ATBS warns that safe use of ECDIS depends on user-familiarity

A just-released Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) investigation into the 2017 grounding of Australian Border Force Cutter (ABFC) Roebuck Bay on Henry Reef has resulted in safety warnings about relying solely on an Electronic Chart Display and Information System (ECDIS) for navigation when crew members might not be thoroughly trained in the ECDIS being used on a particular vessel.

ATSB also referred to underlying safety issues with the effectiveness of ECDIS type-specific training, ECDIS software updates and the use of a single point feature to represent relatively large physical features on electronic navigational charts.

Shortly after midnight on September 30th 2017 ABFC Roebuck Bay grounded on Henry Reef in the Great Barrier Reef, Queensland. The vessel was travelling from Saibai Island in the Torres Strait Islands archipelago to Lizard Island, about 71nm south-east of Cape Melville. Roebuck Bay suffered substantial damage to her keel, stabilizer fins and propellers, with hull breaches near the storage void and tank compartment spaces. There were no reported injuries, nor was any oil pollution detected.

ABFC Roebuck Bay’s route plan was amended during the passage-planning process. This resulted in the route (unintentionally) being plotted across potential navigational danger Henry Reef.

The vessel’s ECDIS identified the reef as a danger to the planned route. However, the ship’s deck officers did not identify the danger either visually or using the ECDIS. It was also likely that the ECDIS look-ahead function did not encounter Henry Reef’s chart symbol and as a result did not generate an alarm before the grounding.

The look-ahead was set-up based on Australian Border Force (ABF) work instructions, which also included other settings that ATSB said probably reduced the effectiveness of ECDIS in this situation. The effectiveness of the officers’ visual check was probably influenced by a misinterpretation of chart symbology and possible obscuration of the reef’s chart symbol and label.

In addition, the officers did not expect ECDIS to have saved a route plotted across a chart danger. They had misinterpreted the ECDIS safety-checking functions.

The investigation found that the cutter’s officers did not possess an adequate level of knowledge to operate the cutter’s VisionMaster FT ECDIS as the primary means of navigation. The type-specific ECDIS familiarization training, as undertaken by ABF deck officers, was not effective in preparing the cutter’s officers for the operational use of the ECDIS.

Further, there was also no consistent provision of ECDIS annual continuation familiarization training, as required by ABF procedures.

The ECDIS on board most ABF cutters, including ABFC Roebuck Bay, operated on a non-type approved naval software version, although Det Norske Veritas – Germanischer Lloyd (DNV GL) certified them as using type-approved ECDIS as the primary means of navigation.

The cutters’ ECDIS were also not updated to the latest International Hydrographic Organization (IHO) standards at the time of the grounding, specifically, the S-52 standard Presentation Library 4.0.

Consequently, enhanced safety features of the new presentation library, which could have potentially alerted the officers to the danger posed by Henry Reef, were not available.

The ATSB also identified a risk associated with the hydrographic use of point feature objects to represent physical features of relatively significant spatial extent on an electronic navigational chart. The ATSB found that this could increase the risk of the hazard posed by such features being misinterpreted by mariners and potentially reduce the effectiveness of the ECDIS safety checking functions.

As a result of the investigation, ABF advised ATSB of several proposed and implemented measures aimed at improving fleet knowledge of ECDIS functions and features.

  • There was an increased focus on passage planning, watchkeeping and use of ECDIS during the annual maritime operational compliance audits of vessels.
  • The training package and requirements for ECDIS annual familiarisation training has been updated.
  • Task books have been implemented for each role to reduce the effects of incorrect information being communicated by trickle-down training.
  • Specific training documentation for the navigation officer’s role has been improved. ABF is engaged in ongoing work with the ECDIS manufacturer to improve ECDIS type-specific familiarisation training.
  • A review of navigation-related procedures and work instructions was undertaken and completed.
  • ABF undertook a programme of software and hardware upgrades to update all cutters to the IHO’s S-52 Presentation Library 4.0. This was completed in September 2018.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) has reminded all Recognized Organisations of the requirement that an ECDIS is only compliant when installed and operated in accordance with the type-approval issued.

The authority has sought DNV GL’s internal review of their vessel survey and certification processes and any corrective action taken.

The Australian Hydrographic Office (AHO) has identified about 2,200 point features on 243 Australian Electronic Navigational Charts potentially affected by the identified point feature safety issue. Commencing in December 2018, these point features were updated by encoding an obstruction area around the existing underwater, awash rock, obstruction or isolated danger symbols.

The AHO has published an online supplement to the Seafarers Handbook for Australian Waters that will be fully incorporated as a new chapter into the new edition of the handbook (Edition 5), due for publication in 2019. The supplement addresses the dangerous effects of overscaled ECDIS displays near features such as isolated danger symbols. The supplement also aims to address a number of misconceptions amongst mariners regarding the accuracy of bathymetry within Electronic Navigational Charts and the impact that accuracy should have upon route planning and conduct. The content has also been offered to the IHO for publication as an IHO standard.

ATSB said that the safe and effective use of ECDIS as the primary means of navigation depended on the mariner being “thoroughly familiar with the operation, functionality, capabilities and limitations of the specific equipment in use on board their vessel”.

ECDIS type-specific familiarisation should be designed, delivered and undertaken so as to ensure the transfer of knowledge required to confidently operate the ECDIS as the manufacturer intended it to be operated. “ECDIS, as a complex software based system, is subject to constant change and improvement. In order for mariners to always have the best possible advantage in conducting safe navigation, ECDIS needs to be maintained so as to be compatible with the latest applicable standards mandated by the appropriate organisations”, the Bureau said, adding that “while the use of ECDIS and ENCs as an essential tool for navigation provides many safety benefits, navigation with ECDIS is fundamentally different from navigation with paper charts. The implementation of ECDIS and the replacement of paper charts has introduced certain risks to the conduct of marine navigation, as highlighted in this investigation”.

ATSB Chief Commissioner, Greg Hood said that “the investigation has shown that the implementation of ECDIS has introduced some unintended risks to marine navigation”, adding that “by allowing operators to view and change an electronic navigational chart to a larger complication scale, ECDIS can make single point features representing rocks, wrecks and other obstructions appear progressively smaller as the scale is changed, creating the impression it is clear of a ship’s route or further away than what it actually is.” a