Standardised Navigation Systems should raise safety standards

The countdown to S-Mode is on.

It’s a case where standardisation should mean safety first.

Think of the moment you ignited the engine of your new car. Remember that rush of adrenaline? Remember feeling flummoxed at an unfamiliar button on the dashboard? Of course, you also recall the relief at soon getting used to design differences – which took practice and time. And as an experienced driver you surely did not take any life-threatening risks.

Now imagine yourself a marine officer joining a new ship, reaching the bridge and… freezing at a totally unfamiliar navigation system.  But there is no time to freeze. Giving yourself a mental shake and some deep breathing, you struggle to locate the key operations to ensure a confident and competent lookout plus doing other complex navigational tasks. There is no room for error because you have precious lives (including your own) and/or cargo in your hands. And it may happen that cargo, like toxic chemicals, would cause a catastrophic ecological disaster in an accident.

Before envisaging further horror and dire consequences, think of how such a situation can come about in the first place. How can an experienced marine officer find himself/herself in such a predicament? The answer is that years at sea will not guarantee familiarity with the approximately 35 different ECDIS systems available each of which is inevitably harnessing more and more advanced software. The correct and logical solution lies in training marine officers to prevent panic and worse from overwhelming them. Sadly, ethics and logic have not prevailed; and such panic-stricken moments are rife – a reality that almost makes a mockery out of the SOLAS convention. True training thousands of officers in all these systems is a time-consuming, costly exercise.  It is even more true that safety is priceless.

Finally, there is light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. Why?  Because 21st century e-navigation is now hitting us full frontal and our increasingly tech savvy generation cannot be let down. After a decade of discussions, the IMO in early 2017, set 2019 as the deadline to issue standardisation guidelines to manufacturers.  Meanwhile, criticism has been mounting against the Nautical Institute for not providing mandatory adequate training until S-mode becomes a reality. Several stakeholders are not impressed by its dragging feet.

The Nautical Institute tries to save face by supporting the introduction of S-mode at a basic level which would ascertain a standardised display, menu system and interface device. How can it not do so when standardised navigation systems reduce training time and render a seamless move from vessel to vessel – at least on the bridge.

Although S-Mode commendably steps up operational safety, it is not easy to put into place which explains why it has taken so long to nail. To begin with, different manufacturers understandably tout their own designs as the best on the market and are determined to sustain and increase their market share. It must also be kept in mind that different navigation systems come about in response to the demands of long-established clients, that in turn have their own preferences. Design changes also involves a huge capital outlay to move a series of buttons and rotary controls from their original position – something which several manufacturers have been resisting asserting that such a compulsion would put them out of business. They argue that standardised, easily recognisable icons which call up basic functions is the way forward since this makes location irrelevant. In fact, they are quick to make an analogy with the different brands of smart phones.

Conflicting vested interests and clashing egos are unavoidable no matter how much the Nautical Institute is insisting on a user led S-Mode. Is the Nautical Institute’s insistence for participation of its 400,000 navigating officers really bringing together a pool of ideas? On what criteria should a specific design be officially declared as the blueprint to follow? How fair and effective will the design of choice be?

These are sticky questions the outcome of which cannot please everyone involved. Yet they should not detract from what to standardise and warrant software updates to wire up bridge equipment to broadband as well as to tomorrow’s software.  These are the core issues that truly matter.

2019 is weeks away. It is about time that safety first is genuinely put on board and not banded about like a hollow slogan.