Earlier this year we talked to UKHO’s Hugh Phillips about the problems identified by the International Hydrographic Bureau (IHB) whereby some, especially older, ECDIS were subject to software anomalies, which might result in some navigation data not displaying correctly.
The IHB developed and issued a check dataset in late 2011 to alert mariners to these problems and last month it issued a further circular advising that of about 500 responses received, only one third of ECDIS units tested functioned completely as expected.
While this made a great headline, the truth is rather more prosaic (especially as these results were from a limited sample). Conversations with well-placed sources in the hydrographic and chart supply community suggest a degree of relief that the need for ECDIS software upgrades is a subject becoming more widely discussed.
Chart agents, system suppliers and industry bodies are clearly frustrated that the anomalies have occurred, but are confident the issue can be resolved through education. Lesson one is that unlike other bridge navigation systems, ECDIS functionality is based on complex software which requires regular maintenance and updates.
As a result of the IHB findings, NAVAREA notices have been transmitted around the world and also issued by a number of Hydrographic Offices in Notices to Mariners. There is now far greater confidence that navigators are aware of the issues, even if they did not respond to the survey.
One chart agent told us the issues were ‘widely known about’ prior to the latest circular. The agent said they had received some worried calls from customers but added the alert was ‘ultimately a good thing’ if it forced ship owners to think about whether they are compliant and to make the checks.
The IHB meanwhile has been working with ECDIS manufacturers, alerting them where specific issues have been identified and providing clarifications to standards to assist them in resolving the problems. The anomalies range in severity, whilst some present serious issues that in a few cases could be ‘a ship-stopper,’ for the vast majority there are work-arounds which are described as part of the IHO checks.
To help to ensure that the check dataset is as widely available as possible the UKHO has added it to all ENC CDs and DVDs issued to Admiralty Vector Chart Service and Admiralty ECDIS Service customers. The dataset can be found in the INFOIHO CHECK DATASET folder. The Dataset and full instructions can also be downloaded directly from the IHO web site at www.iho.int.
The UKHO recommends that this check should be carried out on all ECDIS systems and the results reported to the IHO.
If an ECDIS is found to require a software upgrade to overcome any problems identified by the checks, the ship owner should seek advice from the original equipment manufacturer.
The issue reinforces the fact that ECDIS cannot be treated like traditional radar or even modern satcoms systems. It is a complex combination of hardware and software, especially when part of an integrated bridge system, which must be regularly updated and maintained. In this way ECDIS is similar to the millions of PCs and laptops that are sold to businesses every year and updated and maintained by an office IT department.
A quality installation and a proactive approach to software maintenance, especially remaining in contact with the equipment originator, are the best ways of ensuring that ECDIS remains fit for purpose.
This issue will be discussed by the IMO at the next meeting of the Maritime Safety Committee, commencing 16 May, with potential referral to the nextNAV sub-committee.
The IMO may revise existing Safety of Navigation Circulars to further emphasise this issue and to recommend to Member States that the IHO checks are carried out on all ECDIS fitted vessels flying their flag.
What is clear from our conversations is that any reminder at an official level would be a further wake-up call to a serious and ongoing issue.
By Neville Smith