From paper to digital: the evolution of e-navigation

From paper to digital: the evolution of e-navigation
ChartCo’s OneOcean platform integrates existing compliance monitoring and management tools. Image courtesy of ChartCo

Advanced digital technologies and increasing bandwidth capacities are facilitating the rapid exchange of data between ship and shore, improving the safety and fuel-efficiency of maritime voyages. One area that has benefitted from the progression of digital solutions is navigation. We spoke with ChartCo’s chief commercial officer, Howard Stevens, about the journey from paper-based to digitally-driven maritime navigation.

A fuel efficient, safe, and compliant voyage requires careful route planning, avoiding extreme weather or conditions that may affect the total cost of that voyage. Optimising a vessel’s passage plan is about taking a whole-systems approach and understanding how each route will affect the overall performance of a vessel. For instance, a change in the planned route to avoid a storm may save fuel and make the voyage safer, but this could also affect the exchange of ballast water.

In 2006, the IMO introduced e-navigation, a concept that aimed to harmonise collection and integration and exchange of data between ship and shore by electronic means. The idea was to improve the safety and security of navigation and to protect the marine environment.

Howard Stevens, chief commercial officer, ChartCo

Speaking with us about the introduction of e-navigation into shipping, Howard Stevens, chief commercial officer at ChartCo, explained that integrated digital solutions typically provide real-time feedback on how a projected change in route will affect the total voyage. “This enables the navigator to gauge a better understanding of the environment they are operating in, and a clearer insight into how changing one aspect of their operation will affect another.”

Furthermore, a digitally driven voyage improves data exchange between ship and shore. Onshore insight into how a vessel has performed in terms of fuel consumption and crew performance compared with its peers can help to deliver a comprehensive analysis that can be used to make fleet-wide improvements in a navigational and operational perspective.

Beginning the paperless journey

Each company’s journey to digital navigation will start at a different place, largely determined by the maturity of the company and their level of comfort in other areas of their digitalisation process. According to Mr Stevens, all companies will benefit from the digital journey, from bringing digital navigational services in at even the most basic level, as this will provide crew with accurate and up to date information in a timely fashion.

A company further along its digital journey will likely invest more into integrating its digital solutions. Tools for weather routing, understanding environmental restrictions or regulations, ship safety and alerts will be in one place, allowing the mariner to see the total effects of passage planning on other areas of the vessel. “Rather than just operating on accurate base data, you are bringing everything together that you need to be able to navigate from all aspects,” Mr Stevens tells us. This kind of integration eliminates the need to switch between software, providing a holistic view of the vessel’s operation and reducing the risk of mistakes.

The size of a fleet will also determine where a company begins its digital journey. “On average larger fleets will certainly move into the digital era faster,” confirms Mr Stevens. “There is an aspect of cybersecurity and general security that will be considered, but larger shipping companies will likely have the capital to spend here.” In addition, bigger companies and fleets are likely under pressure to be the front runners in digitalising their operations. “The larger shipping companies need to be seen to be making that step into the digital era by the big oil majors and by the authorities in general, and they need to be seen to be doing the right thing.”

Smaller and medium sized fleets do not face quite the same pressure, and the lack of additional capital and resources means their transition to digital operations is not happening at quite the same rate. Another overlaying factor is the regional influence that has upon a company’s transition to digital navigation. Many people in the industry are more comfortable in the old paper world. Mr Stevens notes Asia in particular and refers to a recent situation where he visited two Asian fleets operating more than 75 vessels. Both owners admitted that they “do the absolute bare mandated minimum for digital navigation. Everything we can do, we do through paper, and we will only ever move once we have to because we don’t trust the information or the internet onboard.”

This distrust in digital technology is not unusual. According to Mr Stevens, companies can lose their trust in digital navigation once they experience inaccurate chart data. “Ten to fifteen years ago these companies experienced some issues. One instance included hitting something that wasn’t shown on the chart,” he tells us. “I’ve also seen examples of where GPS based navigation wasn’t accurate, and that’s led to some distrust of digitalisation.”

In addition, traditional captains are often less comfortable with new technology than the navigating officers, slowing the transition from paper-based to e-navigation. Sharing another experience, Mr Stevens explains, “On one particular vessel I was visiting, the navigational officer and second officer were showing me how they use our software, and the captain said that it’s great but until these guys can show me on a paper chart and on a map where our vessel is with wooden blocks for wind direction, we’re not getting out of this port.” However, Mr Stevens expects that as new, younger seafarers come onboard that have been brought up with digital technologies, we will continue to see increasingly rapid movement towards digitally driven navigation.

Evolution, not revolution

While Mr Stevens acknowledges that regulation will affect the uptake of digital technology and the Internet of Things (IoT) for navigation and other processes, he does not believe it will be the initial driver. Digital technology will be used primarily to help the shipping community understand regulation and to demonstrate proactivity in performance optimisation.

The first thing companies need to have in order to start making use of the IoT and be seen to be digitalising their operations is cheap, reliable bandwidth. “Without that you don’t have the basic connection to make it all work,” says Mr Stevens. Cheaper bandwidth will increase the appetite for digitally-driven solutions, which, in Mr Stevens’ eyes, will ultimately lead to the maritime IoT market opening up to the software developer world. He believes that there are a lot of non-maritime people with huge skills in software and data, but at the moment, the limited availability of bandwidth on ships means that it is not an interesting area for them. “By making shipping interesting to these software developers and by showing them the capabilities of internet at sea with increasing bandwidth, the creativity of the software world will enter shipping and all sorts of interesting things will begin to happen.”

One example he points to is using bandwidth for predictive maintenance. Mr Stevens explains that the more information that can be obtained on the performance of a type of engine running on 400-500 vessels, the earlier a potential problem will be identified and prevented. “The problem at the moment is that there is a lot of data on vessel performance that sits with multiple parties across fleets. This lack of coordination means the data is not always being used effectively.

Mr Stevens believes increased bandwidth capability will draw in smart people from outside the shipping industry and increase the access to data through multiple parties. “The people with the intelligence for analysing data and turning it into something meaningful will do so when they have access to it and when they realise the impact their analysis will have on decision-making.”

Furthermore, bringing non-maritime software developers into the maritime world will enhance consolidation and data sharing. He refers to this as “evolution, not revolution.”

Towards autonomous shipping

e-navigation and ship to shore connectivity are expected to form the base for autonomous and unmanned shipping. Parts of shipping are already automated and while Mr Stevens confirms that there is no doubt that fully autonomous shipping is coming, he believes that it will be “a long, long time before we see substantial amounts of it. Perhaps 15-20 years or more.” He attributes this to the fact that there is a lack of investment in innovation and shipping companies are not yet fully engaging, further slowing down the process.

According to Mr Stevens, the journey to autonomous shipping will start by “taking chunks of decision making from the vessel and putting it on the shore.” He has already seen customers asking for capabilities on the vessel to be brought to shore, which indicates a move towards onboard autonomy. “ChartCo customers are starting to ask if we can do the passage planning on shore and push the passage planning to the vessel and into the ECDIS for the master to sign off, so there is no need for a navigator,” he tells us.

Autonomous shipping does not necessarily aim to make all the crew redundant, but it is likely that one or two people will be taken off the ship to cut costs in the medium term. “If you have 100 vessels and each one of those has an officer where a large proportion  of his work is navigating, without doubt you could  start to think about how you could remove a crew member from the bridge, although you will begin adding some additional staff into the office as the planning work will still need to completed,” Mr Stevens says.

Fewer people onboard will also require each individual to have a wider skillset. “I think we will find that although automation will start to remove certain jobs, it’s going to mean that the people onboard are going to have to have a wider view in case of emergency situations. Crew are probably going to have fewer roles but will need a broader perspective and a wider set of responsibilities,” Mr Stevens says. He is certain that while we will continue to see growth in the global shipping market, the number of people on individual ships will reduce.

This is also expected to result in additional pressure on operators to ensure their crews have comprehensive training. Digital technologies can help to reduce human error and improve performance, but they will only bring value if those using the technology know how to fully utilise them.

Furthermore, fewer seafarers onboard will mean fewer people to socialise with and so bandwidth for personal connectivity will be increasingly important. “From a crew welfare point of view, this is essential,” confirms Mr Stevens.

While there is a realism that onboard internet won’t have the same bandwidth as seen onshore for a long time yet, if ever, seafarers are starting to expect some of the basic services that are taken for granted on land to be available. “Global bandwidth prices have to come down and availability has to come up for safe, green, and cost-efficient shipping, with a strong focus on crew welfare, to come to fruition,” says Mr Stevens.

Mitigating the cyber risk

In an environment of open and integrated data exchange, cyber-risk management is critical. Maritime systems are particularly attractive to cyber-hackers and require advanced protection as even the large shipping giants have proven vulnerable to attack. “In the last 18 to 24 months, cybersecurity has really come to the fore in a material way,” explains Mr Stevens. Training will be imperative to avoid and mitigate the effects of an attack. However, Mr Stevens says that one thing we should take comfort from is the fact that “the modern world still functions safely with 24/7 connectivity. There are ways of making yourself cybersecure and the world won’t go into meltdown when shipping gets the bandwidth that it needs to drive the more advanced digital services, but you do have to be very careful and invest in the security systems. If you leave yourself exposed, you are going to get yourself into trouble,” he warns.

Unsurprisingly, Mr Stevens says he sees the large companies with dedicated IT departments covering the most ground in cybersecurity measures. He confirms that ChartCo has spent a lot of time ensuring the cybersecurity of its services by working alongside the company’s providers. “We have third party companies that come in and do ethical hacking into our systems and solutions and give us recommendations on how to improve. On the vessel side, we are constantly looking for ways to keep our customers safe.”

Looking forward

Significant growth in bandwidth capacity is fuelling e-navigation by improving the exchange of data and communication between ship and shore, to deliver better fuel efficiency, safety, environmental impact, and crew welfare. As the cost of internet at sea falls and connectivity increases, new players will enter the maritime market and opportunities for improving safety and efficiency further will arise. This competition will ultimately see the evolution of shipping into digitally based operations, of which navigation sits right at the centre.

This article was originally published on page 45 of the Digital Ship Jun/Jul magazine. Click here to read it.