ships located near the coast after a tsunami warning? I believe this would eliminate the ban of mariners; the undesignated distress relay (false alarm).

What about the shoreside magager? Could vesseltrax be designed for the Microsoft Surface? This technology plots data on touch screen device that looks like a plasma television laying on a coffee table but is capable of storing vast amounts of data and making it interactive. Suddenly the vessel manager could walk into the operations room, look at a map of all his ships then overlay weather/security/operational alerts. In an emergency he could touch a ship on the map then press a button to skype the vessel via his bluetooth headset, then watch the vessel’s emergency traffic, forward it to other vessels in the fleet and even drag the latest crew list and station bill to the Coast Guard REC… surface would then email the data and perform the other functions behind the scenes.

Think this is just one mariner’s dream of the future? gCaptain currently has the resources to make this dream happen using existing technology. We plan to grow into a resource that will be an integral part of your bridge team and an essential tool at all levels of the industry. If you would like to hire our development team or simple discuss ideas for the future please contact us directly. Till then, stay safe. -John

John A. Konrad, Master Mariner

John Konrad is a USCG licensed Master Mariner of Unlimited Tonnage currently working as Chief Mate aboard a 835′ship in the Gulf of Mexico. Since graduating from SUNY Maritime College he has sailed 4 of the world’s oceans and reports from his ship via satellite.