Monday, January 18, 2010

Where Electronic Charts Fit in eNavigation

By Edward LaRue, January 2010

This feature will be a quick tour of the development of electronic charts, and particularly the Electronic Chart Display and Information Systems, or ECDIS. As I prepared this story, I used some words from various IMO documents. The intention of the Secretariat at IMO meetings is to have the members reach consensus and have all outcomes be positive. If you read IMO reports you might think that was the case. In order to put some of the diplomatic language in perspective, if I say there was prolonged discussion, it means blood was probably drawn.

The issue of electronic charting was first introduced at IMO by the International Hydrographic Organization at the 51st session of the IMO Maritime Safety Committee in May of 1985. IHO had noted the development of digital nautical charts and proposed that IMO should consider the user requirements and legal aspects of electronic chart display, with the objective of furnishing advice to those national and private activities concerned with the development, support and implementation of the system.

That’s IHO code for: “Let’s get those computer cowboys out in the sunshine so we can spank them for pretending to know hydrography.”

Actually, in the beginning, there was pretty broad recognition that electronic chart displays would come to pass; however, some were of the view that fully correctable digital chart systems, providing a service at least as reliable as the paper chart would not be available for a considerable time, and the systems available at that time were intended for specialist sections of the market, such as fishing and yachting.

Others believed that with appropriate international standards, an electronic chart display could be developed that would satisfy the existing paper chart requirements and ultimately be able to display radar image, ship’s position and perhaps even the characteristics of aids to navigation. Sounds like eNavigation to me.

The issue was referred to the Subcommittee on Safety of Navigation (NAV) at its 31st session in July 1985. After vigorous preliminary discussion, in which many representatives of national hydrographic offices and IHO took part, NAV reached its first conclusion regarding electronic charts– it should develop a Safety of Navigation Circular (SN/Circ.) warning mariners not to use them. Actually, that was only one side of the debate. The language finally agreed on was a warning to Administrations advising against accepting electronic charts as the equivalent of conventional charts, at least for the time being. On a more positive note, NAV agreed to undertake a study on electronic charts jointly with IHO.

At NAV 32 in March of 1986, the terms of reference for the study on electronic chart display systems were finalized and forwarded to MSC 53 for approval. The terms of reference established some definitions and identified aspects of the study within the competence of NAV, other IMO bodies and IHO. In addition, NAV agreed to establish a small group to work mainly by correspondence and in conjunction with IHO to review the results of studies by each body, which addressed aspects of electronic chart display systems to advise IMO and IHO whether they were compatible with the total system concept. Getting a hint of the enormity of the task at hand, NAV requested the target completion date be extended from 1987 to 1989.

MSC 53 approved the draft terms of reference and the group, which was named the IMO/IHO Harmonization Group on ECDIS (NAV-HGE). NAV 33 reviewed the terms of reference to determine what information required early submission and to ensure those matters noted as being within the competence of each organization were correct and not in conflict. As in all complex international negotiations, some serious bickering ensued. After much discussion, the terms of reference were amended. Two issues that received a great deal of attention at this session were means of updating and means of avoiding ECDIS being used at a scale other than that provided by the responsible hydrographic authority. With the latter, the fear was that manufacturer’s products would allow mariners to zoom in on chart features to the point where the display would be distorted. If a casualty were to occur, there was a concern that legal liability might be directed at the producer of the digital data.

NAV 34, in February of 1988, prepared draft user requirements for ECDIS. Around this time a number of Administrations were conducting studies, tests and national dialogues on various aspects of ECDIS and feeding the results to IMO and IHO. Our own Radio Technical Commission for Maritime Services (RTCM) developed electronic chart performance standards that were referenced as the IMO/IHO work progressed. IHO informed NAV that it intended to carry out a study on electronic navigational chart (ENC) updating. The Secretariat was instructed to bring the terms of reference to the attention of NAV 35.

At NAV 35, in February of 1989, the IMO/IHO Harmonization Group on ECDIS presented notes on, and provisional performance standards for, an ECDIS equivalent to the conventional nautical chart for consideration by the Subcommittee. The draft user requirements had formed the basis of the HGE report and the IHO “Draft Specifications for Electronic Chart Display and Information Systems (ECDIS) provided a significant input to the report. After much discussion, NAV 35 agreed to invite the MSC to approve the draft provisional performance standards for ECDIS and to circulate them to Member Governments requesting that they be brought to the attention of potential manufacturers of ECDIS as guidance for the development of the first generation systems.

NAV 35 also agreed that the performance standards should remain “provisional” until the ECDIS had been adequately demonstrated and proved to the satisfaction of IMO. Anticipating the various studies and evaluations being planned for ECDIS-based systems, NAV 35 decided that for the ensuing 3 years, the results of these activities should be reported to the HGE for yearly evaluation and updating of the provisional performance standards, as necessary. The Provisional Performance Standards for ECDIS were published as MSC/CIRC.515 in April 1989.

The period 1990 to 1992 (which coincided with NAV 36-38) was mainly a period of evaluation of trial results by the HGE and annotation of notes to the provisional performance standards for consideration when they would be finalized. The Subcommittee was given a target completion date of 1993 for finalizing the performance standards. At NAV 38, in August 1992 there was considerable discussion of non-equivalent electronic chart systems, which use data not compatible with WGS-84 datum and do not comply with the provisional performance standards. This was mainly a matter of official data not being widely available at the time and manufacturers eager to take advantage of a new technological application.

In September 1993, NAV39 reviewed the draft Assembly resolution developed by the fourteenth session of the IMO/IHO Harmonization Group on ECDIS and prepared a revised text, which was submitted, to the Committee for approval. The Maritime Safety Committee at its 63rd session approved a draft Assembly resolution on Performance Standards for ECDIS for submission to the nineteenth Assembly for adoption. The Committee also circulated the approved draft Performance Standards to Member Governments by means of the MSC/Circ.637. The Performance Standards were adopted by the nineteenth Assembly and were circulated as Assembly resolution A.817(19) in December 1995. The resolution stated that ECDIS is the equivalent to the paper nautical chart for the purposes of the charting requirement of the SOLAS Convention.

Although this was a major step in the development of electronic charting, much work remained. Digital data was relatively sparse at this point, and some Administrations used this as a reason to push for acceptance of raster charts, which were more widely available and much cheaper to produce. Others felt if raster charts were accepted, production of vector charts would fall behind. This debate is still not entirely settled. Much technical work was needed to support the performance standards and specify the equipment that would meet them. IHO and IEC were in the forefront of this effort.

As I mentioned early on, there were some who felt electronic chart systems could display radar, ship’s position, etc. Perhaps, since ECDIS will become a carriage requirement for many ships starting in 2012, now is the time to give the idea a final push.

Edward LaRue is a 1970 graduate of the State University of New York Maritime College at Fort Schuyler receiving a Bachelor of Science Degree in Marine Transportation. He sailed for nine years as deck watch officer on a variety of ships as a member of the International Organization of Masters, Mates and Pilots.

Mr. LaRue joined the US Coast Guard in 1979 as a civilian Marine Safety Specialist and is presently Chief of the Navigation Standards Branch in the Office of Waterways Management. He has been a member of the US delegation to the IMO Subcommittee on Safety of Navigation in various capacities for more than 20 years. He has chaired the Technical Working Group of the IALA VTS Committee for the past eight years and was an original member of the IALA AIS (now E-Navigation) Committee.