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ECDIS: The Fine Line Between Overreliance and Underestimation

27 / 08 / 2020

The implementation of ECDIS has advanced considerably in the last few years, and most ships have already been using ECDIS as a primary means of navigation for half a decade. Even the late bloomers implemented the system well before the respective deadlines, of which the latest was July 2018.

ECDIS has been the main topic of quite a few publications, too ̶ not only in recent years. One of the classics, “The Electronic Chart”, was initially published in English in 2001 and is now in its 4th revised edition. More recent works such as “ECDIS Basics”, published after the finalisation of the Manila Amendments to take into account all relevant changes, are also already in their advanced years.

Universities offering nautical studies and maritime academies include ECDIS as a regular topic in their curriculum. In Germany, for example, all graduates since 2006 have the ECDIS generic competence included.

So, one could think that the topic has well and truly arrived on the ships. While this is true in a technical sense, since every bridge is equipped with an ECDIS, it is less true concerning the understanding and mindset towards it.

However, this does not mean that crews are not trained in the use of ECDIS as both generic and type-specific training has become standard. Officers are aware of how to use the functions of their ECDIS. The question that remains is this: How should ECDIS be integrated in the bridge watch and overall navigation procedures?

And there, the mindset starts to diverge. On the one hand, there are constant warnings about the overreliance on ECIDS appropriate warnings, nonetheless. On the other hand, navigators tend to underestimate the use of ECDIS. It is a common stereotype attributed to older officers and captains, thus people who grew up with the traditional way of paper navigation and supposedly no understanding of modern methods. This does no justice to either these navigators or this topic.

Underestimating the ECDIS is a common mindset, even with young navigators who are very confident in using it. It mainly concerns voyage monitoring capacities, especially route and chart alerts. In a way, it can be traced back to the older issue with alarm fatigue.

ECDIS used to cause a number of audible alerts that many navigators perceived as excessive. The IMO and IEC since addressed the issue. Resolving it through the unification of alert behaviour, including the reduction of audible alerts, lead to updated ECDIS performance standards and in turn to new ECDIS software with fewer alerts.

Still, many navigators try to avoid anything that causes an alert on the ECDIS, including turning off the automatic detection of chart dangers ahead of their ship. While incidents like the grounding of “Ovit” show the risks of overreliance on any single system, especially with insufficient knowledge about it, underestimating and avoiding these systems altogether is not the correct use either.

A lot of thought has been put into the design of safety-related functions. From expert committees at international organisations defining the requirements, through experienced navigators designing the functions, to manufacturers’ technicians making them fail-safe, all have been striving to make ECDIS functions safe. All this thought can indeed be useful support during a navigation watch.
The typical approach should be to utilise such functions in the best way possible. This implies integrating them into the bridge procedures and keeping the safest watch achievable – with all available means.

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