By Ryan Skinner (email)
Pushed by the IMO on SOLAS ships, it's a blessing (in disguise?) to owners and the public alike.
A report published by DNV back in 2007 stated that making ECDIS mandatory on large merchant vessels would reduce groundings by a third. At the time, several national authorities, like Norway's, were lobbying IMO to do just that, and, last summer, the IMO resolved to make ECDIS mandatory on a rolling time-table.
Seemingly a humble monitor on the bridge, ECDIS will in time bring a revolution in how ships are run. Effectively, an ECDIS combines countless systems and sensors into a single interface that gives the user a complete picture of the ship and its environment, at any time in the past, present or future.
Frothy language? Maybe. Maybe not. If you consider what the offshore oil and gas industry is making of integrated operations, which is not much more sophisticated technically, you might reconsider the long-term impact of ECDIS.
Even if ECDIS seems like hardware (the box on the bridge), the long-term significance, I argue, is attached to the information stream it creates. It's like the relationship between Dell and the Internet - sure, the box is important, but what you're really interested in is YouTube, Amazon and Facebook.
One day soon a master will be able to use weather, current, tide and geographical information, along with condition monitoring from the ship's power plant, the hull and cargo, along with data from the port, shipowner and charterer to optimize a route, avoid danger and hit each stage of the journey where and when it is most profitable to do so.
Any experienced master could already do all that, one might argue. He might have, but today's masters aren't as experienced as we would like them to be. Neither could the experienced master provide any better rationale for his decisions than intuition. It's not much to bring to a meeting with an insurer.
Currently the hydrographic community is running around frantically trying to finish charting the world to the standard required by the IMO's own ECDIS regulations. In the confusion, some players are trying to clamp down on access to chart information, disguising a cynical move to grab market share by arguing safety. What dirty deeds are clothed as noble sentiments. It will eventually fail (but only after slowing innovation and driving up prices).
Keep your eyes open for those information providers who seek to bring shipowners and officers what they want and need - the kind of service providers who inspire, and not those who scare. Because, even if some shipowners are crying about the cost of installing and training for ECDIS, this development is one that will eventually serve them.