Digital Navigation making the transition

The emergence of new technology in the field of maritime operations has seen most facets of fleet operations computerised or digitised in the quest to build, display and manipulate technology to our advantage.

It is therefore surprising that many fleets are still navigating using paper charts, as the advantages and efficiencies available if ECDIS systems are used properly for navigation are significant.


Following a number of high profile groundings and the perception that ECDIS systems can save money, many fleets have made the bold decision to embark on a fleet wide ECDIS fit.

As the first to do so, they are pioneering the use of ECDIS at sea. In short, these pioneers are showing that it is feasible to trust this new technology and make it work.

However, for those that wish to follow their example the task can seem more than a little daunting. Faced with a blank piece of paper you now need to formulate a plan to 'go digital'.

The transition to digital is not a case of simply buying any ECDIS system and hoping for the best. This may seem the easiest option, but I can assure you that what looks like the light at the end of the tunnel is the headlight of an oncoming train.

Instead, this should be viewed as a major project that requires significant thought and planning. The process can be simplified if we break it down one step at a time to ensure that all data is captured:

Step 1: Capability Requirement (establish what you need)
Step 2: Additional Requirement (consider the wider implications)
Step 3: Consolidation (have we missed anything?)
Step 4: Equipment Purchase decision and Fit programme
Step 5: Training
Step 6: Digital Transition - Go paperless

Step 1 - Capability Requirement

First, it is necessary to establish exactly what you need with regard to the ECDIS, both in terms of navigation and operations.

The point is that making the digital transition is more complicated than just choosing a system to plan a route from port to port-the equipment must be suited to the nature of your operations.

Therefore, due consideration must be given to thinking through all the evolutions that were conducted using paper charts to ensure that they can be achieved on ECDIS with suitable back up, redundancy and the robustness that is required in your fleet.

A list needs to be made of what your expectations are from ECDIS. If they cannot be met, will you ever truly be able to 'go digital'?

In terms of navigation, essentially what you must consider is whether or not you wish to transfer your existing paper navigational methods and procedures to ECDIS. If so, with regard to the equipment,ask yourself the 'Navigational Issues' and 'Operational Issues' questions.

Of course, not all of the considerations in that list of questions will be relevant to you, but care must be taken to ensure that the requirement is captured as not all systems can achieve all of the capabilities.

ECDIS equipment capability has advanced considerably over the years and varies from system to system. Not all systems will be able to achieve the capabilities listed, but some can.

At this stage please consider taking independent advice as to the most appropriate system for your needs. However, to reiterate, first and foremost the system will be utilised as a navigation aid.Therefore,it is vital to ensure that the system can reflect your standards of chart work and navigation.

If it cannot, then you may have to change your tried and tested methods.Consider that if the chosen system cannot achieve your requirement, does that mean you will be forced to make some paper charts available from time to time? If so, this would clearly defeat the aim, which is after all, to go fully digital.

It is at this early stage that a decision needs to be made as to whether the plan is to equip the fleet with a single equipment solution, or whether different types of equipment spread amongst the fleet will be considered.

Clearly, the ramifications of fitting your fleet with varying types of equipment will be enormous, from different levels of capability and an inability to transfer data between systems to the need to produce multiple training streams for crews, technical training for engineers and so on.

The Navigational and Operational issues to consider are:

Navigational Issues

  • Can we plan berth to berth?
  • Can we utilise headmarks, sternmarks and beam marks in our planning?
  • Can we utilise wheel over bearings?
  • Can the system construct accurate turns utilising Advance and Transfer?
  • Can the system calculate turns when a tidal stream is present?
  • Will it accept tidal and environmental information such as Admiralty Total Tide?
  • Can it utilise our shape, characteristics and hydrodynamic data for precise navigation?
  • Who will produce and input ship specific (perhaps confidential) information into the system?
  • How will the navigator brief the port entry and exit if there is no paper chart to display?
  • Can we network a printer to print out screenshots (for the navigator's notebook, for example)?
  • Can we print out passage plans and related information?
  • How are we going to operate in areas of GPS denial?
  • Does it work well without GPS?
  • Can we manually fix position with visual bearings?
  • Can we manually fix position with radar ranges?
  • Can we plot a position using transferred position lines?
  • Can we plot horizontal and vertical sextant angles?
  • Can we accurately define safe water in confined waters?
  • Can we construct Limiting Danger Lines?
  • Can we construct Clearing Bearings?
  • How will navigation be conducted in emergency for example, when operating from the emergency conning position without paper charts?

Operational Issues

  • How are we going to plot our helicopter position?
  • How are we going to plot the location of our tenders?
  • Can we use the system for management of assets?
  • Can we display weapon arcs and effective ranges for onboard security teams (anti-piracy)?
  • Can we display overlays to aid counter piracy?
  • Can it display bespoke chart products that may be available for your operations?
  • Does it offer greater security with regard to login?
  • Can I plot different grids for us on operations?
  • Can it help with vessel protection with the growing aspiration to use ECDIS for anti-piracy?Can it make areas alarmable?
  • Can we feed data from onboard command systems in order to improve spatial awareness?
  • Can it be utilised for bespoke tasks such as for oil slick plotting, for example?
  • Can it be used in conjunction with optimum route planning software?
  • Can it be used in conjunction with shipping databases such as Lloyd's Register Fairplay
  • Can the system predict a MOB position using set and drift or is it just a reference point?

Step 2 - Additional Requirement

Experience has shown me that the cheapest option on paper may end up being the most expensive overall when you add in the other elements beyond the initial hardware tender.

Training, for example is a significant factor, as is integration of existing sensors and hardware.It may be too late to change once you have bought a system for the fleet so this is where you must ensure the longevity of your system and do as much as possible to future proof it.

Ask yourself again, what do you want the ECDIS to do?Consider the bigger picture, and think about the hardware and integration questions listed in Table 2.

Remember that the Performance Standards for ECDIS (IMO A.817(19),
revised by MSC 232(82)) state that as a minimum, ECDIS should be connected to the ship's position fixing system, to the gyro compass and to the speed and distance measuring device.

Note that for ships not fitted with a gyro compass,ECDIS should be connected to a marine transmitting heading device.

When connecting to additional sensors,ECDIS should not degrade the performance of any equipment providing sensor inputs,and the connection of optional equipment should not degrade the performance of ECDIS below the set standard.

In addition to these hardware considerations,it is also important to recognise the choices that need to be made in relation to the additional software you will need to run the systems,as well as the electronic chart requirements you will have-there are also mentioned a number of questions you will need to look at in the area of software,charts and training.

Training is integral to a successful transition from paper charts to ECDIS. Crews need to be properly trained in the use of their system in order to navigate safely.This is not something that can be taken lightly as training cannot be conducted in a few hours.

ECDIS presents a step change in the way we conduct navigation at sea, and as a critical system this needs great care and consideration in order to get the most out of the equipment whilst maintaining safety.

A Flag State approved IMO 1.27 Model ECDIS Course (40 hrs or 5 days) will be required,as well as an Equipment Specific training course if different manufacturers' equipment has been fitted (recommended duration 8 hrs or 1 day).

It is essential that training is considered well in advance of the ECDIS fit to reduce the period of time between training and onboard use to avoid skill fade.

Note that some Flag states such as the MCA now require equipment specific training in addition to the 5 day generic ECDIS training course.

This ECDIS 'ship specific equipment training' should relate to the make and model of the equipment fitted on the ship on which they are currently serving. That is to say, it will be necessary to attend a training course for each different system a Master or Navigation Officer is expected to operate.

Although this has been part of ISM for some time, the MCA specifically states that 'trickle down training'(i.e. one officer training another)is not acceptable as,inevitably,it leads to incomplete knowledge of the equipment's capabilities,and especially the lesser used functions,being passed on.

It can be seen therefore that the training burden is significant if multiple systems are in use throughout the fleet and where Flag State approved generic training is not available on your chosen system.

Due consideration must also be given to the fact that the above courses are not necessarily for life as they may need to be undertaken at stated intervals or if the equipment significantly changes.

The training element is going to take a lot of time, particularly with a large fleet. However, you do not need to wait for the fit programme to start before embarking on the training programme.By doing so you will alleviate pressure and have trained personnel ready to begin the next phase of the project.

The Hardware,Integration,Software,Training and Chart issues to consider are:


  • Do you require integration with a bridge Alarm Management System?
  • Can it integrate with existing sensors such as GNSS, Log, Gyro and Echosounder?
  • Can it integrate with existing Radar and provide Radar Image Overlay (RIO)?
  • Can it integrate with NAVTEX?
  • Can it integrate with the existing autopilot or Track Control device?


  • Is there an ECDIS system that best suits your class of ship?
  • How many vessels require fitting with ECDIS?
  • What is the cost of fitting? Where are the vessels going to be fitted? (fit cost may vary with location)
  • How many systems do you need - two per ship?
  • What screen size do you require for the display?
  • What are the requirements for display power, housings and brackets?
  • What is the support package available?
  • How long does the warranty last?
  • Will the systems be networked on a LAN?
  • Do you want an additional remote terminal for planning or emergencies?
  • Do you need repeats in the Captain's cabin, charthouse or operations room?
  • Do you need a repeat in the machinery control room for MARPOL purposes?
  • Do you want to store spare parts to support your fleet?
  • How much are spare parts?
  • What is the availability of spare parts?


  • Do you need specific planning software?
  • Do you require Conning and Docking functionality?
  • Do you require navigation tools such as Predictor and Trial Manoeuvring?
  • Do you require an electronic Logbook function?
  • How much are additional software licenses?
  • How much are the inevitable upgrades to the software and presentation library?


  • Is there training available with the manufacturer?
  • Is there Flag state approved training on this equipment in accordance with STCW?
  • Is there equipment specific training available on this equipment?
  • Purchase an approved training course or produce one 'in house'?
  • Do you require technical training for your engineers and maintainers?


  • Can the manufacturer provide equipment procedures and check-off cards?
  • Can the system utilise the charts that you are used to?
  • Do you require ENCs and RNCs?
  • Do you require DNCs?
  • Do you require Ice charts?
  • Can it display the Admiralty Information Overlay?
  • Will you require an additional (appropriate) folio of paper charts?
  • How will folios be updated?
  • Will it be linked to the internet for updating? (firewall and antivirus protector required)

Step 3 - Consolidation

Now take a step back and make sure that you are not missing anything before purchasing the equipment.

What are the key elements that must be satisfied when choosing your ECDIS?

You must be able to place a tick in the box next to all of the questions in the checklist at the beginning of this adventure, or you are slowlyheading towards an inevitable disaster!

  • Is it ready now?
  • Is it type approved ECDIS?
  • Can it integrate with existing sensors?
  • Can it employ my navigation techniques?
  • Does it come with a full training solution?
  • Does it offer proven pedigree and global support?
  • Have I balanced the best product with the overall price?
  • Is it 'future proof' and easily upgradable for new techniques?
  • Will the whole package allow my fleet to 'go digital' with minimum fuss?

Step 4 - Equipment Purchase and Fit

All the work conducted producing the requirement is now complete and the effort expended will hopefully be rewarded.

The next stage is to make a decision on which equipment is the most appropriate for your needs, based upon the work conducted in the earlier steps.

If you are intending to conduct training 'in house',then consider Step 5 prior to purchasing equipment as there are additional purchases and considerations to make.Once the decision is made the equipment can be purchased.

When constructing the fit programme consider what ships will be fitted first and last.Of course, this may ultimately depend on the fleet operations, maintenance and refit schedule.

It is worthwhile documenting lessons learnt from the first fit so that mistakes are not duplicated throughout the fit.Furthermore, if possible, maintain some form of continuity of fit personnel to ensure that standards are maintained with as few irregularities between ships as possible.

Once equipment is fitted it is essential that the equipment is properly integrated with sensors, aligned with Radar Image Overlay (RIO) if applicable, and tested with a set to work package to ensure that what you have fitted meets with expectations.

Step 5 - 'In House' Training

If you are considering conducting training yourself, or 'in house' training, then you must consider the time and manpower cost of producing a stand alone ECDIS course, bespoke for the equipment purchased,
and also gaining Flag State course approval.

On top of this will be the investment in classroom equipment and training consoles,training licences for software, provision of a bridge simulator, integration of ECDIS into the bridge simulator, and the cost of ECDIS instructors.

All the above takes considerable time, money and most importantly, expertise. I cannot emphasise enough the importance of considering training at the very beginning of the process.

Step 6 - Digital Transition

The final phase of the process is to conduct the transition from navigating with paper charts to being accredited to navigate paperless using ECDIS.Note that this depends upon your Flag State and it is therefore crucial that you seek advice from Flag, who may have to be involved in this process to ensure that you meet their standards.

It is recommended that a lead ECDIS inspector be nominated to manage this process and to act as liaison between the Flag authority and the fleet as required.

It may also be prudent to construct a short 'in-house' accreditation process to risk assess the ship's ability to 'go digital'.

This would ultimately ensure that the crew are confident and competent enough to operate as safely using ECDIS as they could on paper. This is the most enjoyable part of the process as you see the results of good training and planning come to fruition.

Examples of assessed serials that could be included as part of any risk assessment process include: System set-up; Safety settings; Administration; Documentation; Procedures; Berth to berth planning; Pilotage; Blind Pilotage; Coastal Navigation; Anchoring; Fixing; Operating without GPS; and Loss of sensors.

The risk assessment serials could be conducted in a simulated environment, although the preferred option should always be to conduct them at sea.

It is a recommendation that only when you are content that this has been achieved should you authorise the reduction of paper folios down to that required for RCDS (Raster Chart Display System) mode or in accordance with your company policy.


ECDIS is coming and it cannot be stopped.Inevitably every fleet will make the transition from paper charts to ECDIS in due course. This is not only due to the advantages and efficiencies that can be recognised by using such equipment, but also that new build ships are now being
fitted with them.

Going digital need not be a headache if properly thought out, planned and resourced. Take heart in that it is achievable and has been achieved by many fleets already.

What invariably seems an expensive and lengthy process can actually end up being cheaper and quicker than perhaps was first thought.

Author: Malcolm Instone