SATNAVS are something that most of us use without a second thought. But what happens at sea?
Like drivers, maritime navigators can choose from a range of options, including GPS, paper maps, radar and ordinary radio communications. They can also use the Electronic Chart Display and Information System (ECDIS) – a kind of Google Maps for ships. It integrates GPS, radar and the Automatic Identification System (AIS) – which broadcasts to ships via radio signals – and displays a vessel’s position on an electronic map in real time, along with precise readings of the local water depth.
Next year a mandate from the UN International Maritime Organization will go into effect, requiring many international commercial ships to use ECDIS. So why has it not been made compulsory sooner?
The consequences of shipping disasters can be far-reaching. As New Scientist went to press, the 236-metre container ship Rena had already leaked some 350 tonnes of oil, having crashed into the Astrolabe reef off New Zealand on 5 October. And the effects of the Exxon Valdez accident in 1989 are still being felt along the coast of Alaska.
These are not isolated incidents. Last year 211 large ships suffered “serious casualties” when they ran aground or became stranded, according to the London-based shipping news service Lloyd’s List.
ECDIS will reduce the number of ships that run aground by 38 per cent, according to a 2007 study by Rolf Skjong at risk management firm Det Norske Veritas in Høvik, Norway. “It is the best navigation aid that has come out since radar,” says Ian Rodrigues at the Australian Maritime College (AMC) in Tasmania.
The IMO evidently agrees – it wants all ships built after mid-2012 to be fitted with ECDIS. Existing ships have different compliance dates depending on whether they carry passengers or cargo, but all commercial vessels must be upgraded by mid-2018.
One reason for ECDIS’s slow adoption is that navigators are simply used to old-fashioned paper. “Maritime organisations were already busy making paper charts,” says Nick Lemon of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority. What’s more, in May 2008 detailed electronic charts were available for only 60 per cent of the world’s water. Now, around 90 per cent is digitally charted.
Autopilot technology, too, could improve safety. It hooks into the boat’s rudder and is already widely used, though not mandatory under the new rules, says Jeff Watts at the AMC. When combined with ECDIS, it can sound alarms and provide visual information to alert crew when ships enter dangerously shallow waters. But whether this could have prevented the Rena running aground is unclear – it is not known what navigation devices were in use on the ship.