Is e-Navigation still on course?
As a statement of intent, the definition of e-Navigation as ‘the harmonised collection, integration, exchange, presentation and analysis of maritime information onboard and ashore by electronic means to enhance berth to berth navigation and related services, for safety and security at sea and protection of the marine environment’ sounds as practical as it does aspirational.
By the standards of the diplomatic language of the International Maritime Organization, it’s almost elegant and it keenly reflects changes taking place in information and communications technology as well as their potential contribution to improving navigational safety.
The programme received a rubber stamp at the 95th Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) meeting, where the committee agreed to add it back to the High Level Action Plan meaning the work will continue for at least four more years.
Five of the six planned work items, or outputs, were approved by the committee and chairman of the correspondence group John Erik Hagen says the opportunity exists to re-present the sixth next year.
It’s a crucial detail as the sixth item – Consideration of reports on development and implementation of Maritime Service Portfolios (MSPs) – was intended to help ensure that IMO received reports from the significant number of e-Navigation projects springing up around the world.
Mr Hagen says that the e-Navigation programme is fully supported by the MSC and IMO but industry observers, including some at IMO will be watching closely as work progresses.
Before the previous meeting of MSC, at which the Strategic Implementation Plan (SIP) was agreed, there were rumblings that the programme is at risk of being overtaken by a kind of maritime Moore’s Law; driven by the unfettered advance of technology and regional projects.
Concerns expressed by observers and delegations ranged from a perceived lack of standards for governance, to the lack of positive potential impact on masters and bridge crews. More candid critics feel that the pace of progress has been too slow and that the risk exists that the programme will not deliver on its vision of integrating marine information to make navigation safer and maritime business more efficient.
Mr Hagen told the e-Navigation Underway conference earlier this year that the progress on e-Navigation was ‘a question of attitude and willingness and whether IMO member states organisations and industry stakeholders would come forward to do the work’. Candidate for IMO Secretary General and head of the Danish Maritime Authority Andreas Nordseth said it was ‘up to the new generation in maritime industry to make the vision a reality’ but he noted that without users there would be no demand.
Critics argue, not with the intention or the work of the committee, but that the programme is so different to anything the IMO has previously undertaken that it is struggling to match the prescriptive measures of a committee-based approach to the project management techniques required.
And meantime, e-Navigation by other names is already advancing. South Korea’s Smart Navigation, Mona Lisa, Efficiensea, Accseas and the European Union’s EMar are all moving forward as test beds. In the case of the last of these, a further concern must be that the European Union will seek to develop and promote a regional standard if it thinks the IMO is moving too slowly.
This echoes unwelcome developments in ballast water management and air emission regulations, where the industry has found itself either unable to comply for reasons of technology or obliged to invest in expensive goal-based but still regional solutions. For the credibility of the e-Navigation project, it is essential that regional initiatives are harmonised and compatible with a global framework.
Perhaps the over-riding concern is that too little is being done to focus on user needs and the removal of the administrative burden on the modern seafarer. In some ways, e-Navigation is designed to do just that, managing the risks of new technology by setting standards for information exchange and the harmonisation of equipment design and display standards.
At present, equipment manufacturers are waiting to see what those standards might be, but technology vendors are not known for standing still or for working collaboratively if it blunts competitive advantage. The result can be seen in the multitude of technology options available to ECDIS buyers and the lack of harmonisation between them, to the chagrin of the users.
John Erik Hagen points out that the IMO has “stated several times that the development of e-Navigation should be user-driven, not technology-driven”.
The initial proposal for the development of an e-Navigation strategy identified that a lack of standardization on board and ashore would lead to increased and unnecessary levels of complexity and incompatibility between systems he says.
“The intention of the SIP is that industry will be in a position to implement harmonized international standards and guidelines and the industry plays therefore an important role together with other stakeholders regarding the implementation of the e-navigations solutions,” he adds.
However industry sources remain concerned at the risks of regionalisation and that technology solutions will lead user needs rather than follow them.
Senior Marine Adviser at the International Chamber of Shipping Matthew Williams agrees it is “essential for all stakeholders in the marine industry to engage in the implementation of e-Navigation solutions”.
He agrees the IMO is uniquely placed to lead the implementation of e-Navigation and to bring together all interested stakeholders to mitigate the risks, but adds that e-Navigation has yet to deliver any tangible benefit for international shipping after 10 years in development.
“There has been no step change in the harmonised display and integration of information exchanged between ship and shore as a result of a significant body of research. Some stakeholders may attribute this to the IMO process, others, including ICS would suggest that it is a reflection of a limited demand from the industry for many of the concepts being developed outside the IMO process,” he says.
The ICS is also concerned about the decision not to approve output 6 – despite the option for it to be re-presented to the next MSC meeting. Without this visibility on developments elsewhere, the ICS sees a risk of regional solutions emerging that might lack compatibility with the global interests of shipping.
As IMO delegates prepare for the holiday season, there will be plenty of time to reflect on the challenges that the e-Navigation project presents.
Even when out of the office, they are likely to use applications such as email and internet, not to mention, navigation, shopping, eating, gaming and other entertainment without a second thought. And one day – at least in terms of safety and efficiency – the maritime industry might be like that too.