The Art of Dredging

Dredging and shipping

ECDIS - update - 11/2010


With great advances comes caution and concern.  

Paper charts have been onboard for many years and every mariner knows how to use them. With ECDIS all this changes: users are learning -or struggling- to use a new system; while that system itself is not perfect yet.

IMO has given the green light to make ECDIS compulsory on ships; this will be a risky transition period.



Here are some associated problems: 



Obviously, the biggest factor against the correct use of any equipment is officer training; this is especially true for new equipment. Many users see upon ECDIS as a paper chart on screen. But ECDIS has more functionality: automatic voyage planning check, layer technology, settings for waterdepth, interfacing with AIS, etc... All this requires training.

What usually happens is that training is lackluster and that officers -poorly trained- are taking responsibility of a navigational watch. To add to this systemic risk, poor practices are followed or the equipment is used for purposes it was not intended for (AIS in collision avoidance). In the absence of company and master oversight, such unsafe practices flourish. An accident just waiting to happen.

IMO was quick to update the STCW-convention, June 2010, to include requirements for ECDIS training.


Updating ECDIS with the newest Notices to Mariners (NtM) should be a breeze -at least compared to manually updating a full chart folio.

The one problem that catches the eye: it could be much more straight forward to check if the ECDIS-charts are up-to-date. Most of the currents ECDIS software is not  user-friendly in this aspect.

(One can imagine an permanent onscreen message containing the updated or not-updated status of the chart as appropriate. It should also contain the details of the last NtM update.)

Another serious issue is the vulnerability towards malware: the officer-on-duty fiddles around with a USB-stick, containing the chart updates, plugging the stick in ECDIS nr. 1,  then in ECDIS nr. 2... (yeah, holy redundancy, see later....)

In a matter of minutes the whole ECDIS-system onboard can be infected with worms, trojan horses, rootkits, and other crispy critters.... Then what ?

One must be pro-active on this matters, and have strict IT-procedures.






Well.... ECDIS offers redundancy, doesn't it ?

Yes; you get two ECDIS-sets onboard; and they are stand-alone. 

But what is redundant here ?

  1. Their power-supplies ? Nope; if there is a fire or flooding in the wrong spot; the two ECDIS-systems are down. And what happens if both ECDIS fail onboard ? There is no backup plan, .... only a very big void.
  2. Their navigation-inputs ? Njet; both ECDIS use the same GPS input. If GPS system fails, ECDIS is out. We have to wait for Gaileo, GNSS and other position systems to become available. In the meantime, all ships run on one navigation system only. Question: is that wise ?
  3. The users; the officers-of-the watch ? Sure they knows how to navigate without ECDIS or GPS ? .... Forget it. Especially the younger generation have their eyes glued on the displays in the wheelhouse; ECDIS, AIS, radar. Navigating a ship with basic techniques only, becomes a fading skill. The new systems easily lull one into a false sense of security, and make these youngsters addicted and depending. 
  4. ECDIS adds an extra technlogical layer to navigation. Our navigation nowadays depends on a stack of electronic layers; satellites + GPS-receivers + ECDIS, and every layer can go faulty. Redundancy is not the key word here; but rather: extra vulnerability. 

 Now, more than ever; the windows on the bridge become top navigation instruments.


a. The International Hydrograph Organisation (IHO) issued circular letter 54/2010, (click to download) which is of interest to any ECDIS-user, especially if you don't want to crash your ship on the next island....



This is just an illustration of the bugs that we can expect in a new system, more to come.

b. Some software uses symbols different from AP-5011. Why have new symbols ?

c. In forums on the web, more rave and rant can be found on ECDIS, some examples:

  1. complicated (or impossible in some software) to differentiate and highlight safe waters from unsafe.  (gcaptain/forum)
  2. Difficult to display anchorages, special area's, etc... (Pilotmag online)
  3. Displays are too small for their purpose...
  4. Menu's are not user-friendly. A number of tasks in ECDIS are quite complicated, and unnecassarily so.  Rumours go that  the Holy Grail is hidden inside the submenu's of ECDIS software.
  5. Etc...


d. More problems arise from interfacing an ECDIS with AIS, ... feeding it Temporarily and Preliminary Notices (T&P), etc ...




e. Data shown on the ECDIS display originates from surveys done, sometimes in bygone era, without multibeam nor GPS.....

ECDIS-users have this "if it is digital it must be 100% accurate" syndrome associated with ECDIS.... ECDIS makes it harder to find the source of the presented data.

An example: over 50% of depth information used on NOAA (U.S.A.) charts is older than 1940. That is the same data used to make up an electronic chart. Read also this.

f. An ECDIS-display may "freeze". This can be very dangerous .... especially if ship's position is not cross-checked (think: eyeballs-windows-radar,....).


Some of these issues clearly arise from a lack of training and knowledge from users. Users generally blamed the system for this. However: some improvements are necessary on the equipment itself. To say that ECDIS -as it is now- is user-friendly, foolproof, and highly reliable- would be an exagerration. There is lot of opportunity for the so-dreaded-human-error with this system.




Marc Van de Velde



Some links:

ECDIS basics:

ECDIS acc. Transas:

ECDIS revolution:


Here are interesting forums on ECDIS: gcaptain, and LinkedIn.


 The Nautical Institute has set up an ECDIS reporting forum and encourages all mariners to report incidents and anomalies so that corrective action at all levels of the industry can be found.




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