The UK’s Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) and the Danish Maritime Accident Investigation Board (DMAIB) has published a comprehensive 94 page study focusing on the practical application and usability of ECDIS. The study follows a qualitative methodology, primarily based on semi-structured interviews with 155 ECDIS users and observation data gathered between February and July 2018 during sea voyages in European waters on 31 ships of various types.
The report showed that while the standardisation and allocation of simple and repetitive tasks (plotting the ship’s position and chart update for example) has brought about tangible benefits, the required user interaction with ECDIS has introduced challenges that cut across system design, practices and training. These challenges include:
– The distraction of alerts and alarms, particularly during pilotage, that leads to coping strategies ranging between alarm ‘normalisation’ and physical disablement.
– The frequent impracticality of the setting of an efficient safety contour, leading to the use of ‘official workarounds’ (e.g. included in recognised guidance) and ‘unofficial workarounds’ (e.g. alarm disablement) to optimise the display to make the best of a bad job. Alternatively, the safety contour is ignored altogether.
– The number and types of alerts generated during automatic route checks that leads to them either being ignored or increases the risk of planners missing safety critical alerts among numerous more trivial ones.
– Interfaces and menu complexity that increase cognitive workload, particularly in busy environments, which results in users focusing on ECDIS to the detriment of other sources of information.
– The difficulty of residual manual tasks such as planning radar parallel indices, plotting limiting danger lines or writing text notes, which are often time-consuming, deters users from their application.
– ECDIS requires significant cognitive resources to use its functions, which has contributed to a minimalist approach by users.
– ECDIS use continues to be framed and audited within the context of paper chart practices with Flag State, PSC and SIRE inspections often not recognising new ways of working such as the use of radar information overlay to verify position.
– Users are trained to distrust the ECDIS and continuously verify the ship’s position by alternative means. However, significant discrepancies are rarely encountered.
The findings of this study identify many of the problems ECDIS users experience with the system at sea today, and in the short-term it is the ambition of the DMAIB and MAIB to engage with ECDIS stakeholders to try to effect the changes required to improve ECDIS performance through better bathymetry along with changes in design and training.
However, the findings also point towards deep-rooted, structural flaws in the way that new navigation technologies are implemented. Flaws that continue to hinder system development and the evolution of new ways of working, and which also promote reactive rather than proactive approaches in many areas.
Addressing such key issues will challenge traditional thinking and structures. It will also require international liaison and agreement. Although no recommendations have been made it is hoped the study will serve as a catalyst for change by the maritime industry.
Download the full report: ECDIS Application and Usability