How shipping got ECDIS wrong – and how to put it right

As the shipping industry, its stakeholders and industry groups, grapple with the practicalities of embracing unmanned and autonomous vessels, an echo of the recent past provides a timely reminder about the risks of regulating technology.

Regulation effectively freezes mandated systems and practices at a moment in time; though it also allows for a process of feedback and revision. In the case of the Electronic Chart Display and Information System (ECDIS) this process has resulted in a piece of mandated safety equipment that continues to cause concern more than seven years after its adoption.

So long has been the mandation timetable it is easy to forget that ECDIS was developed before the turn of the 21st century, but a combination of political and commercial issues mean it will continue to be an issue well into the future.

This matters not just because, as was discussed in our last post, ECDIS competence among mariners is still worryingly inconsistent. Because ECDIS is a navigation tool, it is critical to a world where manned and unmanned ships ply the same waters.

A primary lesson of the development of ECDIS is not only to deliver technology that can actually be adopted, but also systems that can adapt to changes in future.

Greater standardisation is touted as a precursor to more automation and ultimately, to autonomy. As standardisation increases, the use of semi-automated systems could see equipment make more decisions, with a consequent reduction in human skills.

But in the light of the pitfalls and mis-steps of the development of ECDIS, it is imperative to increase understanding that autonomy is a far more complex subject. If ECDIS ultimately becomes easier to use then it will help autonomy develop, but lessons must be learnt.

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