Why the reluctance with ECDIS?

Dick Welsh from the Isle of Man ship registry tosses his slide rule and steam tables in the bin as he ponders shipping’s intransigence to accept new technologies.

I was in Posidonia earlier this month with the great and good of shipping. At one of the many social events, we got to talking about new technologies, in particular ECDIS (electronic chart display information system), and a general trend within the industry of reluctance to take the leap into new technologies. You can imagine, as an engineer, I felt well out of my depth, but extremely loath to admit it.

Why the reluctance, I thought? On further reflection I am still wondering. I want designers and regulators to embrace new technology. I want to show youngsters that the bridge of a ship or yacht looks more like the Star Ship Enterprise than the Titanic. They expect touch screens and up to the minute displays of where they are, where they are going, and what else is out there to bump into. They want state of the art not state of the Ark. They don’t want, or need, magnetic compasses, sextants and monstrous steering wheels. Yes, they need windows to look out of and to keep a proper look out. They should also not be distracted by multiple screens, but really? Let’s move on!

When was the last time you looked at an A to Z of London, or any city for that matter? When was the last time you drove around with a big book of road maps next to you on the passenger seat – desperately looking for where you are and where you should be? Let me guess. You use a smartphone to find your way around a strange city and a Satnav to navigate your way as you drive. Granted, you still need to put your head up to stop walking into lamp posts while walking and look out of the windows of the car whilst driving– but it is the technology that is navigating!

As an engineer, I probably have no place to say this – but I will. Let’s stop this reluctance to embrace new technologies. Let’s consign magnetic compasses; sextants; and paper charts to museums, and equip modern ships with the latest technology. Let’s provide and regulate for the redundancy, back-up supplies and install robust designs the ships need to be safe and efficient. I would go one stage further – let’s stop training our poor cadets in yesterday’s navigation techniques. They are not Polynesian adventurers steering by the stars to find new and uncharted lands.

There I have said it and I feel better! I have also thrown my slide rule and steam tables in the bin lest anyone accuse me of not following my own advice!


  1. As a “Deckie” I couldn’t agree more. Perhaps there’s an argument for the magnetic compass (in case of power loss it’s just as easy to use as a gyro) but sextant? The only way to get a reliable reading with a sextant is to be in regular practice. If you’re not using it daily, or even weekly, the errors are so big as to make Dead Reckoning just as accurate and much more efficient.

    As an industry we’re far too conservative and resistant to change. However, if (or when) Rolls-Royce’s and DNV-GL’s concepts for autonomous vessels come to pass, this whole discussion will be moot.

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